August 17, 2011



You just never know where the next blog post is coming from.

After not finding much time for blogging or much of anything else in quite a while, I decided to get away for a day with my wife this past weekend, so we drove up to Lake Tahoe.

While sitting at one of our favorite lakeside restaurants, which overlooks a small marina, what shimmering vision should appear across the Lake, headed right for us, but the semi-mythical Thunderbird, a 55-foot mahogany speedboat that has been the queen of the lake since it was commissioned by an eccentric local gazillionaire in 1939. There may be bigger and faster boats on the lake today, and there are certainly more elegant or more graceful ones, but none comes even close to the downright badass chutzpah of Thunderbird.

Okay, this may be a sailing blog, but think of Thunderbird more as a cultural oddity than a big power boat. And cultural oddities are something I feel comfortable blogging about.

I had never seen Thunderbird up close, and for most of her seventy-something years, most common riff-raff like me haven't either, which has only added to her mystery and mystique. She has been until recently in private hands and very well sequestered.

To say that the peculiar recluse who had her built was wealthy would be like saying Larry Ellison is wealthy. Born into a family whose fortunes originated in the Gold Rush (which is about as far back as modern history goes hereabouts), George Whittell, Jr. at one point had the opportunity to purchase 40,000 acres of Tahoe lakefront property - including 27 miles of shoreline.

So he did.

Today, shoreline property at Lake Tahoe doesn't come available often and when it does, it might be a quarter or half-acre at a time. And the cost? Well, if you have to ask...

Which is to say that George Whittell lived in a different age. Like today, some of the absurdly wealthy liked to flaunt their riches, but in the 1930's it seems they were free to find more absurd ways to flaunt it. George, for example, liked to keep pets. But it just wouldn't do to have ordinary pets like we riff-raff.

George befriended the lion tamer of the Barnum and Bailey circus and went off to Africa to get some proper pets - you know, giraffes and elephants and lions and cheetahs - which he brought home to his modest country estate near San Francisco (the little 40,000 acre spot at Tahoe was just a summer place). George liked tooling around Tahoe in one of his Duesenbergs (he had six), with the top down and his pet lion perched with its front paws on the windshield. No, I swear, I'm not making this up.

So, what kind of perky little runabout would George order to get to his new place up at Tahoe? You can bet he wasn't picking something out of the Bayliner catalogue. Those who were merely wealthy at the time would have a custom boat builder like Gar Wood knock out a little 30-footer and be done with it. But not George.

Like his elephants and his lions and his Duesenbergs, George would need something designed to impress. He had arguably the most famous power boat racer and designer of the time, John L. Hacker, create something twice the size of a merely extravagant boat. It was powered by twin V-12 550 hp engines and capable of 60 miles per hour. (Big powerboats don't go knots, they go miles per hour.)

If you think the boat looks something like the art deco airplanes of the thirties, that's no coincidence. George also owned a DC-2 airliner - the equivalent of having your own 737 today - and asked that the boat's shape and finish resemble the plane. A 100-foot boat house was built on George's estate just for Thunderbird and a 600-foot tunnel blasted out of the rock to connect the boathouse with the main house so that George and his guests wouldn't be seen coming and going.

George must have soon tired of his plaything. When the boat was sold to casino magnate Bill Harrah years later, the engines had run only 83 hours. Harrah used the boat as his personal yacht for entertaining the glitterati and showbiz types like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr, who visited his casino, adding further to the legend of Thunderbird.

So here I was, suddenly, after years of reading and hearing about and catching occasional glimpses of her on the water, finally with a chance to see her up close. And what was my impression?

Well, she sure is impressive. I mean enormous, with acres of immaculately varnished mahogany brightwork and shiny, polished stainless steel and chromed metalwork everywhere. But, somehow, I felt like I was being played. This was a boat with very little purpose other than to impress - to make people take notice of its owner. Was it beautiful or elegant? Would it be as much fun to 'drive' as a nice sailboat? Would I want this thing if someone were to give it to me? I'm not so sure.

I was reminded of Maltese Falcon, the immense sailing machine built by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins. That boat was built mainly to be 'the largest privately-owned sailing yacht in the world'. Perkins and the Maltese Falcon project are described in a well-written book by Newsweek writer David Kaplan. Like George, Perkins must have soon lost interest in his giant playtoy after it was created and everyone had associated the boat with Perkins' name. He sold it three years later.

The title of Kaplan's book is Mine's Bigger.


What do you think? Is Thunderbird a work of nautical art? Or is it just a bit too much?



  1. That's definitely an allowable excursion into the mysterious world of motor boating!

    Shame he didn't built a yacht in the same style!!

  2. Nice boat... but no rope coils. I'll stick to classic sailing boats thanks very much.

    The lion bit reminded me of this story of the lion of King's Road, London

  3. Designed by Flash Gordon, flown by Philippe Starck? Never understood motorboats or their people.

  4. 5,4,3,2,1. Thunderbirds are go!

    Mr Whittell sounds like quite a modest gazillionaire. If I had that kind of money I would have built a fleet of Thunderbirds.

  5. I have a feeling Lady Penelope would like it - if it had Parker at the helm and machine guns hidden somewhere

  6. Interesting and nicely written. I would say you may have a future in journalism.

  7. Interesting and nicely photographed. I would say you may have a future in blogging about not sailing.

  8. Quite right, Bonnie, Thunderbird is something of a holy cow, locally.

    Baydog, I was hoping to have a past in journalism, as soon as I can work that out, but I guess there will always be opportunities to not blog about sailing.

    Speaking of Flash Gordon and Thunderbirds are go!, I think Thunderbird's styling reminds me a little of the rocket ship in this classic 50's US scifi tv clip from my youth. And check out the chart plotting at 2:29. They're using a French curve to plot a course line!

  9. Oops. Link to the scifi TV clip is here.

  10. Please for Christ sake help this poor boy from Haiti.

  11. Majid, I suspect that it is not at all for Christ's sake that you want people to help you.

    But if you're able to read and comment on so many blogs so quickly, you obviously don't need my help. In fact, I think I could use your help in learning how to do that. I would work on trying to vary your comment a little from one blog to another. Leaving the same message on everyone's blog gives people the impression that you're not actually reading their posts.

    I do realize that comments here occasionally drift off topic, but I notice you make no mention of Thunderbird. I'm curious what you think of her.

    Oh, I guess I could help you make letters slant here in the comments if you want. Let me know.

  12. I was wondering what he thought of Bella's sheepdog trial, too, but then I thought maybe he'd just heard that I like Spam.

  13. Please for Christ sake report this poor boy from Haiti (which he almost certainly is not) for violation of Google's terms of service.

  14. Other factoids to boggle the mind about Thunderbird: When Harrah owned her, he replaced the engines with Allison V-12 aircraft engines linked to PT Boat transmissions. Every year, she would be trucked down to his car museum in Reno where she would be stripped to bare wood using only what Harrah called "the educated thumb", no power sanders, and then revarnished with 14 coats. Every day during the summer, his crew would push shopping carts filled with Turkish towels out on the dock and they would wipe the entire boat down before the stainless house got too hot to touch. When I was given a ride on her by Harrah in the '70s, Bill Cosby had used her the previous day. Cool boat, even by sailing standards.

  15. Now, that's the thing about myths - they keep getting better with the retelling.

    I read the bit about the annual varnishing online somewhere - only what I read said it was a mere 10 fresh coats every year. I think if I retell this, I will up that to 14 coats.

    What I don't get is, if the varnish was well-maintained - as it apparently was - why should it be taken down to bare wood every year? But, then, I've never understood varnish or Varnish Masters.

    I'm a Cetol guy.

  16. Shazam that is a lot of boat!

  17. Poor boy from Haiti for Chris Christie sake8/20/11, 6:19 PM

    I heard it was 23 coats of varnish twice a year.

  18. Hokey smokes! Do We Have To Use The Wayback Machine Again, Mr. Peabody?

  19. We just may have found the original Wayback Machine, Sherman.

  20. By George! I hate to be the last to comment after everyone else has said it all. It can be so embarrassing.

    Thunderbird? Way too much. Someone with no ego is overcompensating.

  21. I don't think an underdeveloped ego was the problem, Panda. There's more on George here.

    I think this was someone who felt if more is good, way more is better.

    He had one of his Deusenbergs modified to look like Thunderbird. It apparently just came up for auction here.

  22. To answer your questions:
    - Was it beautiful or elegant? NO
    - Would it be as much fun to 'drive' as a nice sailboat? NO
    - Would I want this thing if someone were to give it to me? NO

    I like being the last one to write a comment hoping that no one will read it!!!

  23. I read every comment, Frankie, and try to reply to the ones that I understand.

    I like to think that this serves a public service of sorts.

    We all know the sort of person who leaves comments on sailing blogs - the troubled, distraught soul who is bubbling with restless energy within, but who has few constructive outlets for that energy. By engaging my fellow sailing blog commenters, who have probably been driven to reading sailing blogs through no fault of their own, I hope to redirect those energies and hopefully save some from almost certain lives of crime.

  24. Thunderbird is also a great wine - great for stripping the varnish off the decks.

    WV: pesse - what a wino has to do after drinking Thunderbird.

  25. Originally it may have been too over the top and gauche. But I think it has aged well; it has a patina of history, however odd, and has rubbed shoulders with people who are now but legend. So, it is a special old thing.

    So just how hard is it to have a former career in journalism? Some people find it quite easy.

  26. There's no denying the craftsmanship, Pat. I just think I would have liked it better if it had been about half that size.

    And I guess I would have been perfectly happy with just three Deusenbergs.

    The lion I could definitely have done without.