The future of Tahoe’s famed Thunderbird is up in the air

Thunderbird yacht
Crew members tie the iconic wooden boat to a dock at the Thunderbird Lodge at Lake Tahoe.
(Jay Jones)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Its deep-throated engines temporarily squelched, the Thunderbird idles in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Tahoe, a few hundred yards offshore from Crystal Bay, Nev.

A rubber dinghy sidles up to the elegant 55-foot speedboat. Terry Clapham, one of the inventors of laser vision surgery and an avid boater, climbs aboard the much bigger yacht.

As he greets fellow passengers on the aft deck and settles into a chair, Clapham is served champagne in a flute adorned with the Native American thunderbird symbol, the speedboat’s logo and that of the secluded lakeside lodge of the same name. Both were built by George Whittell, an eccentric property developer, and both are inextricably linked to the lake.

Driving south along the Nevada shoreline from Incline Village, you can easily miss the turn-in for the Thunderbird Lodge. It’s set back from the highway, and a gatehouse is made of the same locally quarried stone used to build the seven other structures nestled deep among the tall pines overlooking the lake. Visitors can tour the period-furnished buildings and walk to the boathouse — the luxury boat’s home — through a 600-foot tunnel carved into the granite cliff.

When construction of the lodge, originally planned as a casino-resort, began in 1936, Whittell owned 40,000 acres along 26 miles of Nevada shoreline. He was fascinated with modern forms of transportation — he owned a DC-2 airplane and several Duesenberg automobiles — so it was logical that Tahoe’s newest big shot would need a boat befitting his style.

“It’s a unique slice of Tahoe history,” lodge manager Bill Watson says of the yacht, launched 70 years ago last July. “The Thunderbird is a thread in the fabric of the history of Lake Tahoe … an intersection of the history of lumbering, mining, the rusticators [and] early tourism — the gilded age.

“The boat has hosted kings and queens, presidents and heads of state, and celebrities of all shapes, sizes and colors.”

The Thunderbird is built of Honduran mahogany and stainless steel and lavishly appointed. It has its own star power: It’s where Tony Bennett met his second wife, and Sammy Davis Jr. frolicked on deck with his kids. And fellow Rat Packer Frank Sinatra — who had owned a lakeside hotel-casino until losing his gaming license — was wooed back to Tahoe in negotiations held onboard.

The boat’s then-owner, casino king Bill Harrah, presided over the talks that sealed the Chairman of the Board’s performance at Harrah’s South Lake Tahoe property. The drinks flowed freely. Appetizers were served on china commissioned for the occasion.

“Bill Harrah called her his 70-mile-an-hour cocktail lounge,” Watson says.

Clapham, a lakeside condo owner, says, “Anybody who’s been around this lake for more than a year or two knows the Thunderbird and wants to ride on [it]. It’s just an amazing boat.”

Clapham earned his ride, on a warm autumn day, through generous contributions to Foundation 36, the nonprofit organization that owns the boat and is working to keep it berthed at Thunderbird Lodge. As part of its acquisition agreement, the foundation must raise $1.5 million for the craft’s endowment by November 2011. Otherwise, the Tahoe treasure could be lost to a private owner.

“In 2007, when the yacht came into the foundation, it had a fair amount of deferred maintenance,” Watson says. “We’ve managed to raise the money to take care of the most urgent, most critical matters. However, the Thunderbird’s annual operating cost is between $200,000 and $300,000 a year.”

Besides the daily operating expenses, there are crew salaries, insurance and ongoing preservation work. Watson says the cost works out to about $5,000 for each hour the boat is in motion.

“Thunderbird is said to be America’s most valuable wooden speedboat,” Watson says. “The last appraisal came in at $5 million.

“She’s the last link of this type to our past. The Thunderbird [provides] Lake Tahoe’s only on-water maritime heritage program for children … She knows no other home.”

Watson acknowledges that selling the boat wouldn’t be difficult.

“We have a number of offers to acquire the Thunderbird,” he says. “However, most of those offers come from very well-to-do individuals who would like to see the yacht in their private collections rather than in the public trust.” Some of those offers come from international collectors who, Watson says, are “seeking a piece of Americana.”

Clapham — who’s been around wooden boats since first riding his grandfather’s Chris-Craft in 1947 — is determined to save the Thunderbird for visitors to Lake Tahoe.

“We want to keep it on this lake,” he says, “keep it active and in its boathouse at Thunderbird Lodge, where it’s always been and where it was intended to be.”

Get inspired to get away.

Explore California, the West and beyond with the weekly Escapes newsletter from travel editor Catharine Hamm.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.