Inside the Class: Lightning

On the morning of the final race, we sat down with a Lightning class legend and the fleet's next generation to see what they could learn from each other.

The master, Ched Proctor, and the kid, 24-year-old skipper Mike Zonnenberg, have never stood shoulder to shoulder alongside the boat that connects through generations past. Proctor might’ve raced against Zonnenberg’s grandfather at some point in his rise to Lightning class greatness. Although, he can’t be so sure.

So many years. So many races. So many faces. “Was he fast? I think so,” says Proctor. “I can’t remember, but I did sell some sails to him.”

But here they stand together at the St. Petersburg YC Sailing Center on the morning of the final day of the 2017 Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta in St. Petersburg. Proctor’s got at least four decades of Lightning sailing experience on him, but it’s Zonnenberg’s team that’s leading the class after two days and three light-air races. Proctor is lurking 5 points behind him on the scoreboard, and while praises the speed and smarts of Zonnenberg and his crew, in true Proctor fashion, he nonplussed of the day’s challenge ahead. He just has to win the race, and put a pile boats between him and kid.

He’s been there, done that.

The one thing Zonnenberg has never done, however, is pick the brain of the elder Proctor. So on this morning, while the race committee hoisted its postponement flag, he got his chance. And what was the first question he asked?

“So Ched…what lights your fire to go sailing after all these years?

“It’s the constant fascination of what little things make a sailboat go a little faster,” he says after a brief contemplation, “it’s a zone type thing . . . it’ a continuous fascination.”

Proctor’s been racing Lightnings since 1984, although he did some crewing in them back in the 70s, and his enduring attraction to the class is simple, he explains to Zonnenberg. “There are a lot of them, they’re essentially the same, and it is always good competition. It’s a nice simple boat, logistically. You show up at a regatta and be ready to sail in an hour. It’s also intellectually challenging. There’s a lot of tweaking and steering technique.”

When pressed to give St. Petersburg local his best advice, he only offers, “I don’t need to give him any speed tips, he’s been showing us a lesson in being in the right place at the right time.”

NOOD
It's all about heel, says Ched Proctor, especially when it's light like it was for the final race of Lightning class at the Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta in St. Petersburg.Paul Todd/Outside Images

Zonnenberg is a case in point for the Lightning class’s continued efforts to get younger sailors into the boats, and for this reason, says Proctor, the class continues to appeal to new and returning Lightning sailors like Zonnenberg. “It’s a good design and works well in a variety of conditions —you can sail it in thin water and open oceans. When its blowing hard and when it’s tuned right it feels very fast upwind because of you have such control of the rig. The design hasn’t changed, but it has evolved to be a user friendly boat that can be easily tuned to any conditions.” When the Zonnenberg finally asks the thousand-dollar question of how best to sail the boat, Proctor is quick to answer: it’s all about heel angle.

“Because it’s a hard-chined boat,” he says, “if you change the heel angle a little bit, the shape of the boat that the water sees changes dramatically. That was the light that went off to me along time ago. I learned this from Bruce Goldsmith and I asked him questions all the time. And he explained to me that we can change the sail shapes and trim the sails, but all you really need to do is just change the heel of the boat. To me, that’s the most important thing. You have to be very aware in light conditions, it’s changing all the time.”

Taking his own advice to the racecourse today for the one and final race of the excruciatingly light winds on Tampa Bay, Proctor led at the first mark, but gave up his lead on the first run to another Lightning legacy skipper Steve Hayden on the first run. Hunting them down was Zonnenberg, who rounding the second weather mark inches behind Proctor. They battled to to the end, with Proctor nipping him at the finish.

Hayden won the race, and the ultimately the class and the regatta, but it was Zonnenberg who just barely beat the master at this own game. Until next time.