The Seattle Sailing Scene and Thunderbird Fleet Loses a Legend in Sandy Pratt

As the outbreak of COVID19 rages across our world, we are stunned by news reports of infection and death. The devastating statistics become personal when we hear that someone we know has died from this highly contagious and deadly virus.

Sandy accepting a trophy from Commodore John Rahn at the annual CYC awards ceremony for the Lake Long Distance Trophy.

Legendary Thunderbird sailor Sanders (Sandy) Pratt succumbed to COVID-19 on March 26th. His longtime crewmember Laura Wagner broke the news to the fleet:

“Prior to this, Sandy had been doing great, healthy mentally and physically like he always was! The whole crew—Brian Flaherty, me, Dennis Counts and his wife Phyllis, and our son Kallen—saw Sandy for dinner at his new retirement condo in Issaquah last fall. We met his wonderful partner, Marta, who he met after his wife Letha passed away in 2016. Sandy seemed well and very happy in his new home. He will be missed by so many people.”

He is survived by two children and four grandchildren. Sandy’s daughter, Barbara, said that he was admitted to the hospital on Sunday, March 22 for the Coronavirus. The cruelest part of COVID-19 is that such a well-loved and respected man was forced to spend his last moments in isolation.

We take comfort in knowing that Sandy lived a long and happy life. This strapping man, who was 92-years-old when he died, remained a fierce competitor on the race course to the age of 90. He was a stalwart racer, aggressively maneuvering for room on the starting line. He’d been a member of Corinthian Yacht Club Seattle since 1957 and rarely skipped a race.

A “spontaneous” Sandy Pratt Party ‘just for fun’ at CYC’s Leschi Clubhouse, photo from Dale Dunning (Note the prevalence of Sandy’s signature Oxford shirt).

A Personal Bond

My husband Garth Wilcox and I first met Sandy back in 1991 when we bought our Thunderbird, Atomic Salsa (#1172), and joined the fleet. Since then we’ve raced against him and crewed for him. He was always a tough competitor, jovial on the dock, but all business on the race course. After dispatching his competition, he was always eager to chat with beer in hand about the race. We could spend hours analyzing the race: tactics, strategy, boat speed, and sail shape. He subscribed to lifelong learning and always sought to find ways to get more drive out of his boat. It was no surprise for us to learn that before retiring he’d been a Boeing engineer. His engineer mind was ever tweaking his sails and messing with foil shape in pursuit of another knot of speed.

Sandy was approaching his 8th decade when Garth and I sold Atomic Salsa, bought our cruising boat, Velella, and left for our voyage around the Pacific. Seven years later when we returned, he was still hotly racing his T-bird Falcon. We rejoined the fleet, racing on Kuma (#1248) with Stuart Burnell in preparation for the International Championships at Whidbey Island Race Week. Sandy was still just as tough to beat then as he ever was.

Sandy raced into his 90s, only stopping in 2017 because two of his regular crew had a baby and replacing half his crew proved frustrating. Laura Wagner raced with Dennis Counts and Sandy for 10 years. She and her husband Brian Flaherty met aboard Sandy’s boat. She said,

“I always thought Sandy would retire before us. But instead, we did!”

Sandy’s love of sailing started around the age of 7. He represented the UW Husky Sailing Club in 1949 at the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Sailing Regatta at Berkeley, California in International 14s after he excelled in the qualifier races. In his 20s, Sandy raced a star boat called My Sin, appropriately named for his passion. After his wife Letha told him his Star wasn’t a good family boat, he chose a more family-friendly one-design that he deemed race worthy—the Thunderbird.

Sandy’s Venerable Thunderbirds

The Thunderbird was designed by Ben Seaborn to help the American Plywood Association sell plywood to the backyard boat builder. Sandy finished wooden Thunderbird hull #711 from a bare hull in 1967 and named it LeBar. He won the Thunderbird International Championship in 1975, besting 75 boats in an intense competition. His hard-earned gold bird proudly adorned his mainsail ever afterward, marking LeBar and his next boat, a fiberglass T-bird he named Falcon (#1177), as a key boat to beat. Fleet member Roger Schip noted,

“Watching him move through the T-bird fleet was like watching a Chess Master.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, Sandy was always focused on the competition at hand, eking out every knot of speed he could.

Racing Falcon, Photo from Laura Wagner (racing from left to right: Brian Flaherty, Laura Wagner, Dennis Counts and skipper Sandy Pratt)

At Boeing, Sandy had overseen the manufacture of Boeing 747 wings, fashioning new techniques and tools to overcome challenges in the early years of building this iconic aircraft. He used his engineer’s curiosity and quest for knowledge, constantly probing others to gain new insights and find ways to make his boat go faster. He was especially good at ghosting along in light air and has schooled many sailors in this fashion over the years.

A Tribute From Friends

Sandy was a mentor and friend to so many over the decades and a stalwart on the race course. News of his passing prompted an outpouring of heartwarming messages and fond memories.

Laura, who I also raced with aboard Stuart Burnell’s J-109, Tantivy, reminisced about sailing with Sandy:

“Sandy barked at me a lot that first summer and after a week in Victoria for Internationals I thought for sure I’d quit at the end of the season. But, I loved Dennis and our crew Anthony Colfelt at the time and Sandy was so wonderful off the boat. He was all smiles, stories, and laughs. And he often apologized for yelling at me or at least cheered up 100-percent once the race was over. I stayed on all summer as the pit person and by the second season we had found our groove and the barking stopped.”

Sandy liked to win and cursed costly blunders. Crewmember Anthony Colfelt concurred,

“There are many funny stories of crew members being sent downstairs to hug the mast on the floor to get the boat balanced just right, especially in light winds. But we generally enjoyed his intensity and competitive spirit.”

Many joked about the brief explosions of fiery expletives he would bellow when everything went sideways, especially when he was training new crew. Tim Satre shared how Sandy barked at him for talking too much during a race,

“I don’t need the news, Walter Cronkite!”

Yet his crews were quite loyal. Dennis Counts raced with him for more than thirty years.

Most everyone remembers Sandy’s jovial personality and hearty laugh and his willingness to teach. He was the kind of skipper who always shared his knowledge and conclusions for achieving the best performance. Longtime fleet member Kemp Jones said,

“Sandy taught me a lot about making a T-bird go fast when I was struggling to learn at the back of the fleet. He was an incredible gentleman, Jedi, and hero to me.”

Adam Southerland concurred,

“An amazing man, I will never forget the talks after Wednesday races down at Leschi; he kept us motivated and excited even after beating us.”

Anthony Colfelt echoed the sentiment of many when he remarked,

“Sandy was thoroughly decent. He looked out for people and offered his knowledge and assistance to all, generally lifting the caliber of the fleet.”

Dan Carey remembered,

“Sandy was a great sailor and a fine gentleman. He was fun to be around and to talk with, and always seemed to be smiling and having a good time. It was always nice to gather with him after sailing and discuss the race and other finer points of sailing and boat trim.”

Ballard Sails sailmaker Alex Simanis said,

“Sandy was a legend. I doubt anyone knew T-birds better than him. Sail on Sandy.”

Longtime fleet member Ken Lane said,

“The T-bird flock has lost a loved member.”

Beyond that, as Pam Schwartz summed up what many expressed,

“He was an inspiration to us all.”

Saying Goodbye to a Legend

A few years ago, Sandy brought my husband Garth and me the bandsaw he and many others used during the heyday of building Thunderbirds in the 60s and 70s. It has been used extensively since then and we have made great progress, but are sorry Sandy will never see our finished boat. We have so many fond memories of him, especially jamming to Bob Marley while working side-by-side on our boats in the boatyard.

An official public memorial for Sandy Pratt has not yet been put together since gatherings aren’t sanctioned due to the risk of the Coronavirus. Sandy was a great fighter and, in the end, it took a global pandemic to bring him down. In his memory, among other things, let’s strive to minimize the number who join him. Stay safe everyone.