The Lightning remains a global phenomenon with over 15,000 built

The Lightning remains a global phenomenon 

Photo courtesy of Bill Clausen/Lightning Class

Who doesn’t love one-designs? Not only do these boats arguably represent competitive sailing in its purest form, they also represent sailing at its most democratic, allowing even those of modest means to compete at the sport’s highest level. Think the ubiquitous Sunfish or, say, the Thistle class, in which decades-old “woodies” still find their way to the podium on a regular basis.

Not only that, but because one-design classes live and die by the number of participants they can attract, and because many, if not most of these sailors are going to want to use their boats for more than just racing, the one-design concept has also produced some of the finest boats the world has known.

This, in turn, has created a kind of brand loyalty that is hard to match—much to the chagrin of naval architects and a boatbuilding industry forever trying to get sailors to switch to the next new thing. The hyper-competitive crucible of one-design development has, therefore, also become a driver for innovation, so that the evolution of one-designs has played a critical role in the evolution of sailboat design in general.

Today on a typical summer weekend, the entire history of modern naval architecture is in many ways on display in the form of hundreds, if not thousands of different races and regattas taking place featuring classes launched as recently as last year and long ago as the beginning of the last century. Full keels, overhangs, daggerboards, lead bulbs, J-foils, they’re all here to see in the various one-design classes that have evolved over the years and which can still be seen out on the water today. In what other field of human endeavor do such fossils remain so filled with life?

Old wooden Thistles remain as competitive as ever

Old wooden Thistles remain as competitive as ever

At the Creation

In fact, the twin themes of seamanship and democracy have been part and parcel of the one-design concept since its inception in the form of the Water Wag, a 13ft rowing and sailing boat created in Ireland in the late 1880s.

According to the class history: “The gentlemen of The Shankill Corinthian Sailing Club realized that there was potential to freeze yacht design, to a particular date, so that all the yachts in a race would be built to the same “model,” and that a race would be a test of skill. In order to test the theory, they decided initially to build boats to the smallest possible size, and if the idea worked that they would apply the same idea to larger yachts.”

Not a bad idea, as is evident in not only the plethora of boats designed along these same lines in the decades since but in the fact the Water Wag class itself has remained in existence to this day.

Soon afterward, a 41ft gaff-rigged cutter called the Solent One Design slid down the ways to compete on the storied waterway after which it was named. And while it was eventually edged out by the advent of Meter-class racing in 1907, two other classes—the X One Design (1909) and Solent SunBeam (1922)—quickly took its place on the waters surrounding the Isle of Wight. Not only that, but both of the latter classes, like the Water Wag, remain active to this day, with large fleets making their presence well known each year at the famed Cowes Race Week.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, it was at around this same time that two of the world’s other great sailing traditions were being established— the Star class, created in 1911, and the Beetle Cat, created in 1922—both boats that need no introduction even nearly a century later.

The Star, in particular, is interesting in that it also serves as a perfect case study for a one-design boat that has had to contend with the challenge of technological change, both in its rig and construction methods. Although created for a consortium of sailors on Long Island Sound (including over a dozen members of the American Yacht Club in Rye, New York) to serve as a dedicated club racer, and equipped with a narrow hull and bulbed keel, by the 1920s it was fast becoming evident that the original gaff rig would no longer do. In the ensuing years the boat, therefore, went through two different Bermuda rigs (becoming increasingly high-aspect in the process) as a reflection of the latest in aerodynamic design and understanding.

As for the rest of the boat, having been created at a time of much looser design tolerances than today, the hull has also evolved over the years, sparking not just debate but controversy. Back in the 1940s, for example, Skip Etchells began playing around with hull volume fore and after based on rules that, in the words of the class’s history, allowed up to 2in of play in things like “contour athwartships at each station.”

Then, of course, there was the matter of converting from wood to fiberglass construction in the mid-‘60s and the evolution from cotton to Dacron sails and from wood to aluminum spars—all set against a backdrop of Olympic-level competition from 1932 right up until 2012.

Nonetheless, the class’s international following is such that Star sailors continue to work out their differences. And while no longer an Olympic class, the Star Sailors League still attracts some of the finest sailors in the world. To date, more than 8,400 Stars have been built—no mean feat for a boat that in contrast to many one-designs is more of a pure racer, as opposed to a racer and daysailer.

Meanwhile, further inland, at the same time the Star was hitting its stride as an Olympic class, the S&S design firm was working with The Skaneateles Boats Company in upstate New York to create a boat that would strike a bit more of a balance—the 19ft Lighting, a hard-chine sloop that offered a combination of sparkling performance, plenty of room for passengers and an affordable price point.

Within months of the boat’s launch in 1938, the builder was being rewarded with numerous orders, and the class hasn’t looked back since. Although the Lightning has never been part of an Olympics, it has proved to be one of the most enduring designs of all time, with regattas around the world attracting large fleets and some of the biggest names in sailing. Untold thousands of boats have also provided just as much pleasure to their owners as simple daysailers. In all, more than 15,000 Lightings have been built over the decades.

Post-war Boom

If the one-design concept had been going strong prior to World War II, it literally exploded afterward thanks to a combination of the general economic prosperity of the era and the advent of cheaper boatbuilding through the use of fiberglass in hulls and aluminum in spars.

Dozens of different boats were designed, including such standouts as the Clark Mills-designed Optimist dinghy (created in 1947 to be built out of three sheets of plywood for the express purpose of getting kids into sailing as cheaply as possible); the Sandy Douglass-designed Thistle (1945: originally made of wood) and Flying Scot (1957: constructed from the beginning in fiberglass); Harry C. Melges Sr.’s C Scow of inland racing fame; Philip Rhodes’s Rhodes 19 (1948); Ian Proctor’s extraordinary 16ft Wayfarer dinghy, which in addition to having a devoted racing following, has also made a number of open-water voyages from Scotland to such places as Iceland and Norway; the O’Day Daysailer, created by Uffa Fox and George O’Day (1957); and of course, the immortal Sunfish, created in 1953 in response to the thought experiment “how do you put a sail on a surfboard?” as dreamed up by Alexander “Al” Bryan and Cortlandt “Cort” Heyniger.

In later years, as then radical fiberglass construction came to be more widely accepted, it was also used to build such one-design keelboats as the drop-dead gorgeous S&S-designed Shields, and the immortal and virtually indestructible Carl Alberg-design Ensign, which remains the largest class of full-keel sailboats to this day. Again, the hallmark of both these and plenty of others too numerous to mention (Snipes, Lido 14s, El Toros, the list goes on…) is that they serve their owners equally well wiling away a lazy summer day as they do mixing it up on the racecourse.

Of course, as is the case with the Star, there were also plenty of post-war one-designs that did their best to peg the fun meter at “11,” many of which have also done duty in the Olympics—including boats like the 20ft Flying Dutchman (1951), the 15ft 470 (1963), the 16ft Fireball (1962) and the 29ft Soling (1965).

It’s interesting to note that in the case of the smaller boats, trapezes and planing performance were now the norm, thanks to the latest thinking in design and the use of then-new lightweight materials. Similarly, by the time the Soling and its arch-rival, the 30ft Etchells (1966), were doing battle to see which boat would be featured in the 1972 Olympic Games, full keels were history for those in search of true performance, with separate keels and rudders the only way to go.

Three J/24s battle downwind

Three J/24s battle downwind

The Modern Era

Which brings us to the end of the 1960s, the time of SAIL magazine’s founding and, arguably, the beginning of sailing’s “modern” era—a time when the sport truly became a mass-market phenomenon. Not surprisingly, the rate of one-design development has proceeded apace. Not only that, but if there’s one thing that defines the time period in which we now find ourselves, it’s the combination of diversity and a drive to exploit the latest in sailboat design: which in turn has led to some pretty cutting-edge design, in the truest sense of the word.

Nonetheless, the basic impulses of the one-design concept—the democratization of the sport and sailability—remain as much a force as ever. Think of the iconic Hobie 16. On the one hand, it was about as unconventional a boat at the time of its debut in 1970 as could be imagined. But then again, what is the boat really, besides a fun-as-hell daysailer that can also be used for some fun-as-hell racing? Same thing with the equally iconic Laser, which burst upon the sailing scene in 1969.

Indeed, the one-design concept’s time-honored focus on all-around performance on good, solid design arguably played a key role in “saving sailing” from the vagaries of the IOR and the misshapen, hard-to-control “rule beaters” it spawned. The pioneers in the area included such classics as W.D. Schock Corp.’s Santana 20, which first set sail in 1976, the iconic J/24 that followed in its wake a year later and the 33ft-long, S&S-designed Tartan Ten, which splashed a year after that.

Not surprisingly all three classes continue to attract avid followers, years after many of their custom-built brethren—even those that won more than their share of accolades—have long since faded into obscurity. Not only that but coupled with the mass-production methods which by the time of their introduction had become commonplace, they sparked the creation of ever-larger new designs measuring 30ft, 40ft, 50ft and more.

Among the most obvious examples are the series of J/Boats designs that followed in the footsteps of the J/24, like the J/105, which is also noteworthy for having popularized the now almost ubiquitous use of asymmetrical spinnakers and bowsprits. However, dozens of other builders have gotten into the action as well, including the scow-builder Melges, which is now just well, if not even better known outside the Midwest, for such carbon-fiber speedsters as the Melges 24, its larger cousin, the Melges 32, and most recently a lean, mean all-carbon 40-footer.

Other standouts in this area include the Farr 40, introduced in 1996 and still attracting some of the hottest sailing talent in the world; the Farr-designed Beneteau 36.7 from 2000; the C&C 30 created by Mark Mills in 2014; and a series of ever-larger one-designs from Nautor’s Swan, including the Swan 45, ClubSwan 42 and the Juan Kouyoumidjian-designed ClubSwan 50, which has yet to even celebrate its first birthday.

Indeed, if there is anything truly new in the world of one-design sailing these days, it’s the way the concept has made its way into the upper echelons of sailing. Look no further than the Volvo Ocean Race, which in 2014 introduced the Volvo Ocean 65 after over four decades of exclusively featuring custom designs (and which is just now set to work on a pair of offshore foiling designs to be used in future runnings of the event).

Back in the glory days of, say, the SORC or the Admirals Cup, if you wanted to make a name for yourself in big-boat racing, the first thing you did was find yourself a designer to (hopefully) provide you with a nice, fast boat. But while there is still plenty of high-profile racing out there for one-offs—think the VendéeGlobe, the Transpac, the Rolex Sydney-to-Hobart and the ever-smoking TP52 circuit—it’s no longer absolutely mandatory.

Beyond that, with the advent of increasingly lightweight materials and the ability to use them to their best ability, the sky has literally been the limit in terms of both design and performance. Among the early standouts in this area was the 16ft 49er, an evolution of the famed 18ft skiffs that race on Sydney Harbor, created by Aussie designer Julian Bethwaite, complete with a sprit and wings. Another example of a successful planing skiff is the Brian Bennett-designed Viper 640.

Not surprisingly the multihull world has also created any number of outstanding, high-performance one-designs in the wake of the Olympic class Tornado, created in the late ‘60s, including the Olympic-class Morrelli & Melvin-designed Nacra 17, introduced in 2011. Not only that, but the Nacra 17 is one of a number of one-design classes that has since taken flight, due to a number of modifications that have been made to the boat in anticipation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Other full-foiling multihulls now slicing their way back and forth across the racecourses of the world include the Grand-Prix GC32 and the Phantom 18. Another especially fun foiling one-design catamaran is the Whisper, which in contrast to pretty much every other foiling cat out there, includes lifting foils with trim tabs, a la the Moth, to make for an especially stable and predictable ride.

Speaking of Moths: although they are all part of a development class and not a one-design, a one-design version of the boat, named the Waszp, now exists that, in the best tradition of one-design development, promises to bring the thrill of affordable monohull full-foiling competition within reach of the masses. Another contender in this area is the UFO Foiler, what is at least nominally a catamaran, recently introduced by the father-and-son team of Steve and Dave Clark at Fulcrum Speed Works. We say nominally because like an America’s Cup 50-footer, the primary job of the hulls is to simply get you out to where you can begin actually foiling, the boat’s true raison d’être.

A little bit strange? Sure! A little bit crazy? Maybe, but the boat is also clever as hell, and yet another example of the power of the one-design concept. Good luck to both it and all those other designers and builders looking to make a splash. We can hardly wait to see what you folks come up with next.

August 2017

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