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 Barnes¹ had a successful design on their hands.
Realizing the need for a strong organization to establish the class as a racing class, the 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 some 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, and 50th anniversary regattas. This year, the Skaneateles Country Club will host the 60th 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 Barnes¹ and Stephens¹ firms, to be realized. Experienced racers, sailing families, and casual cruisers will all come out to enjoy their boats and one another¹s company.