clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tahoe's Wooden Boats And George Whittell's Wild Mahogany Yacht

There seems to be a flurry of events going down this weekend, but for an architectural snobs like us, there's few cooler things on the water than those old-school mahogany wooden boats you see on Lake Tahoe and other bodies of fresh water where old men in captains' hats, Bermuda shorts and boat shoes congregate. Many look like floating versions of Art Deco race cars, and come replete with 20s-vintage steering wheels. Well this weekend they'll all be coming to Tahoe Yacht Club on Carnelian Bay for the appropriately cosmopolitanly-named Concours d' Elegance, a three-day wooden boat show and judging contest.

The even will even be the wild-looking Thunderbird yacht, famous Tahoe aristocrat and recluse George Whittell's 55-foot "speedboat" that was designed to look like Whittel's personal DC-2 plane and his collection of Duesenberg cars. This bad boy is a classic Roarin' Twenties toy, made out of mahogany imported from Honduras and stainless steel and packing twin V12 aircraft engines that put out 1100 horsepowers each and could get Thunderbird humming across Lake Tahoe to pick up showgirls at the Cal-Neva Casino at a top speed of 60 knots - equivalent to 70 miles per hour!

Whittell used the yacht extensively during the first two summers he had it at the lake, but when World War II broke out, Whittell's legendary paranoia caused him to fear the boat being conscripted into military service, so he had the boat ensconced in the hundred-foot long boathouse he had blasted out of the solid granite shores of Lake Tahoe. When a broken hip discouraged Whittell from using the yacht further, he sold it to casino magnate William F. Harrah in 1962, who used it to host casino high-rollers and acts like Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby. A meticulous man, Harrah had the mahogany hull refurbished every winter, which required sanding it down to bare wood before adding ten coats of varnish.

· 41st Lake Tahoe Concours d'Elegance [Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation]
· Thunderbird Yacht History [Thunderbird Lake Tahoe]