Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tahoe's grand dame: "Thunderbird"

Lake Tahoe’s brilliant waters call many to her from the casual beachgoers to kayakers and standup paddleboarders, from fishers to sailors and boaters. None are more spectacular, however, that the beautifully and lovingly preserved wooden boats that populate her waters in the summer.

Who hasn’t stopped what they’re doing and marveled at these wooden beauties when they pass by, filled with passengers donning large grins (and often chilled cocktails) and captained by proud owners in straw hats or yacht caps. No boat garners so much attention, however, as the “Thunderbird” yacht, the magnificent boat commissioned by the eccentric George Whittell Jr.

While not the largest wooden boat on the Lake (that honor belongs to the “Safari Rose;” see story in this edition), it is the most magnificent. Whittell commissioned the 55’ Hacker Craft in 1939 specifically for his East Shore estate and requested that the hull and cockpit resemble the fuselage of his DC-2 aircraft, also named “Thunderbird.” He also had twin, V-12, 550 hp Kermath engines installed on her. The engines were later replaced with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines, each with 1,100 hp, by casino magnate Bill Harrah, when he purchased the boat from Whittell.

If you’re ever out on the Lake when “Thunderbird” is under way, you’ll likely hear her before she comes into view. The roaring aircraft engines have you instinctively look to the sky before checking the water. The engines are deafening, however, when “Thunderbird” first starts up inside her boathouse.

I recently enjoyed my second ride on “Thunderbird” as she made her way to Carnelian Bay for the annual Concours d’Elegance. It was a beautiful brisk morning with blue skies and calm waters as I drove down the East Shore to the Thunderbird Lodge. Finally, summer had arrived.

I talked with some of the other guests before we boarded the “Thunderbird” for our morning commute to Sierra Boat Company. While the sound was deafening inside the boathouse, the small group was all smiles aboard the magnificent beauty. The mahogany and stainless steel shimmered in the morning sun as we emerged from the boathouse.

While a chase boat captured photographs and video footage of “Thunderbird” in front of the lodge, we waved to the visitors at the lodge, while the crew served drinks from the bar. Everything aboard “Thunderbird” is a study in elegance. Instrument panels shine in the twin pilot houses – one in the rear for guiding her in and out of dock, and one in the front for when she is under way. Mahogany glimmers from the bottom to the top of the boat. There are two leather half-circle couches in the salon with ample room for at least 10 people. The Yacht Ensign flies from the stern, with the California and Nevada flags flanking the “Thunderbird” flag flying above the pilot house in the back.

On the open deck, chairs and benches are set out to take in the full majesty of “Thunderbird.”

Don Mechals and his wife from South Lake Tahoe were among the passengers on board. Don crafted two new tables that double as benches for “Thunderbird.” The teak tables with intricate grate-pattern tops were based on an existing table on the yacht.

Also on board were Greg and Cinda Rice from Michigan. Greg has spent the last two years working on a radio-controlled model of “Thunderbird.” While he’s made use of the Lodge’s archives to research the model, it was his first time to see her in person. Now that he’s seen “Thunderbird” up close, Greg’s says he’ll have to redo some things on his model and anticipates another one to two years of work.

“Thunderbird” is crewed by Capt. Dave Marion and First Mate Mark Taylor , and she is licensed to carry up to 20 passengers.

Her future on Tahoe is not secured, however, explained Bill Watson, manager and curator of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. With operating costs of $200,000 to $300,000 annually (about $5,000 for an hour), an endowment of $1 to $1.5 million is needed in the next 18 months to ensure “Thunderbird” stays on Lake Tahoe, he said.

“This is America’s most valuable wooden express commuter boat,” Bill says. But, the high cost of maintaining and operating “Thunderbird” at Lake Tahoe puts a drain on the resources of the Lodge.

“It’s going to take the community to keep her here,” he says.

“Thunderbird” is currently owned by the nonprofit Foundation 36, which is dedicated to preserving Nevada’s historic, cultural and natural treasures. The Foundation hopes to transfer ownership to the Preservation Society once an endowment is established to secure the yacht’s future.

Appraised at $5 million, Bill says he regularly receives offers to buy the yacht, but that the Foundation is dedicated to keeping “Thunderbird” on Lake Tahoe. Community support, and, most importantly, donations, are needed to make that a reality, Bill says. The Foundation relies on a few large donations each year to maintain “Thunderbird,” but more is needed.

“The endowment will ensure ‘Thunderbird’ stays at the Lodge, and the Lodge needs to stay open to the public,” Bill says. “Tahoe’s history is rich, but there isn’t much of it left.”

So, get out your checkbooks to help save this grand dame of Lake Tahoe.

“Thunderbird” celebrates her 70th birthday on July 30 and 31 at the South Tahoe Wooden Boat Classic at Tahoe Keys Marina, complete with birthday cake. For details on the show, visit www.acbs-tahoe.org.

“Thunderbird” is available for public viewing in her boathouse at Thunderbird Lodge, which is open for tours from Tuesday to Saturday through mid-October. You can see a video of “Thunderbird” on the Web site at www.thunderbirdlodge.org under History.