A lot of boats were built in Sarasota during the past 150 years. Some were for work; some for play. Some were mundane, and some were downright ugly. But for poise and speed, few compare with the Stiletto catamaran. The name is perfectly apt—an Italian Renaissance weapon used for carving up the opposition.
The first one was built in 1976 in Sarasota, and it represented an engineering revolution. Fiberglass had supplanted wood as the material of choice by that time, but the Stiletto went beyond fiberglass. It used a Nomex (the fire-proof suit stuff) core and epoxy baked in an oven under pressure to form an ultralight, ultrastrong pair of hulls. Instead of gelcoat, those hulls featured a polyurethane coating that is not only perpetually smooth and hard, but is an ideal canvas for torrid graphics.
Stiletto production ended 20 years ago, but the boat refused to go away. For the past 15 years, Stiletto owners from all over the country have come to Sarasota once a year to compete for the national championship. “We’ve had people from Canada, the Great Lakes, Texas, the Midwest, even New England come to participate,” says Ron Nicol. He’s been with Stiletto nearly from the beginning, and now runs a business in Nokomis repairing, modifying and fabricating replacement parts for the far-flung fleet. Of the nearly 500 built, Nicol says about 80 percent are still on the water.
“We’ve got them in Hong Kong, England, Peru, Hawaii—lots of places overseas,” he says. “They’ve become kind of a cult thing, like classic cars.”
While there are several reasons the catamarans are popular, one reason is universal: speed. Most sailboats plod along at four to six knots (that’s 4.4 to 6.6 mph for you landlubbers), but Stilettos commonly reach 20 knots. While nobody claims a speed record, Nicol says one of the 27-foot models topped 34 knots (approaching 40 mph).
At those speeds, sailors need to know what they are doing. “It’s an easy boat to sail,” says Nicol. “But everything happens fast. You need some experience. It will push you back in your seat when it accelerates.”
But it’s more than a speed demon. Each hull contains a cabin. While the space inside the 23-foot hulls is about as big as the cockpit of a jet fighter, the 27- and 30-foot models are significantly larger, though not what you’d call roomy. Most owners opt to sleep on deck inside a custom-fitted tent aft of the mast, or under conventional dome tent on the forward trampoline.
At first blush, the marketing equation for used Stilettos seems obvious—young speed demons willing to rough it on the water. But there are other considerations. Every Wednesday, if you look out Big Pass between Lido and Siesta keys, you’ll see a group of Stilettos. For the past two decades, local Stiletto sailors have made a sunset rendezvous every Wednesday. If the weather is good (and it often is), they push out into the Gulf of Mexico in search of the flash of green at sunset. Sometimes it’s 10 boats and sometimes three, but it is a local tradition. “All the local enthusiasts head out,” says Nicol. “And of course there’s a little informal racing going on.
“The Sailing Squadron is our home port,” says Nicol. “Sarasota has always been home for Stilettos.”