Vintage Lightning
Small Craft Advisor|July - August 2021
Reborn as a Camp-Cruiser
Rob Hodge

Three years ago, as infatuation with my 12-foot yawl-rigged pram started to fade, I found myself eyeing other boats. We’d had some great times, but the more I sailed aboard and alongside other boats, I began to dream of having a boat that could point better—something a bit more sporting. I wasn’t actively looking, but a small-boat Facebook posting caught my eye: An old wooden Lightning was available, having been turned down by local organizations and boatbuilding schools. What followed became a three-year ordeal to return the Lady Jane to the water, and modify her into a fast, sporty pocket cruiser.

The Lightning is an older design, first conceived in 1935 and first built-in in 1938. Flowing from the pen of Olin Stephens, the original design spec called for a one-design race boat that would be fast around the racecourse, manned by a crew of three for races, yet able to carry six for daysailing. The hull form draws some inspiration from sharpies, and the simple sawn-rib construction and hard chine make repairs and construction relatively easy for an amateur. They are set up for a fractional jib and symmetric spinnaker. There are active Lightning fleets in some parts of the country to this day, and over 15,000 hull numbers have been issued. There is an active class association that maintains records going back to the early days of the class and has records for just about every hull number issued. A few versions of the original plans are available to help with rebuilds or construction of new boats from scratch.

The design straddles the no-mans-land between large dinghy and small keelboat in many regards. The steel swing keel combines with the beam to make the boat stable, heeling slightly before it plants on the chine.

Lady Jane came to me as a last resort; no one else wanted her. Choosing to make a difference in an at-risk boat’s life, I adopted her. Early on in the refit, I envisioned a reconfiguration as a pocket cruiser; able to sleep two below while maintaining the excellent sailing characteristics these boats are known for, yet with some concessions for ease of single-handing. This wasn’t totally unprecedented; there is some mention in the club’s archives of a boat called the Gypsy, created by an early Lightning builder who used the stock hull but incorporated a deck-stepped mast and a cabin. I also found inspiration in four blurry pictures taken by a friend from an out-of-print book on coastal cruising in a dinghy. I tracked down the author, who had added a cabin to a similar hull and cruised the New England coast, sharing his adventures in a book titled Bucking the Tide.

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