Ben Seaborn designed the Thunderbird as a plywood kit boat in 1958. Since then, the hard-chined 26-footers have been emerging from boatyards and backyards throughout the Pacific Northwest and as far off as Australia. No two boats are alike, but they all sail about the same speed. When T-birds convene—as nine have here at the 2011 Sperry Top-Sider Seattle NOOD—the racing between the boats is as tight as the camaraderie between the folks who sail them.
Each Thunderbird is a little bit different. Some are wooden, some are fiberglass. Some boats have wood hulls and fiberglass decks. Mast and shroud placement vary from boat to boat. Some of the boats sailing here are more than 40 years old; Duane Emnot launched his plywood masterpiece Thunderbaby two years ago.
Thunderbird sailors are a dissimilar lot, too. There are veterans like Raptor‘s Ken Lane, who’s been racing T-birds for decades. (Lane’s daughter, Haley, recalls playing games down below while, on deck, her father raced the boat in 40-knot winds.) There’s young talent like the hard-partying twentysomethings—I’m talking to you, Tim Satre and Brad Sainsbury—racing Nick Wayand’s Zoe. And there are newcomers like Nutter Butter‘s Gordon Hofman, who has fallen in love with this quirky yet versatile kitboat.
“I needed a boat, and I saw [Nutter Butter] for sale,” says Hofman. “I barely knew how to drive, but I just got out on the water and figured it out. It’s a relatively easy boat to sail. I was a beginner and was able to step right on, but there are people who have been sailing these boats for 40 years and they still love ’em. They’re fast in light air, and stable in heavy air. They’re great for cruising, and they make for really close racing.”
Racing with Hofman this weekend is sailmaker Alex Semanis, who started his own loft, Ballard Sails, a year and a half ago. He built a new suit of sails for Nutter Butter and is tweaking the design this weekend. “You have to come down and measure each boat you do a sail for,” says Semanis. “The class has a max luff, max foot, and max leach, and you try to build the sail to those dimensions. But first you need to make sure the sail’s going to fit on the boat!
“It’s not like a J/24 or something, where all the boats were popped out of the same mold, and all the shrouds are in basically the same place,” continues Semanis. “Each Thunderbird might have different rake, different mast placement, different shroud tension. But they all kind of go the same speed, which is weird. You all have to figure out your own boat; it’s not like there’s a Thunderbird tuning guide that’s the be-all-end-all.”
After two days of racing, Nutter Butter sits in fifth place; Craig Burnell’s Predator leads the division.
_Stay tuned to SailingWorld.com for a video spotlight on the Thunderbird class; for complete coverage of the 2011 Sperry Top-Sider Seattle NOOD, click here.