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Lightning Lingo

by Joel Thurtell

(Appeared in the June, 2000 Flashes)
The language of boating is a wonderful thing. When Patrick O'Brian describes studdingsails "aloft and alow," you visualize great clouds of canvas over a tiny bark.

But the lingo of boating also can be obscure, especially to newcomers. When my mother-in-law and her then 7-year-old daughter took up sailing years ago, they thought some of the basic commands seemed reasonable. "Ready about" was plenty clear. But others were a bit opaque. "Hard alee" seemed like a term easy to forget in the panic of a course change. They agreed on their own command for a tack.

We used to hear it piping across the waves of Georgian Bay, followed by peals of laughter.

"Ready about, ...chandelier!"

I recalled the chandelier story late one night recently on a visit to Nickels Boat Works in Fenton. After months of talking about finishing Plug Nickel, Dave Nickels and I had agreed to meet at his shop and begin installing hardware on the finished hull.

Plug Nickel looking Great!

I was trying to tell Dave that I wanted a simple boomvang on this boat, nothing elaborate. But it was late, and suddenly I could not remember that term, "boomvang." 

I suppose I could have said, "The thing that tightens the boom down in a following wind."  Surely he'd never have figured out what I meant by "chandelier."

Dave Nickels "translating" Joel's hardware requests

When I finally remembered the word and mentioned it, Dave pointed to his list. "Boomvang—simple system."  Already thought of.
For those who are just tuning in, nearly six years ago in a huge wave of enthusiasm for preserving and owning and sailing wooden boats, I bought the last wooden Lightning hull produced by the Nickels & Holman firm founded by Dave's father, Herman Nickels, in the late 1940s. This hull was built as a normal cedar-plank-on-mahogany frame Lightning sailboat. The deck is plywood covered with fiberglass with a textured rough, anti-slip pattern. The boat was never launched. It was used for years as a plug, or male mold, for making the female molds which were used to form fiberglass Lightnings. The boat Dave Nickels built in fall 1965 is the direct progenitor of all fiberglass Nickels & Holman Lightnings. In earlier issues of the Flashes, I've described the pitfalls I met in making it into a sailable craft.

Over the summers of 1998-99, Ron Sell, a professional boatbuilder who lives on a lake near Dexter, Michigan, had faired, fiberglassed and painted the hull. Last fall, I brought the hull back to Fenton for installation of hardware. Somehow, it had taken several months for us to concoct a plan of attack. Now we were rolling Plug Nickel out of the big Nickels Boat Works shed and into the finishing room. We dusted the deck and washed off the bird poop and lo and behold, it was a pretty boat again.

What is this part of a sailboat called?

  1. Console
  2. Tray
  3. Dashboard
  4. Chandelier
  5. All of the above
I was soon tripping over words. Five years ago, shortly after I bought the hull and hauled it home, I faxed a list to Dave of hardware I thought it needed. I was trying to imagine every piece of metal the boat might want. On the list was the word "console." Now, in June 2000, Dave was trying to figure out what that meant. Meanwhile, I was trying to parse his language. Because I work with radios, I use the word "console" for a device that contains electronic controls—switches, meters, that sort of thing. It seemed natural to name the place on a boat where controls were found "console." Why not?

Dave kept referring to something called the "tray." The word sounded so unusual to me that I wasn't sure I'd heard it right. "Tray" this and "tray" that. Finally, he suggested that I crawl under an upside-down, new Lightning and have a look. I got down on my hands and knees and peered up. "You're looking at the wrong thing," he said.

Then he pointed to the console. It's a ledge or shelf running between the incomplete V-shape of the forward area of the cockpit. Right behind the mast, it's a perfect place for cam cleats that secure the various ropes that control jib and spinnaker. There, that's what I mean by "control."

Imagine, though, what Dave was thinking when he read on my list: "2 sets of blocks for mid-deck console controls."

Console is a word from motorboating, Dave points out. One guy he knows even calls the tray the "dashboard."

Why tray? "I don't know," says Dave. "I know that "barberhauler" is named after the Barber twins of California—they were Lightning sailors in the sixties. I know "cunningham" is named for Briggs Cunningham," a 1950s sailor.

Before I left my house in Plymouth, I loaded a full deck cover, a box full of bungie cords and a set of trailer lights in case a miracle happened and we installed the hardware. I figured if we installed the chainplates and the top gudgeon for the lightboard, I could trail it home and install the rest of the hardware. By the end of the evening, we had not drilled one hole and I realized that there was more to this hardware business than I realized.
For instance, the cables which attach through the deck by shackles to the jib ­ commonly called the "cloth" and the "wire." Turns out these cables are fed under the deck via a pair of stainless steel tubes which are set into the wood with epoxy. Not something I would ever have imagined. Having built a lot of wooden Lightnings, Dave knows.

Or another useful fact: Dave quizzed me, "What are the floorboards for?"

"To keep you from stubbing your toes on the ribs," I said.

Floorboards are part of the structure, Dave said. It's not good to walk directly on the bottom of the boat, which after all consists of cedar planks attached to the frames by screws. The floorboards distribute your weight across several frames, preventing the load from falling directly on the hull planks.

Seats have a structural purpose, as well. Their horizontal braces attach to vertical braces on the centerboard trunk. Pressure from the seat frames helps prevent centerboard trunk warping.

At the end of the evening, I'd learned lots of useful things about Lightnings.

But I had a decision to make. Should I call it a console or a tray?

I had a second thought: I'll let my crew decide.

Maybe we'll call it chandelier.

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

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