Come Sail Away

They may be small, but El Toro mini sailboats are tough to master, and that’s what makes them ideal for training novice sailors

Chris Fleck
Wednesday - October 26, 2011
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Nolan Laramore rigging up his boat as Scott Melander stands by to lend a helping hand. Photos By Lawrence Tabudlo

Before a young sailor begins tacking and jibing a 25foot sloop through open ocean current, it is important he or she understands and becomes accustomed to the details and fundamentals of properly maneuvering a sailboat safely and appropriately. A fitting sailboat to help novices grasp the concepts and nuances of sailing is the small but, by reputation, challenging El Toro mini sailboat.

El Toros were designed and created in the late 1930s at Richmond Yacht Club in California and were introduced to Hawaii just after World War II at the dawn of the sailing resurrection. Originally, El Toros were used as simple dinghy boats, tagging along larger boats and yachts mainly for maintenance purposes. Constructed at 8 feet in length by 4 feet in width, El Toros were designed to these specifications because with just three pieces of plywood, a handy boatbuilder could build one fairly easily.

In Hawaii, and particularly at Hawaii Yacht Club in Waikiki, El Toros always have had a home.

“The infrastructure of our building actually includes El Toro racks, which is part of what holds our building together. All the yacht clubs, including ours and Waikiki Yacht Club, have had them since the 1950s when recreational boating opened back up again after the Navy lifted prohibitions against recreational boating,” says Hawaii Yacht Club junior sailing director Scott Melander, who points out a photo of aquatic master Duke Kahanamoku sailing an El Toro in the 1960s.

As sailing has evolved in the last 50 years, so has the purpose and design of El Toros.

Melander gives Dylan Adolpho a lesson in securing an El Toro mini sailboat mast and sails. Photos By Lawrence Tabudlo

“Now El Toros are built more for class boat racing for children and young adults, as the optimum crew weight is 90 to 120 pounds. The racing is strong in different pockets of the U.S., but strongest locally and in California,” says Melander.

Phasing from its wooden makeup, the majority of El Toros are constructed from fiberglass, protecting the boats from cracks and dings.

“You can still make a wooden El Toro, but it would take a lot of skill,” he adds. “It is kind of a lost trade.”

The modern fiberglass form makes El Toros an excellent boat to learn the necessary boating skills an amateur sailor should adapt.

“They are ideal trainers because they are challenging. Once you learn the basics on an El Toro, you are going to be able to apply them to a bigger boat,” says Melander, who has been with Hawaii Yacht Club since 1994.

Adolpho sets sail. Photos By Lawrence Tabudlo

With their size and light weight, what makes El Toros challenging to master is that they flip over more easily than other beginner boats such as Toppers, which are sized slightly larger at 11 feet long. Although they can be prone to flipping, the El Toros are selfrescuing boats that recover quickly from an overturn, and also are self-bailing, which means water will not accumulate in the boat. With those essential characteristics, El Toros can handle ocean conditions and strong breezes. A quality crafter of El Toros in Hawaii is Foo Lim & Sons located on Sand Island, which Melander praises for its craftsmanship and preservation of quality El Toro Mini Sailboats.

“The Lim family that makes El Toros almost treats it like an art. They are constantly tweaking the lines and doing different modifications,” says Melander. “It is very well-thought-out.”

Popular in junior sailing programs, El Toros are used mostly among the 9to 12-year-old age range before they advance to the larger Topper sailboats, then the 420s before graduating to Laser class sailboats, which average around 13 feet in length.

The majority of El Toro races are conducted at Kaneohe Yacht Club, which is currently in the running to host the 2013 El Toro North American Championships.

“If that does happen, there should be an amazing flourish of boats built and boats being shipped out in containers. We would probably be able to get 20 to 30 competitors from the Mainland out here,” says Melander. “That would be enormous.”

Melander’s first experience racing El Toros, as he recalls, was certainly challenging, but he credits his experience with the mini sailboats in helping his sailing abilities overall.

“I’m glad I got to race El Toros. I am glad it exists because I think you escape a lot of the lessons if you don’t get stuck for a little while,” he says.

Interestingly, Melander compares sailing to the practice of martial arts.

“You can’t go in and get your black belt the very first day,” he says. “You start slow and maybe you don’t touch another person in martial arts for years, all you are doing is training. Sailing is almost like that. You can’t just go sail a Laser on your first day. If you get your start in an El Toro, the Laser will become a lot easier.”

For youths who have an interest in sailing, learning on an El Toro mini sailboat can teach necessary boating skills as well as patience and precision, which go a long way in the sailing world.

For more information on El Toro mini sailboats in Hawaii, contact Hawaii Yacht Club at 949-4622 or visit

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