Dan Rodricks: Getting pumped for sailing the Chesapeake

The Annapolis Sailboat Show takes place this week on City Dock, and I’ll make an assumption about most of the people who plan to attend: They will not expect to see a boat that comes in a couple of bags. They will expect something conventional — boats that weigh 8,000 pounds or more, that come on trailers and sit in marinas.

Most show-goers will not expect to see a sailboat that inflates and assembles in less than an hour — actually, less than half an hour, once you get the hang of it and don’t waste time gabbing with a newspaper columnist.

I recently watched Alex Caslow assemble a catamaran on a foggy morning at the boat launch in Gunpowder Falls State Park. Someone told me this guy sells portable sailboats and I was curious about it. Remember what Walt Whitman supposedly said, at least as quoted by Jason Sudeikis in the fictional role of Ted Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental.”

For most Chesapeake Bay boaters, the idea that you can pack a decent sailboat into two rectangular bags less than six feet in length will be a foreign idea.

And that’s precisely what this is.

MiniCat is a product of the Czech Republic.

“This is probably the most popular sailboat that we sell, the boat that I started Red Beard Sailing with,” says Caslow, mentioning the company he and his wife, KC, formed after discovering the MiniCat.

They loved sailing but were looking for a way to do it without all the expenses and logistical issues — marina fees and maintenance, primarily.

Cruising the global marketplace, Alex found online forums about inflatable sailboats in Europe. People there praised their affordability and portability.

“If you’re in Europe, you can go anywhere you want, right?” Caslow says. “The big thing that this boat gives you is, it’s checkable on an airplane. If you want to go sailing in Italy or Croatia, you can check it as luggage.

“So, I basically was like, ‘OK, this is really cool.’ So I reached out to the manufacturer: ‘Hey, I would love to buy one of your boats. Where can I see one?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh we don’t have anybody in the United States.’”

So the Caslows decided to dive into the very shallow inflatable sailboat market. That’s how Red Beard Sailing came to be a MiniCat dealer. After a slow start — “It’s a lot of work to try and introduce a new style of boat to a country,” Alex says — business picked up, especially during the pandemic. People sought new forms of outdoor recreation and those who wanted to try sailing looked for an affordable way to get into it. Some of those people became Red Beard customers.

Caslow lists the advantages: You can take it anywhere, with no need for a trailer; you can store it in a garage or basement, avoid marina fees and not feel the buyer’s guilt associated with ownership of conventional sailboats.

“In springtime,” says Caslow, “you’ll see this meme going around social media — specifically on Facebook boating groups. It’s like this open letter to my friends: “Don’t call me. I’m not going to be able to make your daughter’s graduation party. I’m not coming to any of your weddings. I pay so much money a year for this boat that I have to use it.’”

A portable sailboat, Caslow says, takes the edge off that kind of guilt. The MiniCat sells for about $7,000, and, he says, it will last for many years. A lot of his customers are first-time buyers who never thought they could afford a boat. Some are new to sailing.

“We get people who ask, ‘If I buy this, how long do you think it would take me to learn how to sail? So we do free demonstrations. I always invite people to assemble [the MiniCat] and sail with me.”

If I had not been interviewing him, Caslow says, he would have had the MiniCat ready for launch in about 25 minutes. Of course, he’s done this many times.

Still, the longest part of the assembly was the inflation of the boat’s twin hulls with a battery-powered pump.

Once Caslow got the mast in place, the boat was ready to sail. He lifted one side, I lifted the other, and the MiniCat felt easy in our hands — 100 pounds of aluminum, nylon and polyvinyl chloride.

We did not sail because the morning was windless, so I can’t provide a review in that regard. But I can see the appeal of having a boat that comes in bags.

One of Red Beard’s customers, a couple who have summers off from teaching, bought a MiniCat so they could drive around the country to launch it in different waterways.

A man from Ecuador took time from a trip to New York to see the MiniCat in action along the shores of Baltimore County. “He had always had a dream of sailing, but had never sailed before, had never owned a boat before,” says Alex.

“He and his family took the train down to Baltimore. I picked them up at Penn Station, drove them to Rocky Point, and we put the boat together and we sailed across to Hart Miller island. He bought the boat that we sailed on. He checked his luggage and took it back to Ecuador with him.”

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