A newcomer to the Lightning Class attends his first Southern Circuit...and wins!

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.

As I poked around the various class websites, a few things were obvious about the Lightning Class:
1) It was the perhaps the best organized class in the US
2) The Class invested more effort in building fleets and bring in new sailors
3) It had great depth of competition
4) In my region (the Northeast), it had the most extensive regatta schedule
4) 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.
As for tuning, I decided on Day 1 that moving the mast blocks was simply too hard. And Neal was a big fan of the Greg Fisher tuning method, because it is so simple....Neal says it allows him to think about the race instead of worrying about blocking. After hearing Neal, and trying all the various blocking positions, I decided that 1" of blocking would be sufficient in all conditions. We sailed that way the entire circuit, from 0-25 knots.
We also left the rake where Tim Healy had set it...45", and only adjusted the jib halyard through a very small range, essentially to equalize the load on the halyard and headstay.
But I did decide that the lowers need to be adjusted. We used a 5 turn range from drifting to heavy air. I was told our lowers were probably tighter than average in a breeze, and perhaps looser in light air. But since the lowers are very easy to adjust between races, we didn't see this as a distraction.
We noted in Savannah that Dave Stark had superb upwind speed, and was aggressively dropping the traveler in the puffs, so we emulated that method. But this requires hard mainsheet trim, and I found I couldn't get the main out of the cleat in a panic. So Tom Allen was nice enough to bend my mainsheet swivel arm down. This was a big help.
We also noticed that Allan Terhune had the best downwind speed, so we spent some time trying to mimic his technique. We couldn't match it, mostly because I am too klutzy to sit to leeward. So Neal found a way for me to sit on the centerboard trunk. Again, big help.

I won't go through the series race by race as I don't have the memory or the patience. But here are some of the things I won't forget about my first Winter Circuit.

1) How everyone came up on Friday in Savannah to welcome me to the class. In all my years and in all my classes, I have never experienced this. This is unique to the Lightning.

2) How much fun the crazy conditions are in Savannah. In the past, I've done frostbite racing in a Sunfish on the Barrington River, and in an Interclub and JY15 at Essex, and river sailing is always a challenge. Don't miss this regatta.

3) How lucky we were with great comebacks. For example, after I had misjudged a downwind layline (again!) in Miami, we were ahead of only a couple of boats. But we hooked the persistent shift on the last beat and finished 7th. This happened almost every day. Neal's mantra was, "Don't sail your drop race." He started saying that before Savannah and didn't quit until we were done in St. Pete. No matter how bad we were doing, Neal and PJ never blinked....the only discussion was "what's the next right move".

4) The size of the party in St. Pete....completely out of all proportion to the number of boats. The family entourage that follows the fleet was surprising. Again, not like other classes.

5) How comfortable the Lightning is to sail. Believe me, I've sailed in a lot of painful boats. And I don't think the answer is to prohibit hiking, as some classes have done. Sailing is supposed to be athletic. But it doesn't have to hurt.

6) How fast the boat is in a straight line, and how slow it is out of a tack. I don't know how many of my lee bows turned into lee sterns. Embarrassing.

7) How easy the boat is to assemble and pack up. And how easily it tows behind a small car. I have a 4-cylinder Honda Element. No comparison to the hassle of traveling with a small keelboat.

8) Finally, the diversity of the fleet. You have the kids crewing. 20-somethings with their first boat. The 30-40 crowd at the top of their game. And older guys like me, wishing we were still at the top of our games. Everyone has a great time.

I can't wait until next year!