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?