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A Brief History of the Lightning  

Part I — The Origins of the Idea

Excerpted from: The Lightning in Skaneateles by John Barnes and Mike Yates

The emergence of the Lightning class sailboat from a small upstate New York village in 1938 was the logical conclusion of events of the preceding 150 years. The Skaneateles area, like much of upstate New York, was primarily settled by Revolutionary War soldiers given land grants for their service. The dense forests and abundant waterways of the region made it a natural link in the country's early transportation network of canals and rivers. 

Documented boating history in Skaneateles begins with a raft built by an early settler in 1794 to transport his possessions to southern end of the lake. Other key developments in the early boating years were the yachts Four Sisters and Laura. Four Sisters had a waterline approaching 42 feet, impressive for her time. Laura was a sandbagger designed by George Steers (designer of America) which sailed the waters of Skaneateles for 81 years. 

The Lightning's lineage begins in 1876 with the formation of Bowdish and Company. Bowdish quickly developed a reputation for building fine small steam launches, rowboats, canoes, and sailing canoes. In 1890 a young boatwright named George Smith joined the company. In 1893, Smith and his partner, James Ruth purchased Bowdish and Company and renamed it the Skaneateles Boat and Canoe Company. At that time, canoeing and sailing canoe racing were very popular throughout the northeast and Skaneateles boats were well regarded in that circle. 

By 1932, the Skaneateles Boat and Canoe Company had built and sold 5,082 canoes, rowboats and sailboats which had been shipped throughout North and South America and Europe. George Smith wanted to slow down a little and sold the company to two brothers, John and George Barnes. John and George were active one design sailboat racers. They renamed the company the Skaneateles Boats Company and expanded the company¹s product line to include such popular designs as the Star and International 14 racing dinghies.

The International 14 had been of special interest to the Barnes brothers. They were determined to build a craft that would win fame in the international yachting world and thought the International 14 was the best place to start. As a result of these efforts, the International 14 was developed into a state of the art, high performance class. 

The Barnes brothers had long wanted to sell a boat about the size of a Star that would appeal to both racers and their families. Shortly after the introduction of the International 14, they added the 19' Mower Interlake Class to the Skaneateles product line. The Mower was a family daysailer with excellent racing capabilities. A beautiful, round bottomed boat, the high costs associated with its bent ribbed hull caused the boat to be beyond the reach of many depression-era sailors, and the boat never caught on. 

At about the same time, a new boat was quickly gaining strength up and down the east coast - the Comet. The Comet was a sawn-rib, hard-chined boat, making it economical and easy to build. The Skaneateles Boats Company began building Comets in the early 1930s and continued to so for many years. After the Lightning, the Comet was probably the most successful boat built during this period. 

By 1937 it was apparent that the Mower wasn’t going to catch on. The Barnes’ were still looking for the elusive daysailer/racer they’d hoped the Mower would become. The Star was too big and uncomfortable and the Comet was too small to meet this need. 

At an Americas Cup fund-raiser at the Columbia Rope Company, in neighboring Auburn, New York, John and George Barnes had met naval architects Rod and Olin Stephens and discussed the idea of a completely new boat. This boat would be 19' long, providing room for a family; it would incorporate the hard chine of the Comet, allowing simplified construction; and it would provide the high performance required of a one-design class racer. 

The plans for the Lightning had been completed by Olin Stephens II in late 1935. Over the next two years, the Barnes' and Stephens' teams consulted with each other on the design of the boat that would become the Lightning. Hull #1 was launched in October, 1938 at the Skaneateles Country Club and used as a test bed for the Lightning development program. In the winter of 1938, the Barnes’ took Lightning #1 to the New York City boat show, and were rewarded with numerous orders. It looked like the Barnes’ had a successful design on their hands. 


Part II — The Class Takes Off

Excerpted and adapted from: The Lightning in Skaneateles by John Barnes and Mike Yates

At an Americas Cup fund-raiser at the Columbia Rope Company, in neighboring Auburn, New York, John and George Barnes, owners of the Skaneateles Boats Company, had met naval architects Rod and Olin Stephens, of Sparkman and Stephens, and discussed the idea of a completely new boat. This boat would be 19' long, providing room for a family; it would incorporate the hard chine of the Comet, allowing simplified construction; and it would provide the high performance required of a one-design class racer. 

By late 1935, Olin Stephens II had completed the plans for the Lightning. Over the next two years, the Skaneateles and Sparkman & Stephens teams consulted with each other on the construction of the boat that would become the Lightning. Hull #1 was launched in October 1938 at the Skaneateles Country Club and used as a test bed for the Lightning development program. In the winter of 1938, the Barnes' took Lightning #1 to the New York City boat show, and were rewarded with numerous orders. It looked like the Barnes’ had a successful design on their hands. 

Realizing the need for a strong organization to establish the class as a racing class, John and George Barnes launched the formation of the Lightning Class Association. The first annual meeting of the class was held at the New York City boat show the following winter. C. Lindsey Nicholson of Skaneateles (also with the company) was elected the first president of the class. The Skaneateles Country Club was granted the charter for Lightning Fleet #1. 

Olin Stephens and the Barnes' recognized the unique contribution that the boat could offer to one-design sailing and decided to treat the Lightning with unprecedented generosity. Rather than retaining exclusive rights to the design, they donated the rights to the then brand new Lightning Class Association. This contribution ensured that anyone who wanted to could build a Lightning, and all design royalties would contribute to the strength of the class association. 

The metropolitan New York area became an early hot bed of Lightning sailing, evidenced by the area¹s fleet numbers, and the fact that many of the early national and international championships were sailed in the area. A review of early championship regatta results shows that John and George Barnes dominated the class early in its history. John Barnes became the first national champion in 1939. 

The Skaneateles Boats Company built most of the first 300 Lightnings. Other early builders were The Lippincott Boat Company of Riverton, NY and Emmons Boat Works of Central Square, NY. By the time of the 1946 International Lightning Regatta, which was held in Skaneateles, about 2000 Lightnings had been built, in spite of the fact that the boat companies were doing war work nearly full-time between 1941 and 1945. 

The Lightning steadily gained popularity in the post-war years. By the late 1950s, the class was the largest one-design class over 16 feet in length, with over 8000 boats registered worldwide. With the advent of fiberglass construction, growth of the class persisted. By the time of the 30th Anniversary Regatta in 1968, 11,000 boats had been built. The Lightning has survived against the proliferation of inexpensive, modern competitors by adopting technological advances at a pace reasonable enough to advance the design without making obsolete the thousands of boats still enjoyed all over North America and the world. Today, with more than 15,000 boats built, the Lightning class is still one of the largest, most active sailboat classes in the world. 

In 1968, and every ten years since, Skaneateles has welcomed the Lightning class home for the 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th, and 70th anniversary regattas. In 2018, the Skaneateles Country Club will host the 80th anniversary regatta. Each previous event has been a celebration of one of the most enduring one-design classes in the world. Each anniversary regatta has presented an opportunity for all aspects of the Lightning family, as originally envisioned by the Barnes’ and Stephens’ firms, to be realized. Experienced racers, sailing families, and casual cruisers will all come out to enjoy their boats and one another¹s company.