Lightning #2833 afloat earlier this year
The day after New Year’s, T and I got up in the cold dark and started a four hour drive, heading east toward Edenton, North Carolina. We’re going to see about a boat.
By sunrise, we’re in peanut country, south of the James. Cotton, a little sorghum, but mostly peanuts. Broad, flat, brown fields leading up to small towns clustered around silos and a train depot, a single stoplight maybe. The other side of town, more fields and more fields. Then a blackwater swamp of Tupelo and Cypress – a natural border, the margin between towns – then the cycle starts again. Disputanta (there’s got to be an interesting story behind the name) and the three W’s of Waverly, Wakefield and Windsor.
Somewhere west of the Dismal Swamp, at an unmarked place in a two lane road, we leave Virginia and enter North Carolina. Spanish Moss hangs from the Cypress trees, the proportion of swamp to farmland shifts more toward swamp.
A few weeks ago, we sat down and made a list of all the things we need to do to the house. We’ve lived in it 20 years now, which means everything we did when we moved in, which we still thought of as “new” was now, well, two decades old. All of a sudden, it seems, everything needs repainting, replacing, redoing, just to get back to respectable. I realized, with some chagrin, it will be years before I can get back to the Gannet, a project that itself could take two years.
Many of the trips I take by boat now are longer and across bigger water, outside the comfort zone of the little Melonseeds. They do amazingly well, but prudence draws the line sooner for me than the other folks I travel with. Occasionally, I choose to stay behind when others still have enough freeboard to go on. Hence, the Gannet. So realizing it could be years before that boat hits the water, I got a bit forlorn.
One night, doing a little research, I came across an older boat for sale. It needed a lot of work, but you could see it had good bones. That got me thinking: Pretty sure I could find an old boat, in sailing condition, not too expensive, I could use until the Gannet gets done . . . I talked it over with T and she was game. Problem half solved.
photo from the owner
Over the years I’ve found a number of sites where older boats gather for sale. It’s fun to browse them, but this wasn’t recreational. I needed to be more specific in what I was looking for. It had to be wood, because I have the tools and knowhow to fix those. It needs to be of a certain size and stability – not too big to handle alone, but big enough to be a step up from a Melonseed. Lots of things fit those criteria, actually; but finding something nearby, in good condition, and affordable, is not so simple.
I found a classic old Comet in good condition on the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s website. Lot’s of museums take boat donations from owners who just need a tax write off, and sometimes they get real jewels. The Comet was too cramped for cruising, but it reminded me of a Lightning of similar vintage I had seen on the Deltaville Museum’s site. It was long gone, but the idea stuck.
I’ve loved Lightnings since I was a kid. Never owned or even sailed one, but they are the boats I most often saw from shore when I was young. A few days later I found the classified section on the Lightning Class website, and down at the bottom was a listing for a classic 1947 wooden Lightning in Norfolk – hull #2833.
Lightnings are one of the oldest and most popular One Design classes in the world, with over 15,000 built since it was introduced in 1938. Designed by Sparkman & Stephens, the Stephens brothers taught themselves to sail on Barnstable Bay in Massachusetts. They then started a design business with Sparkman, a yacht broker, and got to work. Their very first design, Dorade, won the 1931 Trans-Atlantic race in her first real sailing test. They went on to design over 2000 boats, seven of which won the America’s Cup – a record still unbroken.
The Lightning was a relatively small project, and it’s popularity was a surprise even to the designers. Part of its long life is due to the fact that they deeded the rights to the class sailing organization to promote it, who then sold the plans to both professional and amateur builders alike. This was a high performance racing boat anyone could build and own, and many did, and still do.
However, because they were designed specifically for racing, over time even small improvements in manufacturing and rigging made older boats slightly less competitive. Like thoroughbreds past their prime, good race boats go to pasture sooner than most – they may still be very fast, relatively speaking; they just aren’t winning as many races. So, once the hard core race guys are ready for an upgrade, good old boats come available for sale, and on a regular basis. And since the only people looking for Lightnings are people looking to race, the value of older racers is disproportionately lower than for other boats of comparable age and condition. If you want a cruising boat, your aren’t looking for Lightnings. If you want a racing boat, you aren’t looking for older Lightnings. However, to me, unlike other racers, a Lightning is just a big heavy, stable sharpie – with too much sail.
photo from the owner
This boat we were going to see was built in 1947 by Skaneateles Boat & Canoe Company, the original professional builder of Lightnings. I could tell the ad had been posted for some time, not getting any nibbles. I contacted the owner, who said he had lowered the price, and the boat was now outside Edenton, NC. It was a classic older boat he had restored himself, and he was most concerned that it go to a good home. I sent him photos and videos of the Melonseeds, and got the nod to come have a look.
Edenton is a beautiful old southern town, not big, in the middle of nowhere. I found it quite by accident once, and wanted to take T there to see it. Situated at the base of the Dismal Swamp, on the banks of Albemarle Sound, it dates back to before the Revolutionary War. Some old homes and buildings remain from that period, as well as the Civil War era later. The town played roles in both wars, but the roles were small and it’s not strategically located near anything, so it was spared the mayhem visited on other towns. (They have some pretty funny stories to tell about their cannons. Very North Carolina type stories.)
There’s a lighthouse there now, recently moved from its original location at the Roanoke River entrance. An interesting story on that, too.
We arrived with time to tour the visitor’s center. It’s a pre-revolutionary war home whose mistress owner instigated a sedate Carolina version of the Boston Tea Party. Very cool artifacts on display there, many of them nautical.
There was even time for a walk along the waterfront before brunch.
On this Sunday, with church services underway we had the whole restaurant to ourselves; just us and the jazz pianist. Afterwards, we headed over to see the Lightning.
The boat looked to be in mostly very good shape. A couple of hard knocks here and there, one of them not so well repaired; but otherwise it appeared sound and well cared for. After a couple of hours of discussions and examinations, we arrived at an agreement. Lots of gear was transferred to the back of the car – anchors and rode, sails, cushions, rigging, etc. It was only when we were ready to hook up the trailer to leave that we realized one of the tires was flat, and in fact would not hold air. And a tail light was out. Hmm.
photo from the owner
It was getting late already, on a Sunday evening, and there was nobody within 100 miles who could repair the tire. We had no choice but to leave the boat behind, but left a check with it. We promised to return for the boat, and the owner promised to replace the tires and fix all the lights, etc.. Another four hour drive ahead, leaving without the boat, and another eight hours back and forth next weekend to come get it.
We arrived home quite late. It was a long drive, with plenty of time to think of all the ways this was a bad idea.
We did at least have a carload of gear to poke through when we got home. Before bed I opened up the sails to check their condition. Big mistake. It was like opening a giant jack-in-the-box. They completely swallowed the living room. I’m so used to the little 67sq/ft Melonseed sails I wasn’t prepared for how big these are. A Lightning carries 177sq/ft of canvas on a 19 foot boat. A spinnaker adds another 300 sqft, bringing the total, all up, to 477. That’s roughly 7 times as much sail area as the Melonseed on a boat only five feet longer.
For the moment, I have a lot of sail and no boat. It will be a week before I can go back for another close look. A week to ponder the folly of this endeavor, or savor it.