A fun, competitive fleet duked it out on Port Townsend Bay for the Thunderbird West Coast Championships.

There is something about that sulfury aroma of kelp-infused varnish, teak, and weed that just says Port Townsend. And what sailboat but the Thunderbird appears in the mind’s eye when visualizing a pleasant reach along the Port Townsend waterfront? 

Labor Day Weekend brought out 12 of these iconic boats designed by the son of a Pacific Northwest shipwright, Ben Seaborn, for the Douglas Fir Plywood Manufacturing Company of Tacoma, Washington, back in 1958. Twelve plywood and fiberglass versions — some even with the “cruising” deck — competed Saturday and Sunday for the West Coast Championships of the Thunderbird International (yes, international) Class Association. 

We got a text about a week before the event from a friend who is a recent transplant from California to the PNW. Our friend, Victoria Fennell, had been offered a loaner boat and asked if my wife Jennifer and I wanted to join her for some one-design racing? Well, our first response was “we” are three, as our dog Dakota always races with us. To which she responded, “Let me check with the owner, Ken Lane. Do you know him?”

After a good belly laugh we responded yes, Ben has known Ken for something like 30 years at Port Madison Yacht Club and, more importantly, Ken knows Dakota! The sailing world is truly small, especially when you are talking about sailors that know what a T-bird is, let alone cut their teeth aboard them. I have so many memories of racing these great boats, rebuilding them in my dad’s shop, cruising them around Puget Sound. Truly it’s one of the most perfect designs for Pacific Northwest waters. No, they don’t plane. No, they’re not easy to get around on with their narrow side decks. But yes, they do make you smile ear to ear and oh my are there some great sailors on these boats!

I was expecting 5 or 6 boats and a drifter regatta. Maybe a bunch of good napping and some beers on the water. Man, I couldn’t have been more wrong! We arrived on the ferry from Whidbey Island early Saturday morning and had time for coffee and some jalapeno and cheese scones (amazing) before walking out the long linear dock at Boat Haven to find the boat. “It’ll be easy to find – it’s the blue one!” Yep, blue T-bird spotted, we walked past the transom and learned our loaner was Blew Bird — a totally appropriate name. 

Then we climbed aboard and discovered, YES, she’s fiberglass! You long tooth T-bird sailors out there know why I was excited — round corners! I was expecting an old woody with its hard edges everywhere and I couldn’t have been more delighted with what we found. Blew Bird had been built by Booth in Victoria, British Columbia, then sent to the East Coast and was brought back west eventually by Piper Dunlap and purchased by Ken Lane this past March. Ken did some rigging upgrades, but was distracted the weekend before the regatta with the purchase of Predator — a true race T-bird. And now I know why we got the loaner.

So, we had the sails that came with Predator, and Predator had a brand-new set of sails Ken had purchased for Blew Bird. Seemed fair to me, but nobody knew what the sails that came with Predator looked like. We went out early, there was actually a good 6-plus knots of wind and we tried out the main. It looked good. We put up the laminate genoa, pulled it in, and all three of us said “I hope there is something better.” Thankfully, the dacron genoa we put up next looked much better. We checked the leads, threw in a few tacks to weather to learn the choreography of the boat and pop the chute for a run back to the starting area. It was an amazing looking spinnaker – we were lucky. 

I’m used to having big windows in my genoa, and after this weekend I know how much I enjoy them. Our genoa had no windows so I set up out of the way of the fleet before the start and came into the boat at the last minute and wouldn’t you know it there was a boat right there near the committee boat in the exact spot where I wanted to be. I pushed around his transom with speed to his leeward side, yelled coming up to them, and then looked over and saw Ken Lane looking back at me. Oops! Sorry Ken… thanks for lending us the boat but, ehm… you are over early.

Jennifer winched hard on these big-to-us sails, and we are off to the weather mark. Man were we off the pace. I looked at the crew and said, “How do you sail these things?” We rounded deep in the pack, popped the chute on a jibe set and focused on tactics, wind, and current. We got back into things until we got to the next windward mark and did another perfect jibe set… except this time the chute went up and immediately came lightly down into the water — without the halyard.

We poled the jib out and had just enough of a lead on the next boat to finish inches in front of them to take sixth on our first race. While we patiently (ok, anxiously) sailed downwind wing-on-wing watching the spinnakers catch up, Victoria went to work trying to find a bosun’s chair. Finding none aboard, it was time to fabricate a harness out of the spare jib halyard. I can’t tell you how many laughs and bad comments we had during this process. Thankfully for Victoria we finished, sailed by Ken to ask where his bosun’s chair was, and he pulled one out of Predator and tossed it over.

Day saved, it was time to figure out how to make this hard-chined wonder go to weather. How we were doing it that first race wasn’t right, so I dug back in my memory and remembered all those panel sails we had back then and what they looked like. Matching my memory worked. We couldn’t point with the best of them, but we had speed. Now we were part of this regatta and could learn the other boats and how to sail against them.

Kuma San was our challenger in the second race. We simply couldn’t point with them, but we kept them in range for a second place finish. Right there on our heels was Raptor though, and by race three they were still there – these guys were fast! By races 4 and 5 Raptor was unstoppable, and we realized that we should be focusing on Corvo, Owl, and Predator instead. They sailed amazingly fast and gave us all a great show both days.

By Saturday’s end, we couldn’t believe our luck. To have great wind on a day that was forecast to be a drifter. To have this amazingly well set-up boat loaned to us. To be sailing in one of the most truly amazing venues our area has to offer. And to be tied for second place against what we learned all day were very well sailed boats. We couldn’t have been happier! At the same time, we realized that after five races on a new-to-us boat with our crew of three, we were worn out — and were all asleep by 9.

Sunday dawned with a little rain and the forecast 6 to 13 turned into a solid 15 to 20 out of the south. Coming over Marrowstone Island and across the sand spit, the beat to the weather mark was a tactician’s dream — if you happen to like reading each puff angle and current lane for an entire one-design beat, that is. We struggled a bit in the first race and were envious of the boats with four crew, not just for weight on the rail but for those extra hands. 

We were especially envious of those boats that remembered to rig their boats right that morning. Imagine this, sailing into the weather mark unsure if you are going to hoist the chute or not due to the strong winds and short downwind leg. Foredeck looks at you and asks, “What do you want me to do?” You respond, “Just pretend you are going to hoist, and we’ll go from there,” while thinking they will get everything ready but not hoist. We round the mark and look forward to see the foredeck truly “pretending” to set up the hoist. I thought the pole was stuck on its boom cradle. Nope, it was just in pretend position. Eventually, we did hoist the chute and discovered that we hadn’t run the sheets through the twingers. Wow, did that chute sky up high before the foredeck started hanging from the pole. “We have to jibe — think you can do that?” Victoria got it done, as she always does, but man was there some good comedy. First races of the day appear to be tough on us. 

With that out of the way, we got down to business and focused on sailing our own race as fast and smooth as we could. The small jib we had was almost new and the boat was going like crazy to weather. We weren’t as fast as Owl, Corvo, Predator, and Raptor, but we felt good with it and started to focus again on what we were doing well. Sailing in clean air and trying to read the water, we finished the day on a 2,1,3. Congratulations to Raptor on the win, and thank you Ken for loaning the boat! 

I can’t remember the last time I sailed such a competitive regatta against so many amazingly Corinthian sailors. I’ve sadly become used to saying the “P” word and putting up that red hanky before another boat acknowledges a foul and does turns. Not in the Thunderbird fleet. The sailors, men and women alike, are in it together and are enjoying these great old designs in the way they deserve — sailing them hard, giving them nicks and scratches, and creating those amazing memories people with a sailing lifestyle enjoy. Thunderbird sailing is not a sport, it’s a way of life.

See full results HERE