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The Lightning By Dave Ellis

At 700 pounds in the hull, the Lightning sails more like a small keelboat than a lightweight dinghy. Photo by Bill Clausen.


he 1930s were tough years for everyone. But, sailors still needed their boats. At an America’s Cup fundraiser in Auburn, NY, boatbuilders John and George Barnes met naval architects Rod and Olin Stephens and discussed the idea of a boat that was smaller than the Star and larger and more comfortable than its baby cousin, the Comet. It was to be 19-feet long, hard-chined for ease of build, big enough for a family, and provide the high performance required of a one-design class racer.

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June 2010


Olin Stephens II drew up the plans in late 1935. For the next two years, the builders and designer hashed out the design, and hull #1 was launched in October 1938. That winter the boat was shown at the NYC Boat Show, and there were numerous orders taken. Hull #1, now restored, is housed at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. Ironically, that first hull did not have the characteristic skeg in front of the rudder that all later boats had. Decades later, Stephens was quoted as saying if he had to do it over, taking the skeg off is the one thing that he would have changed. The next year at that same boat show, the class organization was launched, and soon thereafter Olin Stephens donated the rights to the design to the class. The Lightning steadily gained popularity in the postwar years. By the late 1950s, the class was the largest onedesign class over 16 feet in length, with over 8000 boats registered worldwide. With the advent of fiberglass construction, growth of the class persisted. Today there are nearly 16,000 boats built. The Lightning is one of those classes that has managed to upgrade the boat and rig in a controlled fashion so as to keep up with the times, yet not make older boats obsolete. The obvious addition of lower maintenance fiberglass hulls, aluminum spars and optional stainless steel centerboard helped the popularity. Sailmakers quickly “adopted” the boat as one that would show their skill and prowess. To this day there are several sailmaking firms vying for attention in the class. In the 1980s, I would take one sailmaker out on the St. Petersburg Yacht Club Whaler in the morning before the Midwinters and a rival in the afternoon, switching each year. When Greg would have me go over to Ched’s group that was practicing, all of those boats would sit and luff. Same when Ched motored over to Greg’s group. One year, a sailmaker had a new spinnaker that looked like an elephant’s butt with a crease down the middle. His rival scoffed. Until it was found that it worked to de-power the sail in a blow. Hence progress is made. In the 1980s, the proponents of the class noticed that the new spinnakers were all white. Gone was the eye appeal to onlookers of multi-colored ’chutes on a horizon. A concerted effort was made to get the color back in, pressuring cloth manufacturers to keep the quality up in the colored material. Back came the more interesting colored sails. What is it like to sail a Lightning? At 700 pounds in the hull, it sails more like a small keelboat than a lightweight dinghy. Three people race the boat with a rather tall mainsail, medium-sized jib and ample roundish symmetrical spinnaker. Like all one-design racers, the boat rewards teamwork and attention to sailing detail.