In 1991, Peter Johnstone (son of JBoat's founder) formed a partnership with North Sails, lead by America's Cup winners Tom Whidden & Gary Jobson, to purchase and turnaround the Sunfish and Laser brands, so forming Sunfish Laser Inc.
Over four years, Sunfish Laser doubled in size, but they were disappointed to find the majority of sales were to existing sailors.
Market research suggested the existing brands were viewed as unstable, fragile, complex and expensive.
Seeking a way to attract more newcomers to the sport, they came up with the Escape concept in April 1996, to provide a more modern and user-friendly alternative to the popular, but dated, Sunfish dinghy.
To address consumer objections, the following criteria for a new range of boats was drawn up:
- Stable to make tipping nearly impossible
- Durable to avoid handling worries
- Self teaching sailing systems
- Dramatic cost reduction yet increased value
- A ‘sailboat for the rest of us’
The development team included one of sailing’s leading innovators, Gary Hoyt; a leading industrial design firm, the factory staff, and the input from more than 50 leaders within the sport.
In March 1996, the Escape 11.5 'Captiva' went into production.
The Escape boats introduced several innovations. Firstly, the hulls were made out of rotomoulded polyethylene (as used in modern kayaks), making them extremely tough, but cheap to manufacture.
Secondly, a SmartRig sail plan was developed featuring roller reefing on the mast, allowing the sail area to be quickly reduced to any size.
In 1997, they decided to sell Sunfish Laser Inc. to Vanguard Racing Sailboats Inc. to allow them to concentrate all of their efforts on the new Escape range of sailboats, and on 27 March 1997 the Escape Sailboat Company, LLC was formed.
Sales grew rapidly, and the Escape Sailboat Company claimed at the time that the Captiva was the best-selling sailboat in North America, and later the world.
In April 1999, Johnson Outdoors Inc. purchased The Escape Sailboat Company, operating it within its watercraft business.
Sadly, only a few years later Johnson Outdoors took the decision to discontinue the Escape line. Catalina Yachts continue to make some similar dinghies (link), which also use the SmartRig.
Peter Johnstone went on to develop the luxurious Gunboat range of performance cruising catamarans.