Soundings - - Contents - BY DEN­NIS CAPRIO

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: thun­der­bird­sail­

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.

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