Historic Tahoe yacht finds berth in familiar place
Sun News Service
The legendary Thunderbird has found a new permanent home ” right where Captain George Whittell housed the new boat in 1940.
Incline Village resident Joan Gibb, owner of the 55-foot mahogany craft that has graced more magazine covers and boat collectors’ wish lists than any other fresh-water woodie, has donated the boat to the Reno-based Foundation 36 ” ensuring its permanent home at Lake Tahoe’s Thunderbird Lodge.
The nonprofit Foundation 36 was incorporated last year by Executive Director Bill Watson of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. Since then, Foundation 36 has donated more than $130,000 to preservation projects across the state.
Watson described last week’s gift of the Thunderbird as “the first acquisition of a landmark we’ll hold in trust.”
Though he would not disclose the cost required to bring the boat back to its East Shore home, Watson said Gibbs’ gifts to the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, including the yacht, have totaled more than $3 million over the last 20 years.
“Let’s just say the transaction was significant,” Watson said.
Amateur Tahoe historians, boating enthusiasts and wedding planners alike may be disappointed to learn that the Thunderbird will be at least temporarily unavailable for public use.
“For those who’ve done so previously, we do not plan to charter the boat at an hourly rate,” Watson said. “If someone wants to contribute something in excess of $10,000 to the lodge and the preservation of the boat ” I’m sure we’d be willing to accommodate them. Right now, its preservation is paramount.”
George Whittell, the San Francisco banker who built the Thunderbird Lodge, commissioned Michigan-based Huskin Boatworks to build the motorboat in 1939. Naval architect John Hacker designed the speedboat.
In 1963, casino owner Bill Harrah purchased the boat and made some major modifications, adding a steel-top cockpit and boosting the power with the addition of two 1,000-horsepower Allison aircraft engines.
“Legend has it that Harrah came over to the Thunderbird to look at Whittell’s Duesenberg car collection and purchase one,” said Thunderbird Capt. John Baird, who has maintained and driven the boat for 21 years. “Harrah drove his boat over because he was going to give Whittell a ride on the lake to butter him up.
“Whittell said ‘I’ve got a damn boat,’ and showed him the Thunderbird. … At that point Harrah said, ‘Forget the cars…'”
The boat changed hands once in an estate sale after Harrah’s death, before the Gibbs family acquired it 26 years ago. For the last seven years, the boat has been stored in the summer months at the Thunderbird Lodge and in Carson City during the winter.
“It’s a process getting the boat in the water,” Baird said of the 55-foot craft. “We’ve got a big trailer and we lower it in at the Tahoe Keys Marina, where it usually takes about three days for the planks to expand. Then we drive it on over.”
Last summer the Thunderbird was not taken out of the water, but Baird and a one-man crew plan to take it out next week for the first time since October.
“We’ll see how it runs,” he said.
Hannah Zive, member relations and marketing coordinator for the Thunderbird Lodge, said locals and visitors can get a look at the yacht this summer.
“Once a month our Winemaker’s Dinner Series features a winery and a local chef, plus a tour of the grounds which includes the boathouse,” Zive said.
That visitors can see the yacht in its original home holds “great significance for Tahoe,” Watson said.
“Nevada history is rich but shallow; there’s not a lot of it,” he said. “And to be able to preserve such a rich part of Nevada’s history is such an honor for Mrs. Gibbs and Foundation 36.”
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