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Lightning-fast way to groom new sailors

Generous boat grants plus a mentor help the class hook and keep new recruits

Participation in the sport of sailing has declined during the last few decades and the recent recession hasn't helped reverse this trend. So the challenge facing the industry is to restore a growth pattern by attracting young people to the sport and, more importantly, keeping them interested.

In 2010, 17 young sailors applied for a free Lightning.

Some advocate boats that are easier to use and deliver more speed. Others push concierge services that eliminate the time-consuming hassles of boat ownership. Still others push for on-board video and satellite tracking at every regatta to spice up media coverage. I'm not here to dismiss any of it, but I want to offer another tack: The cure by culture.

The International Lightning Class Association has been running the Lightning Boat Grant program for four years. Here's what they offer: A competitive Lightning, rigged and ready to roll, plus three sets of sails, a trailer and all the kit. Free. Oh, they also throw in a mentor and an expense account.

Are these people nuts? Au contraire. This could be a model for struggling classes that hope to improve their lot.

It's an exception

"It was a lousy business deal, but a great deal for the class and the sport," the Lightning's designer, Olin Stephens, once told me. The boat is exceptional because it's the only one of his designs for which his firm, Sparkman & Stephens, did not retain the rights. Spurred on by John and George Barnes, who owned the Skaneateles Boats Company in New York, Stephens drew a hard-chined, 19-foot, three-person dinghy in 1935.

The first hull was built and launched by the Barnes brothers in October 1938 and became an instant hit later that year at the New York Boat Show. Realizing the need for a strong organization, the brothers formed the Lightning Class Association, which owns the design and still gets a $100 royalty for every boat sold, plus royalties for masts and sails.

Today, the class has 2,000 members with fleets scattered throughout the United States, Europe, Africa and South America. But it also has three major funds to promote the Lightning, develop youth sailing and preserve the class legacy. One provision allows only the proceeds from investments to be spent, not principal. That sounds a bit boring because it's risk-averse, but it's kept a 75-year-old design alive and well. "The association was created in the face of World War II and wanted to ensure survival in tough times," says Jan Davis, the full-time ILCA secretary. "The idea still resonates with our members and many in the U.S. donate to the funds."

The boat grant program is financed through the ILCA Fund, which was established in 1982 and has grown to more than $200,000. Its sole purpose is to attract young racers to the Lightning. Now in its fourth year, that program attracted 17 applicants from the United States and Canada. "In the 1940s, almost all clubs had Lightnings, so we had a head start," says Bill Fastiggi, who owns the loft Vermont Sailing Partners and is co-chair of the boat grant program. "The parents may have used it on weekends while the kids sailed during the week."

That was a long time ago and the design looks dated by today's standards, but like the Olympic Star boat (launched in 1911), the Lightning has evolved and older boats can still be competitive. Still, the grant program hands out top-of-the-line equipment, not jalopies. "We feel it's important to give [grantees] a chance to be competitive and make their first experience with the class a positive one," explains Fastiggi.

That's so simple, it nearly hurts. Get them hooked with the good stuff.

It's a deal

Perhaps the best part of the boat grant program is the mentor, who is part of the package and provides assistance with technical issues for the newcomers. He also acts as a sounding board and a connector to the class and its people. But "a grand don't come for free," as the saying goes. Successful applicants have to hold up their end of the deal. "It's pretty intense," says Tyler Keyworth, from Barrington, R.I., a college sailor who graduated from St. Mary's in 2008.

As one of this year's three successful applicants, he and his crew will be guided by Steve Constants, one of the top Lightning sailors in the Mid-Atlantic region. "It took me nearly two months to write a proposal, update my sailing and my regular résumé, check my references and have my crew do the same. We had to show that we had a plan for a sustainable campaign. And the class followed up with an interview."

Fastiggi thinks this rigorous process and the grant rules teach important skills that can be applied beyond sailing. "They learn to organize a campaign. They need to keep track of their expenses and show records or they won't get reimbursed."

Keyworth's role model could have been Justin Coplan, one of the grantees in 2008 when the class celebrated its 70th anniversary. Coplan had previous Lightning exposure as a crewmember. "It's a great class with competitive racing where newcomers don't have to have trepidations," he says. After a successful season, he turned in his grant boat and decided he hadn't had enough. He joined Mike Carney, who had bought a 1986 Lightning for $2,000 and helped restore it. Then they qualified for the 2009 world championships in Malletts Bay, Vt., and even won a race.

It's a family affair

When Ed Adams, a longtime coach and top racer (1991 US Sailing Rolex Yachtsman of the Year) was looking for a new sailing challenge last winter, he chose the Lightning over more modern boats. "When it came to most fun for your buck, none came close to the Lightning," Adams wrote about joining the class. He got a used boat and dove right in.

Sailing with Neil Fowler and PJ Schaffer, Adams won the Southern Circuit, which consists of three regattas in Georgia and Florida within one week. "The family entourage that follows the fleet was surprising," he says, noting the age diversity of the sailors. "You have the kids crewing [and] 20-somethings with their first boat. The 30-to-40 crowd is 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." To Adams, Coplan, Keyworth and a couple of thousand others, the lure of modern designs that offer higher speeds and nimbler handling seems strangely irrelevant because they want more. "It's not just a class," Coplan says, "it's a culture." And that might just be one powerful cure for sailing's ills.


LOA: 19 feeT

BEAM: 6 feet, 6 inches

DRAFT: 4 feet, 11 inches

MAST: 26 feet, 2 inches

SAIL AREA (main and jib): 177 square feet

SAIL AREA (with spinnaker): 300 square feet.

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This article origanally appeared in the Home Waters Sections of the June 2010 issue.