A beloved, 60-year-old design, the simple Thunderbird is more than a sailboat — it’s a way of life.
“More than just a sailboat … a way of life.” That’s the motto of the International Thunderbird Class Association. In June, the 26-foot Thunderbird celebrates its 60th birthday, and if the 1,200 or so owners have any say in the matter, the class could prosper for another 60.
You won’t offend any Thunderbirders by asking why. By 21st century standards of aesthetics and naval architecture, the Thunderbird is pure funk. She may be the most unlikely candidate for classic-yacht stardom. Her deckhouse — formed of flat sides, a split windshield and simple, rectangular side windows — could have been pirated from a 1950s Huckins or Chris-Craft sedan. Her topsides are nearly perpendicular and intersect the V-shaped bottom in a hard chine. This chine ascends toward the stem head, accentuating the T-bird’s spoon bow. In drawings, her sheer seems straight, but on the water, it appears to frown slightly. Her reverse transom caps a handsome counterstern.
Even devoted owners admit to the boat’s “unusual” appearance, but they accept that the looks they don’t love are responsible for the design’s most endearing characteristics: speed, handling, simplicity and modest construction cost. In 1958, Tom Sias, an enthusiastic sailor from Tacoma, Washington, employed by the Douglas Fir Plywood Association, urged the group to stage a competition for designers to draw a wholesome boat that could be built at home. He reckoned the contest would be a good way to promote Douglas fir marine plywood.
According to the T- bird class association, the brief called for a “racing and cruising boat … to sleep four … be capable of being built by reasonably skilled amateurs … be powered by an outboard auxiliary … and outperform other sailboats.” Sias sent this brief to a handful of naval architects around the country, but only one, Ben Seaborn, accepted the challenge.
A native of the Pacific Northwest and son of a shipwright and boatyard foreman, Seaborn designed his first yacht, the 54- foot Circe, when he was 18. LOA: 25 feet, 11 inches LWL: 20 feet, 3 inches BEAM: 7 feet, 8 inches DISPLACEMENT: 3,850 pounds BALLAST: 1,534 pounds DRAFT: 5 feet SAIL AREA: 308 square feet (100 percent fore triangle), 163 square feet (genoa) CLASS ASSOCIATION: thunderbirdsailing.org
She won the 1934 Swiftsure Race and put Seaborn on the nautical watch list.
Steve Bunnell, in an article titled “The Thunderbird” for WoodenBoat magazine issue 149, quotes Seaborn defending his design choices: “In view of our experience with this boat, I feel that the poor performance of most hard-chine boats in the past must be due to factors other than this specific characteristic. I’m now fully convinced that she has proven the hard-chine hull to be at least as good, and possibly superior, to the round-bottom hull in competition. As the boat heels down on her sailing lines, more wetted surface emerges from the water than topsides descend into the water. At the same time, the long, gently curving, otherwise flat planes of the topsides produce a greater area of lateral resistance. By accounting for this in the design, it is possible to reduce the wetted surface in the keel by an estimated 15 percent.”
A surprisingly small number of the boats were professionally built of plywood; 14 examples are by Ed Hoppen’s Eddon Boat Company in Gig Harbor, Washington. The design transitioned to fiberglass when John Booth of Victoria, British Columbia, built the first glass Thunderbird in 1971. Two other builders, Tom Lane of Tacoma and Harry “Tanker” Jones of Whitby, Ontario, also built fiberglass T-birds in the 1970s.
Despite this trend, we may safely assume that amateurs built most Thunderbirds of plywood. And although the class races as a one design, the rules don’t apply to the interior or to boats that don’t race.
From the association’s official history: “Tom Wile (No. 10 Vivachee, undergoing restoration) initiated development of the one-design principles that are the foundation of the class. Wile had researched other one-design sailboat classes and had picked those rules and regulations he thought might be of value to the Thunderbird Class. With the looming possibility of boats being built in different ways, Wile saw the potential for differences in the boats that might affect sailing performance. Wile reasoned that, ‘It seemed time to form a fleet to protect against this … a fleet that would give us a chance to show if you were a good sailor, not that you had a big pocketbook.’ ”
The association’s “Black Book” defines the type and size of the rig and the primary dimensions and displacement. It also lists all of the modifications made over the years to keep the design up to date and competitive in handicap racing. About 25,000 sets of plans have been sold — in the beginning at $2 a set, now at $60. The International Thunderbird Class Association owns the design. Hull No. 1 resides at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor ( harborhistorymuseum. org). The Thunderbird logo, designed by Walt Hanson of Tacoma, celebrates the Pacific Northwest origin of the boat.
Ease of construction, a reasonable price, vice-free performance and a loveable funkiness promise to keep the Thunderbird’s flame burning for a very long time.
The Thunderbird is a 26-foot hardchine design.