Thunderbird250Nov22

Myth: Thunderbirds are wood. 

Reality: Thunderbirds are built in both wood and fibreglass. 

Myth: Plywood is a pain. 

Reality: Yes it is, but if you've got the time it's a great way to save money. 

More second hand Thunderbirds would probably be purchased if there were more used fibreglass Thunderbirds on the market. While the used plywood Thunderbirds out there represent incredible value in terms of boat-for-the-buck, dealing with the joys of wood are not for everyone. So we will take a three-step approach to analyzing the definitive affordable boat; we'll look at design considerations, wood boats and fibreglass boats. 

A design sponsored by the forestry industry.

The Thunderbird embodies family sailing. Its origins are in a competition sponsored by the Douglas Fir Plywood Manufacturer's Association in the late fifties, to design a quick, stable boat that could be built in plywood and would accommodate four. West coast marine architect Ben Seaborn came up with a design that met all the criteria. It sleeps four, especially if two are kids and all have modest expectations, can be built easily in plywood and delivers superb performance. In addition to all it's other attributes, the boat has a huge cockpit and when you come right down to it, that's where the majority of owners spend the majority of their time. The cockpit is significantly bigger than a CS 27's and somewhat bigger than a C&C 27, two benchmark vessels in this country. 

Let's talk about performance because it is here that the Thunderbird delivers the goods. My first exposure to the T-Bird was cruising - - I had a CS 22 at the time and saw that the Thunderbird, which was only a bit bigger at (25 ft) had "big boat" performance. My CS 22 was plenty seaworthy, but in waves it bobbed like a cork while T-Birds seemed to cut through the water. A T-Bird and a C&C 27 are similar in speed although as soon as there's any wave action the hard chine and large keel seem to give the "Bird" the ammunition to go quickly. Downwind, especially in real light stuff, it's spinnaker, hoisted from a point only 3/4 of the way up the spar, is no match for the competitors big masthead chutes. However, it's upwind performance in light air is quite respectable thanks to the height of the spar (P=31.0'). The tribute to the ingenuity of the now 30 year-old design comes on the race course where Thunderbirds regularly vanquish bigger and more modern designs. 

The design of the boat is unique -- that's a generous world for downright odd. The plywood build-ability necessitated hard chines. But the resultant flat bottom makes it scream on reaches and the chine itself seems to give it stability upwind. In winds up to 16 knots the heal angle tops out at 15 degrees. The fractional rig fell out of favour in the sixties and seventies but for sail handling convenience the T-Bird's 3/4 rig can't be beat. The genny is just a handkerchief of a sail, so all the adjustments for a heavy breeze can be made by playing with the main from the luxury of the cockpit. The spar is super-bendy (way ahead of its time for a 1958 design) so the huge mainsail can be de-powered easily. Originally the plans didn't include a traveller, but adding one allows you to keep the boat comfortably on its feet with full main and number one genoa in up to 18 knots of wind. 

Very few boats on the Great Lakes even have reef points on the main! Other great design features: the auxiliary power for the boat is an outboard carried in a tilt-up motor well. No ghastly appendage hanging off the back as is common on smaller sailing vessels. A high aspect balanced rudder, which was approved by the class to replace the original, provides effortless manoeuvring and makes the boat virtually un-broachable. 

The keelson-stepped spar weighs only 90 pounds and is easy to step. So let's talk used boats starting with the simpler alternative. Fibreglass versions of the original plywood design were approved by the class association around 1970 when Victoria builder John Booth started production in his garage. You can find Booth's boats, characterized by high fibreglass coamings, in the classified columns all across Canada. There have been other semi-professionals too: a builder named Lane in Seattle designed a boat with graceful wooden coamings which became the model of the eastern version of the boat. There are several Ontario builders including Rick Bott, a second generation T-Bird fanatic who started R. D. industries in Richmond Hill. Also available is Booth's"cruising deck" Thunderbird which adds a surprising amount of room down below by reducing the side decks and cockpit and lengthening the cabin. I haven't discussed the belowdecks layout because there is no real consistency. The class rules allow any interior configuration, and there are many variations from spartan to cut and cosy. To make this long story short, a sound fibreglass T-Bird is a major bargoon! If you can locate one, you can get a good fibreglass boat for well under $20,000 depending on age and condition. 

On to plywood - caveat carpenter. That said, this is the deal of the century. There are variations in quality of construction. Most were homebuilt although my first "bird" was the product of Richardson Boatworks in Meaford who built quite a few. I have even heard of boats which were professionally built in Japan. But there is no guarantee of anything; some boats are fibreglass covered over ply, some have more epoxy and filler in them than wood. 

Get advice before you part with a dime. Perhaps the biggest asset you get in a Thunderbird is the International Class Association. There are fleets on both sides of Canada and the U. S. and several fleets in Australia. The highest concentration by far is where the boat was first launched on the Victoria-Seattle corridor. There are perhaps 50 on Lake Ontario and a mushrooming fleet in Shediac that gets more television coverage than the America's Cup. 

Unlike other class boats, the fleet owns the design so the boat can never become obsolete because the builder disappears. Every year a few home builders register new ones and John Booth in Victoria and Rick Bott in Richmond Hill seem to launch one periodically. The ITCA has some unique rules that are designed to keep costs down for owners. 

Sails may be approved only every second year and grandfathering clauses are incorporated with any rule changes so that older boats stay competitive. The 1989 world champion was Neji, #271, built almost 30 years ago. The Northeast District champion, Looney Tunes #374 was built in '63. The boat I sail now is a 1987 Booth fibreglass. My previous Thunderbird was a Booth glass version and my first was a Dynel-covered marine ply dream. I wouldn't go away for the rest of my life on any one of the three, but for racing, day sailing, socializing or the occasional week of cruising there isn't a boat that comes close. 

Specifications

LOA           25 ft. 11 in. 

LWL             20 ft. 3 in. 

Beam             7 ft. 6 in. 

Displacement      4,000 lbs. 

Draft            4 ft. 9 in. 

Sail Area: Main   201 sq. ft.

Sail Area: Genoa 163 sq. ft. 

To see if this boat is available, go to http://www.boatcan.com for listings!

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By Joan Wenner, J.D.

Sailboat under cloudy sky by Bill Cox-Unsplash

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