The sunfish is a small sailboat with a lateen sail. Realistically you can not raise the sail while in it. Usually raising and lower the sail is done at shore.

It is occasionally necessary to paddle the sunfish, due to lack of wind and/or obstacles. The spars on the sail are about the same 14 feet (4.2 meters) as the boat is long, and need to rest down the center of the boat when down. Pretty much this means if you are paddling a sunfish the sail is up, you are becalmed (or in irons, heading into the wind) and sail flowing directly down the center line of the boat, with any slight side breeze making the lower spar (like a boom) push against you (or bang you in the head). It is easy enough to raise the spar and put it to the other side. but it is not effective for long.

I have been river sailing and sometimes need to move upstream past a wind block, so need to paddle for some distance. I am looking for a solution that will allow me to paddle for 10 or 15 minutes safely.

Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunfish_(sailboat)#/media/File:Sunfish_rigged_for_sailing.jpg

I can add more pictures later if needed. Leave a comment if not clear

  • Sorry for the naive question, I only have very little sailing experience with a small 2-man kat: What prevents you from fastening the sail on the opposite side than you're paddling? Capsizing is obviously a danger of this, but I never experienced still or head-on wind conditions where strong winds would suddenly come from the side without any prior signs. – imsodin Aug 23 '17 at 19:54
  • @imsodin There is no way to do that. There just is nothing to fasten to that would keep the sail from moving windward. – James Jenkins Aug 24 '17 at 10:27
  • Anecdotal evidence from watching others, never tried myself: Sculling (rapidly moving the tiller back and forth) works but only for short distance. Others go sit on the bow to paddle. – cobaltduck Oct 31 '18 at 17:42

You're a bit more cramped than a topper but it seems to be much the same game.

It's very much about the type of paddle you're using and the position you want to be in. We used praddles in the Toppers for which you need to be low and close to the water anyway.


Kneel in the bottom of the boat, tiller between your legs, and lean forward to get to paddling position, since you'll be close to the boat the boom should pass over your head. You'll bang your head once in a while but if you're sailing small dinghies you need to develop a thick skull anyway.

  • +1 I will give this a try next time, but not sure it will work, Looking at some pics seems like the spar/boom is lower on a sunfish and the tiller + extension higher. I could hinge the tiller up and ignore it but then I could not paddle straight with one paddle. – James Jenkins Aug 23 '17 at 15:05
  • I tried this, it didn't work well. – James Jenkins Oct 15 '18 at 14:29
  • @JamesJenkins, ah well, worth a go – Separatrix Oct 15 '18 at 14:40

Rig a topping lift

I realize this is an old question and my answer may be over-engineered, but here it is anyway:

You could rig a topping lift: a line attached near the aft end of the boom and run through a block near the top of the mast. When you need to paddle, ease the sheet and haul the topping lift to raise the boom up and forward out of your way. This has the added advantage of scandalizing the sail so if an unexpected breeze catches while you're paddling it will have less effect than if it were down and allowed to fill.

  • 1
    This is a reasonable idea. I actually tried it (on land) It does work to get the lower spar out of bang you in the head area. BUT if the wind comes up while the sail is in this position, it is problematic, the sail stil catches wind, and you can't control it as you normally would. It was so unsafe in wind on land (my backyard) that I never got brave enough to try it on water. I took a few pictures (not sure I still have them) that I was going to post as part of an answer if it had worked. – James Jenkins Oct 30 '18 at 15:54
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    I guess to really tame the sail at the same time you could run the topping lift through a cringle or two near the leech of the sail and haul the boom tight to the mast... although that may not be easy to do with the hardware connecting the boom to the mast on your rig. Plus, it means a hole in the sail and an awful lot of messing around for a little boat. – Tuorg Oct 30 '18 at 16:06
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    Yes, that is pretty much the thought process I went through. Additionally the gooseneck from the lower spar to the boom tended to bind when lifting the rear of the spar. This is a good idea, but the reality of implementing is not so good. – James Jenkins Oct 30 '18 at 16:45

Drop the main. We drop the main at dockside and raise it in the boat all the time. We destination sail around Long Beach to other harbors and slips all the time. I've never paddled for a long distance except for a hardware failure , but striking the main would be how I would do it. Getting clunked in the head 20 times a minute and the drag of a luffing sail, are both reasons to strike the main.

  • I find it difficult to imaging raising the sail of sunfish in the middle of the lake. First the goose neck tends to bind to the mast, so normally it needs to be manually lifted when raising the sail. With a little of bit of wind this can be challenging even when standing next to the boat in knee deep water. Second the main is just not designed to raise the sail from the cab, there is too much friction. – James Jenkins Jun 9 '19 at 1:04

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