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A Big Deal

by Joel Thurtell

(Appeared in the May, 2000 Flashes)

14 Grand

That was the price—recently—of a new Lightning sailboat.

Not a fiberglass boat, either.

A Wooden Lightning

I repeat: A wooden Lightning sold for nearly the price of a new glass boat. 
All by itself, that is a Big Deal.

That someone would pay roughly the same price for a wooden boat as the professional boatbuilders charge for their new-built glass boats is pretty amazing.

It shouldn't be.

After all, it costs plenty in labor and materials to build a boat, regardless of whether it¹s made of wood, fiberglass, or hey, whatever—aluminum, steel or concrete.

But sometime a bit after the midpoint of the last century, the people who market boats decided boat operators would be better served if hulls were made of some other material besides the material people had been using for literally millennia—wood. For sailboat construction, big or small, fiberglass emerged as the material of choice.

The primary advantage was put forth as upkeep. Meaning that with glass, there would be less or virtually no work involved in maintaining the hull.  Gone would be those spring afternoons of sanding and re-varnishing brightwork on wooden hulls. And there was the longevity issue—glass boats would not rot or otherwise deteriorate, it was supposed. (Those who have dealt with water-saturated foam in older glass boats might differ, of course.)

In any case, the market has come to deem boats made of wood to be inferior.  In large part this has to do with race results. Wooden boats don't compete very well against glass boats, or at least so I hear. But then, not too many woodies race against glass boats because, so we all hear, wood doesn¹t fare well in those matches.

But since wooden Lightnings have not been manufactured commercially for something like 35 years, the wooden fleet is getting pretty geriatric. How many owners of woodies have updated their rigging to competition grade?

Because the wooden portion of the fleet is old, the value of individual boats has sunk. So, when we think of wooden Lightnings, we automatically think old, outdated, slow.

How, then, did some modern boat builder manage to twist $14,000 out of a boat buyer?

The story of this boat, number 14839, is another Big Deal for all Lightning lovers, regardless of whether your preference is wood or glass. The boat was custom-designed and built for Wooden Boat magazine, and the first article of a three-part series on how the backyard builder can do it is running in Wooden Boat's current March/April 2000 issue.

The magazine commissioned boat designer Ron Smith to draw new construction plans. The original 1938 design called for a planked hull built on wooden frames. The new boat has a cold-molded bottom and plywood sides and is glued together with epoxy. It was built by professionals—Nat Bryant and Craig Picard, alumni of the Landing School of Boatbuilding and Design. The new plans are available from ILCA for $120.00.

Why is this such a big deal for everyone in the world of Lightning sailing?  Because Wooden Boat magazine itself is a big deal. It's a slick, first-class publication with high-quality writing, photos and drawings. For Wooden Boat to select the Lightning Class over, say, the Snipe, Thistle or Flying Scot, tells you that the Lightning class has, well, class.

Here's what Wooden Boat says: "The 19' Lightning, designed by Sparkman & Stephens, is today one of the world¹s most popular one-designs. Racing fleets have been established around the globe."

"Why the Lightning?" I asked Wooden Boat Editor Matthew Murphy.

"How many Lightnings have been built?" he asked me.

"About 15,000," I said.

That, pretty much, is the answer, said Murphy.

"I've been reading the Flashes for years and I've owned a beat-up old Lightning and it's one of the most popular one-designs in the world. We hadn¹t really done anything on racing classes, and it seemed like an ideal boat, given its popularity."

For the Lightning to be featured not in one issue of Wooden Boat, but in three consecutive numbers of the magazine, is a public relations bonanza.  The same number of pages of advertising would cost thousands. Flashes Editor Karen Johnson tells me ILCA can¹t afford to advertise in Wooden Boat. Now they don't need to.

The impact is evident already. By mid-April this year, Karen tells me, she had sold 25 sail numbers for new Lightning boats. In a normal year - a whole year—commercial builders buy account for the 20–25 sail numbers ILCA sells. In the first quarter, she has assigned 25 numbers, and 17 went to builders of wooden Lightnings. That's 68 percent, and it indicates a sudden interest in the Lightning by non-professionals.

It's also exciting that none of these amateur builders are ILCA members.  They are new to the Class.

"This is wonderful," said Johnson. While there is no reason the new woodies couldn't be raced, the people who are buying these plans are voicing a preference for day sailing and cruising, Johnson said.

This phenomenon could widen the interest in Lightnings. "There is a huge population of Lightnings that are not being raced, and we don't want to lose those boat—we¹re trying to get to the more general sailors," said Johnson.

For WoodenBoat's Murphy, the $14k selling price was a major feat, too.

"We had that much money into it, and I had to justify the project by getting the money back."

Justify the project? He did more than that. Wooden Boat demonstrated that a state-of-the-art wooden boat can compete in price with the commercial builders. And they showed the Lightning for what it is—a classic boat.

Joel Thurtell
11803 Priscilla Lane
Plymouth, MI 48170
1-734-454-1890 1-734-454-4666

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