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Lightning Class Association

#6066 — John Barber — Sailing on Georgian Bay

Joe Lacroix looked shocked when I told him I wanted to buy his Lightning only a few minutes after first seeing the boat in the summer of 2006. But he didn’t know I had been waiting 20 years for the chance, and had followed all kinds of blind alleys before returning to my original inspiration: a wooden Lightning to cruise Lake Huron’s beautiful Georgian Bay in simplicity and style. I wasn’t going to get distracted this time, like I did when I bought an expensive powerboat for the same purpose. So I snapped up Lightning 6133 as soon as I saw it.

I’ve cruised and camped the Great Lakes all my life, under power, sail and paddle. But 20 years ago, when I raised the idea of doing it in a Lightning with John Turnbull, former editor of Canadian Yachting magazine and founder of Boat for Sale, he told me I wanted a Wayfarer. It was classic good advice. The Wayfarer was designed for the task and there were many boats, fully outfitted for cruising, easily available. Unlike a Lightning, John pointed out, a Wayfarer is beachable.

It was another old boat, Lightning 10890, that helped bring me back to where I started. She was a castoff acquired from a fellow islander on Lake Joseph, a few miles east of Georgian Bay, that I adopted as a zero-cost knockabout. But what fun she was. Our basket case was the most spirited daysailer on the lake, easily dominating the "run-what-you-brung" races we entered, with picnic basket and poodle aboard. She’s now a hulk, stripped of her fittings and half-sunk in the shallows near the mooring where 6133 preens, but I’m reluctant to tow her to the landfill where she probably belongs. I still feel guilty about leaving her for a sexier (albeit older) model.

Despite the long gestation of my Lightning love, 6133 was still unprepared for her role as camp cruiser when my 16-year-old son Kelly and I slid her into the bay for her initiation this August. We had no means of reefing the big mainsail and were sailing with a fixed rather than a kick-up rudder, a foolhardy omission in notoriously ledgy Georgian Bay. We were also missing the "essential extras" of GPS and auxiliary power, sailing instead with paper charts and two paddles. But the opportunity to take the old race boat for her maiden cruise on her 50th birthday overrode caution.

Besides being fast and agile, 6133 vindicated my early intuition about the Lightning as a cruiser. Modern dry bags obviate the need for storage lockers: Our entire kit stowed around the mast, leaving ample sprawl space in the cockpit. We always kept the board down far enough to protect the rudder, and although I winced at the first bangs it sustained, we learned to use it as a kind of sounder, even a brake when we strayed off the marked passages in search of gunkholes. Sailing into a few inches of water, lifting off the rudder and dropping the board deep into the mud was often enough to secure the boat for an hour or an evening, with no lines or anchors necessary. I brought some tackle and rollers to beach her if needed, but never did.

Nor did we miss the absent kicker as we became more proficient at sailing the boat in tricky passages where everybody else motored. The fact that none of the dozen or so keelboats we encountered was actually sailing helped to sharpen our anti-engine purism. For next year, 6133 will have oarlocks and a pair of long sweeps as auxiliary power—in addition to the reef points needed to slow her down, in retrospect a greater priority.

For sure there will be a next year. Kelly and I both feel as if we have rediscovered a lost sport, a kind of elemental sailing exhumed from beneath multiple strata of modern convenience and technology. I only wish I had found it earlier, when the Lightning first struck my imagination. But perhaps dreams need to live a while before they come true.

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