Nothing whets a collector’s appetite more than hearing that the first unit—Serial Number One—of some old product is still around. When I heard that Lightning #1 would be on display at Mystic Seaport the weekend of June 15–17, 2001, I got pretty excited. I’d already agreed to be there myself, showing Plug Nickel, my Lightning #9900. But the sight of this old boat. Number One, with the light green deck and cracked transom was the highlight of the show. By Sunday, ILCA President Mary Huntsman, her husband Sandy and Secretary Karen Johnson had cut a deal whereby the Association will buy Lightning #1 and loan it to Mystic Seaport Museum
It was a happy outcome for Number One. But it could have been different. There was a time when an owner was desperate to rid himself of the old woodie and its ritual upkeep. Nobody—not the Smithsonian, not the town of Skaneateles where it was made, even—wanted to buy the boat. For many artifacts, that is the critical fork in the road. Does it go the landfill, or will someone step forward and take responsibility for it?
This is How Lightning #1 Was Saved
Summer of 1971. An FBI agent from the bureau’s Utica office jumps into one of New York’s Finger Lakes and swims out to a sadsack wooden sailboat moored offshore.
What’s he looking for?
Was this part of some big drug sting or white collar crime investigation? Truth is that Jack Ryan, then 33, couldn’t have explained even to himself why he was splashing toward that woebegone sailboat.
Because it was for sale? But Ryan already had a sailboat. It was a wooden Lightning, #754, made by the Skaneateles Boat Co. in Skaneateles, N.Y.
“Most beautiful I’d ever seen in my life,” Ryan says.
The summer before, Ryan had discovered the immaculate Lightning. When he saw it, he traded his power boat for the Lightning and went sailing. By spring of 1971, he was sailing Lightning #754 at Oneida Lake. What more did he need? He had a fine looking, great sailing classic boat.
One day he visited another of the Finger Lakes. At a boat club on Cazenovia Lake, someone pointed to a bulletin board. A 3-by-5 card noted that the first Lightning ever built was for sale—$1,500 for boat, trailer, sails, cover. Urged by his wife and kids to go have a look, Ryan drove to the seller’s house. That’s all he wanted to do, Ryan says. Just see what the first Lightning looked like.
Problem was, the boat was moored 30 yards offshore. The owner wanted badly to sell it, though, so he lent Ryan swimming trunks.
No tender. It was swim or go home.
Back in the car, his wife and kids were waiting for him to go see the boat.
“I’m upset at my wife for getting me into this,” Ryan said.
As Ryan and the owner, Hume Laidman, were paddling out to the boat, Laidman said, “I’m asking $1,500, and I’ll take twelve.”
Ryan, not the greatest swimmer, didn’t answer. He looked at the boat. “It was a mess. It was awful. The cover was almost rotted. It was dirty. There was water in the bottom, plus six inches of leaves.”
Somehow, all these negatives turned Ryan’s head.
“I’m interested,” Ryan said. Why? It was Number One.
“I wanted to buy it right then, but he insisted I come back and sail it before I buy it.”
A few days later, Ryan went back. The boat had been spruced up, but it was still dirty. It didn’t matter. Ryan had a plan.
That winter, Ryan’s car stayed outside. In the garage, he sanded the hull. Originally, he knew, the hull was painted white and the deck was green.