View Full Version : Wooden Thistle inspection help needed

Captain Pre-Capsize
10-20-2005, 05:46 PM
Well I'm conflicted but am going to look at a Thistle constructed in 1964. It is one of those "just drove it to church on Sunday" kind of boats. I've seen it once already and although it is the ugliest color of light blue imaginable it does appear to be sound.

In checking for dry rot what do I do? I picture tap tapping around with a wooden mallet or something. The hull is molded plywood and the interior all bright finished. I might add that the interior is splendid looking. Been in the family since 1975 and really not sailed much at all and looks it. The interior shows little but normal wear so to my (untrained) eye it looks like a diamond in the rough.

How much is he asking? $2,500 and that includes a five horse Johnson outboard. Weigh in with your thoughts as to what I should look for. I built my skiff three years ago but this is a seriously larger boat - seventeen feet long with a beam of six feet. I could get the five of us in there no problem. Is this a possible early Christmas present to my wife, I mean, I mean myself or should I pass?

What else do I check for? Seems I should be able to give it the once over myself with a little help from my friends here. The biggest conflict? I didn't build it - and that may be a real stumbling block. I know how much I enjoyed building my skiff... but I could get the five of us in there no problem.

Your thoughts? Do I see a psychologist first? ;)

10-20-2005, 08:53 PM
Two points on Thistles: First, a likely place for molded plywood to fail is in the bilges, alongside the centerboard trunk. We ran into that problem, in a big way, with a Highlander that was donated to a sailing club I used to run. I dug out rotten material from both the inside and outside of the hull, and patched it out with fiberglass and epoxy -- and a couple of years later it was all coming apart again. The boat ended up in the chainsaw and the town dump.
Another place we have had trouble with old Thistles is in the laminated inwales -- rot where holes punched through for rigging, and in the way of screw holes (plugged over but the plugs leaked. There I ended up rebuilding the inwales from the mast step aft.
As for the Thistle itself, when it's sound it's a wonderful boat, but be advised that it is a handful. It's light and carries a big main, which means it goes like a bandit -- I literally sailed circles around a Lightning with my Thistle, not just downwind, planing, but upwind as well -- but it's not a peaceful ride when the wind is 10 mph or more. Two boys can't keep a Thistle down in a wind. It takes at least three rail-sitters, or a lot of reef. And that old reefing system used on the original Thistles and Highlanders --boom roller that worked like a window shade -- was a big mistake in my opinion. Jiffy reefing is way better, methinks.

10-20-2005, 08:55 PM
P.S. to that: If you check out the wood Thistle and it's no good, I know where you can get a glass one in half decent shape, and I am pretty sure the price would be a lot less than $2500.

10-20-2005, 09:00 PM
My recollection of saling a thistle is 40 years old, but i clearly remember that about 500+ lbs of people, hiking hard, were needed to sail it in 15-20 kts. of wind.

Captain Pre-Capsize
10-20-2005, 11:15 PM
Well... I sense a problem. :( This is for the whole family but, being pragmatic, I'll be single handing it a good deal of the time and this in the Windy City. Is that even possible? Sounds like it isn't... Ugh. The other thing. The whole family is skinny - not much heft to the potential rail meat...

Keep the opinions coming though. My wife was really counting on that Thistle for Christmas. ;)

10-21-2005, 12:35 AM
Use either the corner of a thin putty knife edge or a thin pointy pocket knife to check for rot - fewer marks in the places you check but good penetration if rot exists.

Sound like a lot for a Thistle unless you plan on racing it -- try googling around and find the thistle class website, as they list various boats and equipment for sale.

I considered doing the same thing, and found several woodies under $1000 on registered trailers. They needed some work, but what older wooden boat doesn't?

You can either reef often, or consider making an alternate rig and/or using smaller sails for daysailing with the family. Also, a mast and sails from a more modestly-powered 14' sailboat might work well -- check craigslist and marine flea markets.

The 5hp outboard sounds like serious overkill for a sailboat that size, and of course the condition of the motor can be hard to determine. But the wood Thistles sure are pretty on the inside!

;- )

[ 10-21-2005, 01:39 AM: Message edited by: Thorne ]

Ian McColgin
10-21-2005, 06:54 AM
The thoughts of where to look are all good. Also see if you can figure how much abrasion the outer veneer has taken. It and the inner are only 1/32" while the mid three are about 1/16" each.

If it has a wooden mast and you figure out how to get the spreaders off, let the world know !!

The roller reefing is the most mindnumbing thing unless you very carefully shape the boom, pushing the rules to the limit, and add reef clew and reef tack patches so you can reef to exactly one spot. Some may find this a tad easier than modern slab reefing but I do not.

Should I ever finish Il Pipe we'll have to find a way to meet or at least post pix here.


Alan D. Hyde
10-21-2005, 11:46 AM

I like Thistles.

Many good comments above.

BUT that rail gets to feeling pretty damn narrow on the backside after hiking out for a while, and that's where you'll have to be in a breeze. Not good for the old sciatica... :(


Todd Bradshaw
10-21-2005, 12:10 PM
$2,500 for an old wooden Thistle in Illinois is an awful lot of money. The boat is "dead meat" there unless the guy can find a sucker....(you?).
A beautifully restored one could easily be worth thousands of dollars, but only to a few people in the entire country. I think it might end up being a similar deal to my old Star. I worked my ass of making it work and making it beautiful, and it did and it was, but after all of that It was mine - forever. There was no way to eventually sell it off without losing a fortune. I finally stripped off about $1,500 worth of lightly used Harken hardware which is still sitting here in a box and gave the hull away to get it out of the driveway.

Thistles are great boats and beautiful to watch as they roll up on one side and sail past, but the real "family" boat in the line was/is the Flying Scot. Standard crew for a Thistle is three adults and that third person can be hard to come up with on short notice on a Saturday morning. It's also a lot of boat to try to hold down if you're sailing solo in anything but really light air and not a particularly comfortable boat to hike from (some Thistle sailors actually wear shorts with battens in them to keep the gunwale from killing their butts).

The idea that one can save either time or money restoring a 40 year-old wooden sailboat, compared to building a new one, is often pure fantasy from what I've been able to tell. I love Thistles and believe that the world is a better place, aesthetically, because there are some wooden ones still around, but I'd be willing to bet that there are easily 100 similar-sized boats that you could build that would be just as pretty and a lot more useful to you and the family.

Nicholas Carey
10-21-2005, 01:58 PM
Hook up with the Thistle Class Association (they're pretty well organized).

If you're in Chicago, you're part of Fleet 44 -- the Lake Michigan contact is Ben Larsen, benny@itol.com


BTW, here's an ad for another woodie with a year-old restoration:
254 $1750. D&M. Complete restoration in 2004 by Still River Boatworks. Absolutely beautiful mahogany interior newly sanded with 6-8 coats of brightwork. All new Harken hardware, new lines and halyards. Built-in cabinets found only on very early D &M's, polished brass fittings on boom. Full set of sails with new spinnaker pole. Brand new cover made by Sailor's Tailor, new set of flotation blocks, covered in durable awning material. An outstanding classic boat that is guarenteed to turn eyes where ever she may be sailed. Located in Central Massachusetts. Contact Leigh Tuttle at (978)-779-0211 or leightuttlephd@charter.net 08/12/05

Alan D. Hyde
10-21-2005, 03:41 PM
I agree with Todd that the price seems high.

Also, there is a bigger version of the Thistle, quite a good boat, called The Highlander.



Captain Pre-Capsize
10-21-2005, 04:42 PM

That picture says a lot. Look at how they are heeled over and then study the waves in the background. Not a windy day really but they are sure working hard to stay upright. Sounds like it all runs in the family.

10-21-2005, 06:54 PM
Five is too many on a Thistle, and one is way too few. They are really neat boats, but they are also 'I darn well better be paying attention or I am going to get wet' boats.

The price is just a matter of whether you think that it's worth it or not. I have probably bought and sold (and been given and have given away) 20 one-design sailboats over the years. With one-designs it's a matter of whether or not the boat is competitive. If it's not, then it's pretty much of no monetary value. A 10 year old Star that some guy paid $35K for will just sit around and mildew until some guy like me, a fleet racer, comes along and is willing to pay $5-8K for it. Your cold-molded Thistle (from what I hear) is pretty stiff and can be made competitive pretty easily through a new rig and sails, therefore it may be worth double what an oil-canning glass boat of much newer build would be.

My advice would be to make the guy a lower offer (since your wife really wants the boat, and a wife who wants a Thistle should darn well get a Thistle) and if you feel like it's a fair price then do it. A Scot or a Highlander would be a much more stable platform from which to cruise than a Thistle, but a Thistle is a far nicer looking boat, imo. Just be careful about going out in it. There's really not alot of room. Three people is the norm and that's about how much room there is.

Mickey Lake

Captain Pre-Capsize
10-22-2005, 05:00 PM
Thanks a ton guys for your valuable help - it truly made a difference. Now, just how do I go about breaking the bad news to my wife? She will almost certainly be crushed (elated?) at not getting that used boat to work on. Help!

10-23-2005, 10:11 PM
Cap'n, you're in a good place with your wife. You next move is important. Something along the lines of, "Honey, that Thistle had a lot of potential, but I think we can do even better...." might be a good angle.

I've not sailed or worked on Thistles, but I've restored and sailed a Highlander. It employed a similar molded ply construction and like the Thistle, was an overpowered dinghy with racing being the key focus of the design and sail plan. I had the same problem Carlsboats told you about, rot where the solid wood of the keel meets the molded ply of the hull. It was particularly acute at the centerboard trunk, probably because water could sit there.

I often sailed it alone, but it was not relaxing. I was always on the gunwale and I had a reef in on all but the quietest days. (No, Highlander sails don't come with a reef -- I had to add it!). But it had a huge cockpit and was a blast to sail with my teenage boys. Man, we had some good times on that boat.

Restoring one of the larger one-design dinghys is a great avenue to enjoying a slightly larger wooden boat with less investment and effort than building new from the ground up. If day sailing is your focus, take a look at the Lightning. It's a much tamer boat with excellent initial stability, lots of good wooden hulls around to restore, and a very active class association with an interest in the old (and new) wooden hulls. I'm restoring #6046 this winter, and I'm learning of several other Lightning restoration projects as I ask around for advice.

Todd mentioned a Flying Scot, and that is a great design, but they were never made in wood.

By the way, those old 5-hp Johnson's were heavy. For $750 you can buy a new little Tohatsu 2.5 HP that probably weighs 50% of the Johnson. Now, those Johnsons were nice old motors and fun to restore in their own right, but I'll be surprised if you end up hanging it on your nicely refurbished wooden dinghy.

As to your comment of "The biggest conflict? I didn't build it - and that may be a real stumbling block ...", I can certainly understand your sentiments. But bringing an old wooden boat back to life, especially if you can do some research on it's history, is immensely satisfying in it's own way. A restored wooden boat carries forward it's character from an earlier time that I find enchanting.

10-24-2005, 11:51 AM
Now that you have heard it all --and the previous posts are really on the mark, in my view -- why not merge several of the suggestions and get yourself a Thistle -- this way: put up minimum money and buy an old glass Thistle (like the one I know about here on Block Island). Then buy a small, used main (Bacon's in Annapolis, or similar dealer) to try when the going gets rough. If it works out for you, you can shop around for a wood hull later. If it doesn't suit the family, you won't be out that much cash. And your wife will have her happy christmas. See how helpful this forum can be?

10-24-2005, 01:03 PM
All the above is good stuff -- went through the same thing myself recently, decided that I wanted to daysail, not race so I passed on the Thistle.

There are also a number of *other* one-class designs that were made in wood -- one being the S&S designed BlueJay.



If you can find one of these -- particularly with a ply hull and solid wood trim, masts, etc -- have your wife check it out. They are VERY stable, can take a small outboard if you beef up the transom and use a motormount, and lots of used sails should still be available since they are a racing class.

[ 10-24-2005, 02:06 PM: Message edited by: Thorne ]