A Brief History of the Lightning
Part I — The Origins of the Idea
Exerpted from: The Lightning n 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 wasn¹t going to catch on. The Barnes¹ were still looking for the elusive daysailer/racer they¹d 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 Barnes¹ took Lightning #1 to the New York City boat show, and were rewarded with numerous orders. It looked like the Barnes¹ had a successful design on their hands.