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The 70th Anniversary of the Lightning Class

by Peter Huston

The Olin Stephens designed International Lightning Class held their 70th Anniversary Regatta during the 4th of July weekend at the home of Fleet #1, Skaneateles Country Club, in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of central New York State over a nearly perfect mid-summer weekend. 125 boats competed, from boat #2, up through new 15300 generation boats. The boat pictured at right, #39, was built in 1939. It was a major restoration project by Schyler Barnes that was literally finished the day before the regatta began. You can read about the restoration and launching here for the rest of the story about how the Lightning continues to thrive.

The Regatta – Woodstock on the Water

The essence of this story is not about the regatta—the regatta was just an excuse for 125 boats to come together to celebrate the reasons the class remains strong and viable. There wasn’t much tie-dye in evidence, but there was a lot of peace and love—and a ton of fun. The Village of Skaneateles is celebrating its 150th Anniversary, and is about as nice a little town as you can find anywhere, with waterfront homes that range from nice weekendfarm cottages to Newportesque "Cottages."

The Skaneateles Country Club is truly a first class facility. It is every bit a country club, with what looks like a great golf course. The waterfront facility is excellent. But thisclub has something I’ve never seen at any other club, of any type - their own landing strip. It didn’t look long enough to land a Citation X, but I’d be surprised if a nice twin engine turbo prop couldn’t land there. As it was, all the cars were parked on both sides of the landing strip, which also held a campground. There was a fleet of golf carts and vans manned by volunteers for almost 18 hours a day to shuttle us back and forth from the regatta area to the cars. The members of this club did a superb job in all aspects of the logistics.

The one thing that was missing was wind. Two very light races were sailed on Saturday. The Race Committee did a terrific job getting in two races, in very challenging conditions. The trick of the regatta was linking puffs and sailing through transitions zones of a south and north breeze that fought it out in the middle of the course.

Former World Champion Larry MacDonald, who won the Canadian Open just a few days ago, won this regatta, sailing with his young son Adam and Mike Healy.

Why the Lightning

When the founding members of Fleet #1 commissioned Olin to draw them a simple small lake day racer, they could not possibly have envisioned the success the class would continue to enjoy 70 years on. Much has been said by many people over the years about the boat, and it is perhaps best summed up by 1992 America’s Cup winner starting helmsman and former Lightning World Champion Dave Dellenbaugh this way:

The Top 10 Things I Like About The Lightning

  1. There's Lightning racing almost everywhere.
  2. Some of the best sailors in the world sail the Lightning.
  3. Lightning’s are available from more than one high-quality builder.
  4. Lightning’s even 20 years old are still competitive.
  5. The boat is one of the best crew trainers on the water today.
  6. The Class is not so strict as to discourage experimentation which makes the boat faster and easier to sail.
  7. The Lightning has interested the finest sailmakers in the world so the sails and the tuning guides look great and are easy to use.
  8. The Lightning is a very roomy boat for daysailing.
  9. Lightning sailors sail hard, but they're not too cutthroat—someone's always ready to answer questions.
  10. The Class management is as good as you'll find in one-design sailing.

Larry MacDonald, Jr, Adam MacDonald & Mike Healy

Historical Leadership

No class can survive, let alone prosper, for 70 years, without a wide variety of leaders throughout the years. Unlike builder owned and directed classes, the Lightning Class, like the Star and Snipe and other enduring classes, is truly an association of people who are interested in the fundamental principles of fun and fair play. The class not only survived, but thrived through technology changes of wood to fiberglass hulls, and wood to aluminum rigs.

I was asked a few weeks to try and find out how the class was able to transition from wood to glass hulls. As fate would have it, I spent the entire weekend of the 70th with former International Champion (what the North American’s were called prior to the advent of the World Championships) Carl Eichenlaub, riding around on the little aluminum tug that he built a few years ago, which is now own
Carl’s version of what led to the change from wood to glass hulls goes like this: there was a guy, Carl could not remember his name, or more likely, was being too kind to reveal it, who just went and built a glass hulled boat, without permission from the class. This owner just sailed the boat, the class be damned. Carl recalled that there was a meeting which involved the builders, that included him and Bob Seidelmann (and no doubt, others), and it was Seidelmann who told the builder of this glass boat “you are going to force us into this business.”

Cool heads prevailed, and rather than stick to old technology, the class leadership ended up embracing glass construction as one of the first classes to do so, and the rest is history. The best part was the transition did not immediately obsolete wooden hulls, the evidence for which was the fact that Stu Anderson sailed #8503 well into the glass boat generation, winning frequently. Of course, the legend was that if the termites had ever stopped holding hands “Glockenspiel” would have fallen apart on the spot.
Along the way, there were other legal challenges for the class. Another legend has it that someone tried to take over the checkbook of the class, and a Midwest based lawyer who was always too modest to take credit for saving the class, did exactly that. Modesty in accomplishment while an officer of the class has always been evident, and is one of the key reasons why so many talented people give of their time to support the class. No one is bragging for themselves, all just seem to want to perpetuate the class, and more so, the fun.

Rock Stars

Once a Lightning sailor, always a Lightning sailor. While the foundation of the class are the multitude of local fleets, the class remains a force internationally because of the people who are attracted to it, and because of its status as a Pan American Games class. A short list of some of the household names in the sport who sailed in the class with varying success include - Lowel North, Ted Turner, Dave Conner, Ken Read, Dave Delenbaugh, Dave Curtis, Neal Fowler, Steve Benjamin, Andy Horton, Colin Beashell, Glenn Darden.

Class stalwarts that can and have won in their major classes include:
  • Bruce Goldsmith
  • Tom Allen
  • Ched Proctor
  • Bill Shore
  • Jim Crane
  • Jay Hansen
  • George – Greg– Matt Fisher
  • Tito Gonzales – Worlds, and Pan Am winner, Etchells World Champ
  • Larry MacDonald, Jr.
  • David Starck
  • George Andreadis
  • 2008 USA 470 Olympic Team Sarah Mergenthaler and Amanda Clark
  • Jody Swanson-Starck – 2 US Yachtswomen of the Year Awards
  • Jeff Linton – US Yachtsman of the Year
  • Jay Lutz – winner of every major continental class championship, and J80 Worlds

The Strongest Point of the Class — Apprentice/Mentors = Fast Friends

Anyone who has followed some of what I have written about the state of the sport over the years knows I am not a huge fan of the Opti Class. Yes, it does have its strong points for some kids, but it isn’t the only solution for most sailors. The key difference between a junior sailing an Opti and one sailing in a Lightning is that in an Opti that sailor might have a coach talking to them after a race about what they could have done differently, whereas in a Lightning, you can have a mentor right there helping that sailor learn immediately.

This sort of Apprentice/Mentor system is also evident through the “Lightning Labs.” It’s a simple concept, well executed. A group of talented sailors get together and run a clinic for those who want to learn more about the boat. This sort of thing has always been done on an ad hoc basis in the class, but it has been formalized with great success. On the 4th of July this year, A “Super Lightning Lab” was run before the 70th, with the likes of Larry MacDonald (with his kids Adam and Joy), Greg Fisher, Randy Shore, Brian Hayes, John Faus, Bill Fastiggi, Class President Steve Davis, Steve Ray, Craig Thayer, Tom Allen on a wide Variety of topics

Learn Local, Grow Global

The Lighting Lab concept works everywhere, even in Africa. Here’s what Skip Dieball has to say about his experience in Nigeria.

“In the spring of 2007, ILCA President Steve Davis and I embarked on a trip to Nigeria to work with the Lightning Fleet there.  We truly didn’t know what to expect and the trip couldn’t have been any better.  The local fleet took great care of us and we learned a lot about a truly different part of the world! 

From a pure sailing perspective, they sail in a very challenging venue, Lagos Harbor.  The shipping channel goes right through the middle of their racing area which provides plenty of excitement, but add to that decent thermal breezes and a significant current and there’s never a dull moment.

We spent a great deal of our time running a “Lightning Lab”.   The term is used mainly here in the USA as a traveling series of clinics that are fleet sponsored and bring in notable sailors to share their wisdom.  Steve and I worked with the fleet for three afternoons in an effort to get them geared up for their Nationals Championship.  Attendance at the lab increased everyday!  We covered a lot in a short period of time and had a good time with it.

For the Nigerian National Championship, which both Steve and I sailed, we raced one day inside the Lagos Harbor and one day outside in the Atlantic Ocean.  The event was a true test as the challenging “inland” sailing was in contrast to the speed sailing in the ocean.

The Lagos Yacht Club is a nice paradise in an otherwise strong urban setting.  The chaos of everyday life is magnified in Lagos by the extreme number of people that don’t have the “everyday” conveniences we have in the USA.  Public transportation…far too many small taxis.  Public services...good luck.  It is clear that the spirit of the native Nigerian people is strong.  They have many obstacles, unfortunately largely out of their control.

Steve and I had a great visit.  We often talk about going back and visiting the many friends we had made...someday!”

Boat Grant

To augment the Lightning Lab program, in order to attract new blood from the ranks of the post college crowd the class has started a very successful boat grant program. While a modest start, it has grown significant very quickly. It’s a pretty simple concept – grants are given to sailors who demonstrate a commitment to race the boat. By all measures, this program is the basis for long term future growth. You can read about it here.

History Repeats Itself

Then Apprentice/Mentor aspect of the club has been evident within the class for decades, almost everywhere the boat exists. My admitted bias is based on my experience as a young sailor at the Buffalo Canoe Club, which has endured as one of the foundations of the class for decades, having hosted many major Lightning regattas, and personalities that have contributed directly to the class, and often times, decades later, through lessons they have imparted to others.

It is impossible to name every club and person in the class who has played a large role in the class, if not sport, and while it is not intended to slight those not named here, there are some people who simply need to be acknowledged for what they did decades ago that pay dividends today.

Probably the best place to start is Karl Smither. He was a great sailor (won one Internationals, and was second many times), but an even better gentleman. Karl was a leader of leaders. He always ran an eminently fair protest hearing, and people around the Great Lakes (if not the entire country) learned much about sportsmanship from him. I’ve often been told by a key International Juror and Umpire that Karl provided him with a good deal of the basis for his ability to properly chair a Jury. So, 40 years on, lessons Karl Smither taught to a young sailor from Michigan are paying dividends in the form of fair jury decision on a global basis.

Of course, Karl his wife Idy had a daughter named Anne, who married a guy named Tom – Allen. Son Bob Smither was a class stalwart for decades, and active in USYRU/US Sailing too. Who can forget his “Hot Yachts in Cold Water” article in the mid-70’s? For those reading this who are not familiar with the Allen’s, Tom Allen has probably won more major Lightning regattas than anyone else in the class, ever. Tom and Anne won Pan Am medals, with Dr. Larry Bone. Tom had several near misses in various Olympic boats like the FD, Tempest, and Finn. It is impossible to think of Lightning’s and not mention the success of the Allen’s. Tom is also a Past Commodore of the BCC, and Anne is a Past President of the class, and is the current Commodore of the BCC. Karl Smither was a Past Commodore at the BCC too. The Allen Boat Company might have built more Lightning’s than any other builders. And no doubt Karl and Idy smile down from above on those accomplishments, but they are probably most proud of the fact that Tom and Anne’s son, Tom Jr., won the first George Fisher Sportsmanship Award.

The Next Champions

In the early 1970’s, New Jersey sailor Jim Carson provided the leadership for the creation of the Lightning Junior North Americans. A few years later, Royal Hamilton YC sailor, Larry MacDonald, Sr. led the way to the creation of the Junior Lightning Worlds. The list of winners of these regattas have been duplicated through all the major continental class championships as time passes.

Jim Carson has had too many great crews to count, many of whom went on to be great skippers in their own right. Perhaps one of the families he influenced the most are the Lutz brothers, Jay and Jody. Jay first burst on the scene in about 1974 at the Cleveland YC, where he started a streak through the class that has never really ended. Both Jay and Jody sailed with their kids in the 70th.

1st Race winner, skipper Tyler, crew Jay and Gillian Lutz

2008 Junior Lightning Worlds Team
Crew Maddie Waldron, Kathryn Moloney,
Skipper Joy MacDonald

In a few weeks, the Junior Lightning Worlds will be held in Montreal. Another generation of MacDonald’s will be sailing in this event – Larry, Jr.’s daughter Joy.

We Are The Champions

After the 1984 Olympics, when the USA Soling team had won the Gold medal, Rod Davis was shortly thereafter named to helm the Newport Harbor YC entry in the 1987 America’s Cup. A local southern California sailing publication, “Waterfront”, had an interview with Rod about his success in the Olympics, and what that meant for the future. While the exact quote is not available, it went something like this: “the reason you do an Olympic campaign is simply to become a better sailor. The medal is just a byproduct of a lot of hard work and a bit of luck”.

Not everyone can win an Olympic medal, a Lightning World Championship, or even a club race. Lightning sailors are lucky to have found each other, and work hard to make the class thrive. Anyone who calls the Lightning class home are champions in their own right, because 70 years of friendship and fun on the water is the best trophy anyone can win.

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