By Guy Hoppen
Thunderbird #1, launched in November of 1958 and known as Number 1 or Thunderbird, and Thunderbird #2, named Pirouette and launched in August of 1959, will be moored together perhaps for the first time since the 1960s at the 2023 Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival!
The Thunderbird sailboat was inspired by a Douglas Fir Plywood Association design competition which specified that a plywood design “be both a racing and cruising sailboat, able to sleep four, be able to be built by a reasonably skilled amateur, be powered by an outboard auxiliary, and outperform other sailboats of its size.” Upon receiving the design specifications, Ben Seaborn reportedly dismissed them as unreasonable—temporarily, as it turned out.
Ben Seaborn met my father, Ed Hoppen, owner of Eddon Boat Co. in Gig Harbor, through the building of Seaborn-designed sailboat Nautilus IV in 1956. The Thunderbird collaboration between Ben and Ed began soon thereafter. I have vague memories of Seaborn and my Dad, drinking coffee and scribbling on napkins in our dining room.
Thunderbird development continued in that organic way, not quite trial and error—as Seaborn was a gifted designer and my dad a master boatbuilder—but close. For example, the construction plans were the last phase of development, drawn after Thunderbirds #2 and #3 were completed.
Number 1 is distinct from all subsequent Thunderbirds. After its completion, my father realized that the prototype was stronger than anticipated and could be lightened and simplified. He and Phil Manley, a longtime Eddon Boat Co. shipwright, removed the ‘T’ from the T-section longitudinal frames and made other construction detail alterations on the fly as numbers 2 and 3 were being built. The T-Bird plan set and all subsequent T-Birds were derived from those two boats.
Number 1 found her way home to Gig Harbor when the Anacortes owner called me and asked if I had an interest in buying the boat. The Thunderbirds were developed at my family’s boatyard, some of my fondest childhood memories were from cruising aboard Pirouette, the first boat I owned was a Thunderbird, and my first trip to Alaska was aboard a Thunderbird. Well… he’d found an easy target for the sale. However, adding 26’ of Thunderbird to 87’ of our fish-tender, Beryl E, proved to be too much wood boat maintenance. Wanting to have Number 1 stay in Gig Harbor for good, Ann and I decided to donate the historic boat to the Harbor History Museum.
Number 2, Pirouette, came back to the Harbor in 2009. The Pirouette was first owned by my family and next by the Gig Harbor family of longtime Race to Alaska Race Boss Daniel Evans. Looking for a first meaningful project for Gig Harbor BoatShop, board member Jaime Storkman located Pirouette in a Seattle driveway. He made the deal and brought her home to the Eddon Boatyard.
The two Gig Harbor not-for-profit organizations have prioritized the story of Thunderbird. Securing the two most important T-Bird artifacts that exist—Number 1 destined for permanent display at Harbor History Museum and Number 2 available for Gig Harbor BoatShop public programming—provides unique historic interpretive opportunities for Thunderbird lovers and the public.
Header photo is #1 on an early sea trial with Ed Hoppen at the helm. Photo by Ken Ollar, courtesy of Guy Hoppen.