My journey to the Lightning Class began in January of 2009, in the crowded boarding lounge at Key West airport, after Race Week. The fellow in the adjacent seat looked vaguely familiar, until he introduced himself as Bill Faude.
Bill gave me the 10-minute sales pitch, as we waited to board our flights, and he was effective. The Lightning class really offered all that I missed in sailing. In the past I had owned many boats, including Lasers, Snipes, Stars and J/24s, and I really missed participating in the regatta circuit. Not that I was absent from sailing....but all of my past 20 years had been in as a sailing coach, with very little time on the tiller. I told Bill I had logged 700 hours that year driving a powerboat. He told me to buy a Lightning.
The idea percolated as the economic recession deepened all summer. I found myself with a lot less work, a lot more free weekends, and an even greater desire to get back to steering my own boat again. I considered a number of classes...the Star, the Melges 24, and the Etchells, to name a few. But when it came to most fun for your buck, none came close to the Lightning.
- It was the perhaps the best organized class in the US.
- The Class invested more effort in building fleets and bring in new sailors.
- In my region (the Northeast), it had the most extensive regatta schedule.
- The rules were strictly written, and so used boats should be competitive.
I saw Bill Faude again that fall, motoring up to him as he was sailing in from winning a regatta. I offered to buy his boat from him on the spot (no luck!), and so called Greg Fisher, who suggested I buy Tim Healy's boat. Tim rolled the boat into my garage before the first snowstorm of December. I stood back and marveled at how much boat I had gotten for my money. The quality of the trailer, covers, and molding work from Tom Allen was exceptional. Tom really doesn't charge enough...
I knew from experience that the best way to learn how to sail in a new class was to enlist experienced crew. I was VERY lucky to convince both Neal Fowler and PJ Schaffer to join me for the Southern Circuit. Most Lightning sailors have raced against Neal and PJ, but few know how much they have accomplished outside of the class. I knew them from collegiate and International racing....both were long-time US Sailing Team members. Together, we were the "Olympic Almosts Club."
The three of us were about 495 lbs together, which I was told was a good weight. Neal did the middle, tracked the shifts on the compass, and handled most of the upwind tactics. PJ, being the "nipper" at age 43, looked for pressure and did downwind tactics. I focused on the rig tune, sail trim and steering, and forecasted the wind trends....what the wind would likely be doing in an hour. This actually came in handy during some last-beat comebacks from deep in the fleet. If you have to wing it out to a side, it's good to have an educated guess.
The nice thing about sailing with talented people is the relaxed division of responsibility. I didn't look at the compass once during the entire circuit. I didn't look aft for breeze on any run. It's easy when you can trust your team.
I was actually surprised that we were fast upwind....especially after I decided ignore all the tuning guides. We arrived a day early in Savannah and took my new (used) boat out of the covers for the first time. My head was swimming as Neal ran me through all of the control lines and the standard tuning procedure. Tim Healy had warned me that the mast didn't sit straight in the boat.
Sure enough, the mast was hitting one side-chock hard. So I pulled it the opposite way until it was straight sideways....even though this meant the tip of the mast was no longer centered. We sailed that way in Savannah, but for Miami we shimmed one side of the mast butt with a Budweiser can and this removed some of the side bend. In St. Pete, I filed the opposite side of the mast butt, and the offending mast block, and got the mast back in the center of the boat and straight sideways. The boys were great with tackling these, and many other little projects, every day after sailing. My boat was much improved by the end of the circuit.