Gone with the wind: Organizers of the 70th anniversary Lightning Regatta hope to keep alive the historic importance of the sailboat to Skaneateles.
Today, golfing is synonymous with the Skaneateles Country Club, but it wasn’t too long ago that sailing not only ruled the club, but was the talk of the town. Sailing in Skaneateles’ pristine blue water was already popular in the 1930s, but the sport rose to new heights with the creation of the Lightning sailboat.
“My father wanted a boat that was family-friendly but competitive, too,” said Mick Barnes, whose father and uncle, John and George Barnes, owned the Skaneateles Boat Company at the time. The revolutionary design, by Olin Stephens, was large enough to fit a family, easy and fast for successful racing, as well as affordable. “My grandmother named it for a symbol in the Bible,” Barnes added.
After launching the premiere Lightning at the Skaneateles Country Club, the Barnes brothers took the 19-foot boat to the 1938 boat show in New York City, where the design became a huge hit and requests for duplicates poured in. The Skaneateles Boat Company built the first 300 Lightnings. “The demand was so great they had to allow others to build it,” said Phil Hider, a Lightning owner and member of the regatta committee.
The Lightning soon became one of the most popular sailboats in the world. “Booklets were even sent out on how to build your own Lightning at home,” Hider said. “The Lightning does things right; it doesn’t tip over easily and it’s a great beginner’s boat.”
Today, there are more than 18,000 Lightnings worldwide and about 500 fleets around the world, with Skaneateles being named fleet No. 1 as an acknowledgment to the boat’s origin. According to the International Lightning Class Association, the Lightning has been awarded International Class Status by the International Sailing Federation and has sailed in more than 13 countries.
For this weekend’s events, race competitors will be divided into three fleets: the blue fleet, which has the serious competitors; the white fleet, consisting of club member racers; and the red fleet, comprising older, non-competitive boats. Spectators are welcome to watch the boats along the lake, which are visually stunning when they release their spinnaker or downwind sail, which poufs up like a hot air balloon, unleashing a multitude of colors and beauty above the water.
Unfortunately, this wonderful tradition is losing steam in terms of popularity and support. “Every year we have fewer people involved,” said Hider. The point of the anniversary is to “keep the tradition flowing. The anniversary and the Lightning are a source of pride for sailors, but we’re a minority.” And pushy golfers don’t help, Hider said, which creates a tension for the hundreds of sailors and their families that will swarm the country club. Pictures of past races hang in the country club’s back rooms, a reminder of what once was the glowing pride of the area. “There aren’t many people left like Mick and I, who truly have a passion for the sport,” Hider admitted.
As for what the future holds for sailing in Skaneateles, it’s unsure. “You may see a rebirth in the interest of sailing due to the price of gas,” Hider said. Although the Lightning plays an important role to the sailors of Skaneateles, few others realize its significance. Either way, the sport deserves some recognition and the Lightning regatta is one to celebrate. “When the wind is on your face and you have the calm of the water,” Barnes enthused, “it’s serenity.”
For more information on the Lightning regatta, call 685-5759 or visit www.lightning70th.com.