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Lightning Class Association
HomeFirst-Time Buyers Guide

Interested in a Lightning?

(First-Time Buyers Guide)

What Do I Need to Know to Get Started?

How Do I Learn More?

On the front page of the website follow the navigation links under Resources to a list of Active Lightning Fleets. Follow this link and you will be able to locate fleets and most importantly Fleet Captains in your area. Call your local Fleet Captain to find out about racing opportunities.  The focus of the Class organization is on competitive sport, not recreational sailing.  Some fleets are more race centered than others. You don’t have to be rabidly competitive to participate, but expect the top tier of sailors in any District to be world class competitive sailors.

Also note that most organized sailing venues are clubs. These clubs vary in facilities, activities, and cost.  Know the local club situation before you buy a boat.

If you are interested in restoring an older boat we have a very active group, to communicate with this group on the front page of the web site, top navigation links, find Resources, then the bottom link will be Wooden Boats.  Follow this link to a wealth of information and resources.

What Do I Need to Know About the Boat?

The Lightning was designed in 1938 as a wooden planing sloop.  The boat saw very rapid growth until 1942, again in the early 1950’s and then in the 1960’s as sailors turned to fiberglass hulls.

What is perhaps unusual in the boat is that the designers, Sparkman and Stevens, gave the Class association not only rights, but ownership of the design and the name.  All royalties for many of the boat’s components, including the hull, mast, and sails go to the International Lightning Class Association, who also regulates the design and the Class activities.  This fact is probably the biggest single reason for the continued success of the Class.  It is also the reason the boat gets but limited “press” in the various journals or shows. Class ownership means limited manufacturer control and fewer paid advertisements.

Over time the boat has evolved into a superb match of the needs of the rig and crew to the capabilities of fiberglass shapes. About the only thing which could benefit greatly benefit from the tremendous shaping advantages that glass offers over wood is the bottom, especially the flat forward entry.  However the hull shape is what defines the boat. That shape is the hallmark characteristic.


The rig itself is very capable and in many ways was front runner as a modern, backstayed, flexible mast design.  While rig changes, including sails, reefing etc, are infinitely possible, the rig is a great performer as it is.  Simply put, the rig is under powered below 8 knots, perfect from 8 to 15 knows, overpowered but controllable to 25 knots and requires considerable skill above 25 knots.. As will all sailboats, one should look at the prevailing wind velocities where they plan to sail before deciding the Lightning is the right boat for them.

A very strong point is the strength of the rig. Lightnings, with 70 years of road testing, seldom have wind related failures.  Most equipment damage is due to neglect, improper capsize recovery, or collisions.

Capsizes can and do happen.  The Lightning is a centerboard dinghy, albeit a big, stable one.  The modern, post 1980’s boat is self bailing and largely self rescuing.  The boat can be sailed dry.  It can however turtle.  If this occurs, external help will be needed.  Don’t buy a Lightning if you don’t EVER want to go swimming or get wet, but don’t be afraid of a capsize either, particularly in a post 1985 boat.

Other details the first time buyer should know about include saltwater.  Saltwater is hard on boats…period.  With lots of freshwater boats out there, take a harder look at any boat based in saltwater.  In northern climates, also look for damage and delaminations.

Generally speaking, because of the flat bottom and lack of reefing, Lightnings are more common on inland lakes and many coastal bays where light to moderate winds prevail during the sailing season.
Water where the sailing season is defined by howling wind and chop, such as the US west coast from San Francisco north, do not see many Lightnings.  Many larger bodies of “calmer” saltwater, such as the Chesapeake Bay and Biscayne Bay do see fleets of Lightnings.

At present there are few competitive wooden hulls.  Buy them as daysailors, project boats, or show pieces.  Most of the early fiberglass boats are also non-competitive.  Some of the 1970’s boats could be competitive but were built with foams that absorbed water.  By 1980, most of the bugs were worked out of the fiberglass hull designs.  Evolution since then has been to make the boat more comfortable, more sensitive, and easier to recover in a capsize.  Some changes to the rigging, including the location of the upper shrouds in 1986, means that tuning guides and sails focus on boats newer that this.

Buy the newest boat one can afford.  Unless you have seen or know the boat, don’t shop for a boat older than 1990. Sails last for a year or two for the top sailors and stay competitive for 5 years in fleet races.  THE source for used boats and sails is ILCA web site Classified Ads. THE thing to know is that the classified go on the internet first.  Really hot stuff, like newer used boats are often sold the night the ad shows up on the web and long before Flashes is printed.  This means that buying a good used boat from a private individual requires regular checking of the web page.  This will also help you understand the pricing of the used boats.

Another solution is to buy from a broker.  One of the best is Joe Dissette, in Michigan.  Joe has a barn full of reconditioned Lightnings.  He gets a good buck for his boats, but you can be much more certain that “good condition” is exactly that.

For nearly all used boat transactions, legal trailering home, if bought on a weekend (when the seller’s DMV is closed), can be difficult. Forethought and creative approaches in getting the boat back are needed.

How Do I Read the Ads in the Class Newsletter or Web Page?

 First, get help from a local sailor.  This is especially true if you are new to sailboats.

The ads are listed by hull/sail number.

Next is the name of the manufacturer ( Allen, Nickels, Lippincott, Mueller, etc.).  Go for the one most common to your Fleet.      

Then come the details:
  • Hull/deck color – If you are serious about racing, get a white hulled boat.  Remember that colored gelcoats finishes are hard to match and fade out over 10 years. Try not to get a white deck as the glare is brutal.  Other items include the color of the bootstripe, deck stripes, etc., which varies from boat to boat.
  • Rigging – Look for the following:
    • Oval mast and boom by Allen, Bryant, or Nickels.
    • Harken or Ronstan fittings (almost guaranteed on boats 14200 and up).
    • Stainless steel centerboard (SS board- also std on 14200 newer boats).
    • Full, modern side controls (std on 14300 and up).
    • Spinnaker twings.
  • Drums – These are winches to take up the board and vang.  Avoid them unless they are in good shape.
  • Trailer – Look for a galvanized OEM trailer. There are lots of rusty homebuilts out there.
  • Sails – Look for the sailmaker's name common to your area.  Used sails vary a lot.  If they are more than 6 years old, probably get newer ones.
  • Accessories – Covers, spare rudders, etc. can add value, but vary widely in condition.  Full covers for a Lightning can cost over $1000 new, but typically add a few hundred used. Look for a mooring/deck cover and a compass.
  • Weight – The class minimum is 700 pounds (with certain things out of the boat).  The more competitive you are and the more you pay for the boat, the more you should insist on 700 pounds. Being a few pounds overweight is not as critical as other things, like good sailing. Most boats are built light and ballasted.  Changing the ballast can mean revising the measurement certificate. Occasionally the ballast is removed or modified when it should not be.  The current weight on a used hull is often not available.
  • Price – Price is subjective and is greatly affected by age, condition, the race record and the seller's expectations. 
  • Note that the older the boat, the more variable the condition and hence the price. Newer used boats are in hot demand.  Sellers usually get their price almost immediately.  The older the boat, the longer it takes to sell and more negotiating room exists.
  • Contact – Finally the ad tells where to call or e-mail and what state the boat is from.

For a New Boat or Sails

The Lightning has two builders, Allen Boat Company located in Buffalo, New York and Nickels Boat Works in Fenton, Michigan.  The best advice to the newcomer is to find out what is the predominant boat in your area and use one of those.  That way the “free advice” necessary to learn the boat will be on target.

The Class has the usual one-design sailmakers, and several smaller lofts.  North Sails, Quantum, Vermont Sailing Partners are all common and competitive, but note that the tuning for each is very different.
 A note on the North sails, not all North’s are alike.  They sell an M-5 or a Fisher design.  >See the Lightning Flashes or the web site  for contact information for boat builders, sail makers, covers, rigging  etc.


Set your expectations about competitiveness.  Balance that with your boat handling experience and your budget, and start shopping!

Good Luck,
Steve Little—Fleet 484

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