Fifty years ago in the fishing village of Gig Harbor, a 26 foot plywood boat was quietly launched at the Eddon boatyard. With little fanfare, Thunderbird slipped down the ways and into the history books as the first of her kind. Designed by Ben Seaborn and built by Ed Hoppen, the quirky looking craft quickly proved to be a winning boat in local races as well as a capable cruiser. Word of the affordable vessel spread fast, the $2.00 plans were snatched up and today there are thousands of T-birds stretching around the globe.
After five decades, that rich history sparked a blaze in early August when 50 T-birds and their proud owners gathered to celebrate the designís sailing success. Boats navigated south from Victoria, Vancouver, Everett and Seattle. They came north from Olympia and west from Tacoma. The Ballard Locks spit out a mouthful and two broke hull speed driving to the party on the freeways linking California and Colorado to the waters of Puget Sound. T-bird owners attended from Boston and Australia, though they had to leave their boats behind. The newest T-bird, Thunderbaby, pulled into town on a trailer for an early morning launch party at the Gig Harbor Marina.
Tied to the town docks, boats nestled together two and three deep. They were red, white, green and blue; one was painted space-age silver, several were varnished and a handful had multi-colored high-speed stripes. Above the docks on the lawn of Jerisich Park, sitting like a queen on a throne, sat the matriarch. Thunderbird (#1) was donated by Ed Hoppenís son, Guy and his wife, Ann, to Gig Harborís History Museum where sheís about to become the centerpiece of their new state of the art digs. Other Ed Hoppen celebrity boats in attendance were Sanguine, a 32í Plimsol, and the 42í variation of her, Diosa. Both boats look a heck of a lot like big T-birds.
T-birds, it seems, are not a here-today, gone tomorrow purchase; nobody buys one for itís re-sale value. People who own them appreciate their campy 60ís look, low cost and extreme versatility. Many boats in attendance were like family members and who would get rid of those?
Howie Slausenís #39, Tututsh has been in his family since it was launched in 1961. Handed down father to son, father to son, Howie hopes that one day his kids, too, will fill it with memories. "That old dinghy," he said, pointing to a beat-up wooden skiff tied behind Tututsh, "I learned to sail on that when I was four. This boat has a lot of original equipment on it, even the charts," he said chuckling. "We had to replace the transom and the hatch covers but not much else." Itís rough but well used condition speaks of the miles covered in family trips from Desolation Sound to South Sound.
Number 69, Two Knots, was built in the garage of a mortuary in Parkland. After years of use the family let her go when her builder, Trav Dryer became too old and everyone else was too busy. It tacked from one owner to another before coming back to the Dryer family in 1999. Travís son, Gerry and his wife Mary, spent two years giving the old girl a facelift before re-launching in 2001. Sheís once again an active member of Fleet #1.
Don Booth built hull #940, Frolic, in 1971 when his son, Neal, was twelve. It was a well loved and often used boat until it was sold in the late 80ís. Neal found the boat two years ago, reclaimed it for the family, and keeps it in front of his office on Lake Union.
Certainly the most prominent generational affair present came from the energy of the Emnott family and the 30-some friends they drug along. Their boat, Kahlua, #262, was built by Darrell and launched in '63. Son Dwayne explained, "I was in diapers when it was started." Behind him sat his newly finished Thunderbaby on a trailer, waiting for splashdown. "Back then they called the kids on the boats Thunder Babies. I was one of them." Heís been sailing Kahlua for years but his new boat, #1266, a varnished beauty, was built to race. When asked if heíd sell Kahlua he emphatically said, "NO. Itís a family heirloom. Iíll hand it down to my children."
The launching of #1266 got Saturday off to an early start. Several hundred people, many of them sporting blue "Thunderbaby" shirts, gathered around the blossom covered boat. Dwayne and his wife, Lisa, climbed a scaffold, to begin a string of champagne toasts. "First, to my wife," said Dwayne. "She was the biggest help with this whole thing. I donít think there are many women who would put up with that." He looked around the crowd and corrected himself, "But this fleet proves that there are a lot of women who would put up with that." He thanked his Dad, Mom, sisters, friends and everyone who helped the project along the way ending with Mark Hoffman, who delivered beer every week. "I learned it takes a lot of beer to build a boat!" After a splash of the bubbly on the bow, Thunderbaby was hoisted from the truck, slung through the air and dipped in the sea.
A morning of talking and gawking on the docks segued to the race course on Colvos Passage Saturday at noon for a light winded challenge. Thirty boats participated in two classes divided by flying sails. Gig Harborís mayor, Chuck Hunter, timidly raced his nameless, newly acquired #33 for the very first time. There were other racing newbies as well and plenty of experts whoíve participated in numerous Thunderbird International contests. Australiaís Paul Holton, in Gig Harbor to promote the '09 Worldís in Metung, sailed as crew on Cool Breeze to win, as did Seattleís Sandy Pratt on Falcon, Dale Dunning with Water Torture, a Weapon of Mass Destruction and Andy Scheen on Rev.
That night a well orchestrated banquet burst the seams of the GHYC. Owners, family, friends and crew had time to swap stories and meet new faces. Outside a makeshift cubicle was erected as the Oral History Booth where 17 year old Eric Lund collected well honed T-Bird stories as part of his senior project. The coveted awards, hand crafted wooden T-bird models were made by Ed Josberger, owner of #1020, Snowbird. With 18 models perched on the table behind him he told the crowd, "I didnít know who was going to win so I was busy spray painting boats different colors." Then he confessed, "Itís hard for me to give them away. I used to have races with them on the living room floor. There was always that wind shift by the bathroom door." Eight of his fleet went to honorary ITCA members and event organizers. The rest went to the top five winners in each class of the days race.
Mayor Chuck Hunter updated the crowd on the latest news about the Eddon Boat Shop that was saved by the townspeople in a referendum several years ago. With non-profit status, the newly named Gig Harbor Boat Shop will again build boats and hopefully, the first will be a Thunderbird. Before he left the podium he excitedly announced, "By the way, today on the racecourse, I was dead last in the first race and dead last in the second!" He was happy just to finish.
Special guest Mark Hoppen, oldest son of Ed, told one amusing story after another about living beside a working boatyard. Recalling the nine workers who helped shape his childhood he said, "My Dad was the only one who had all his fingers!" He and his mother, Marti, in the audience, shared early film footage that included the launching of T-birds #1, 2 and 3. Mark wrapped up the evening with, "The Thunderbird turned out to be more than they imagined. It was faster, more successful. It met their expectations but it was more. It was a family affair." It was and it is.
Saving the best for last, the organizing team got every boat off the dock Sunday morning for the Flight of the Flock. Instead of a tame sail-by of nearly 50 boats in crowded Gig Harbor, captains and crew participated in a Poker Run around five buoys scattered through the bay. The rules were simple: leave them to starboard; pick up a card at each of the first five buoys starting near the mouth of the harbor; after that, collect them anywhere you like. No starting guns, no horns, just go. Most sailed their boats with main only but a few card-sharks carried a jib. A few even popped a chute. Grabbing cards from extended boat hooks was bit of a trick compounded when two or more boats were in the same place at the same time. 'Room at the mark,í took on a new meaning. Anyone participating or observing in the happy anniversary could see that the boxy looking plywood boats had a long and colorful history. What they might not have noticed is the designís future; full of promise and possibilities. Those plans, a mere $50, are downright cheap. Tools, skill and a few thousand hours can produce a vessel just right for racing, cruising and a lifetime of family fun. Interested?
Check out the website of the International Thunderbird Class for information on activities and programs.
click any photo below to enlarge...
T-birds rafting up and swapping tales in Gig Harbor
The Thunderbird Oral History Booth allowed people to record their memories and experiences with their T-birds
"Thunderbird," hull #1, launched in 1958. Designed by Ben Seaborn and built by Ed Hoppen
"Thunderbaby," hull # 1266, launched August 2, 2008. Built by Dwayne Emnott
Prize drawing on the dock at Jerisich Park
Playing cards are handed out during Sundayís Poker Run
Mayor Chuck Hunter, behind sail, makes sure all is well with Police Chief before poker-run
Terry and Shar Raat brought "Orca," from Colorado Springs to participate in the 50th Anniversary celebration
Team "Fandango," carries on the Storkman family tradition of good 'ol #9