John Howell III loves Thistles. When he retired, he got word from his wife’s college roommate that her family had found a boat out in Coeur d’Alene. She wondered if Howell might want to take a look at it.
“It was sitting in a barn on their property,” Howell said. “I flew out, looked at it, rented a 26-foot truck and put the boat in the back of it and drove it back to North Carolina. It was worth it.”
Turned out, the boat was No. 48, one of the first of 4,050 Thistles ever made. Being so near the beginning of the boats’ run, this one was made of wood, and it was a beauty, Howell said.
“They’re really phenomenally responsive boats, a beautiful boat in the water,” Howell said. “Just small changes make a huge difference in your boat speed. It’s the difference between sailing the boat and sailing it well.”
Howell is making the trip back to North Idaho again this July for the Thistle Nationals 2019, an annual competition that draws sailors from across the nation. For the first time, it is being held in Sandpoint, on Lake Pend Oreille, and it promises to be a boon for the city and a beautiful event for those who want to check it out.
Howell is coming with a different boat—No. 3,849—one named D’OH that bears a picture of Homer Simpson. A past owner won nationals in that same boat, he said.
His will be one of about 70 in the competition, which runs July 21 through 26. The boats— which will start to arrive a couple days earlier— will be on City Beach in Sandpoint and will launch from there for each day’s races. Each boat is crewed by three people, and considering that many will bring their families, Regatta Co-Chair Wayne Pignolet estimated at least 300 people will be visiting Sandpoint for the weeklong event.
Howell said he’s excited for the opportunity to spend a week in an area he called “drop-dead gorgeous.”
“People turn it into a family vacation. They drive out as a group and just enjoy the devil out of the experience,” Howell said. “Wayne has done an incredible job of setting it up so we can enjoy … all the experiences of Sandpoint.”
The schedule of events for participants includes organized stops at a number of local businesses, including multiple stops at the 219 Lounge and a sailing-focused trivia night at MickDuff’s Beer Hall.
Thistle sailboats were first designed in 1945 by Sandy Douglass. At 17-feet long, it is more of a performance boat than a cruising boat, Pignolet said. It is designed to go fast.
The first 2,000 or so were built of mahogany and are quite intricate, Pignolet said. More recent boats have changed over to fiberglass, but design specifications are stringent, so there is very little that can be different from boat to boat if it is to be called a Thistle. Boats of either material— mahogany or fiberglass—have won the event in the past.
“At this regatta, they have an equal chance of winning,” Pignolet said.
Pignolet grew up in Ohio, where Thistles are highly popular, and moved to Sandpoint 15 years ago. Almost from the moment he arrived in North Idaho, he said, he was telling people about Thistles and what a great venue Pend Oreille would be for a regatta.
“It was pretty much a dream to have them come up and do this event,” Pignolet said. “It’s an interesting group of people in the sense that this is a serious competition, but they’re also here for their vacation.”
No better place, then, he thought, than Sandpoint.
“If we do this well, I think we establish our ability to do these types of events in the future, the word will get out,” Pignolet said. “Lots who sail Thistles sail other boats, and other design boats are always looking for cool places to go.”
Each year the Thistle Nationals rotates its host site between its four regions, though not strictly on a four-year cycle. Last year it was held in Westport, Connecticut; the year before the competition took place in Chautauqua Lake, New York. In 2016, Eugene, Oregon, hosted the event.
But the variety of venues—and types of bodies of water—is what draws so many to the competition. So being on Pend Oreille will present unique challenges to the competitors. This setting will be similar to Flathead Lake in Montana, where the competition has also been held before.
“It changes the characteristics when you sail on a (high-elevation) lake because the air is much thinner,” Howell said. “The air density is less, so you see this big puff coming along the water, you get ready for it.”
Varied conditions, then, leave room for sailing teams to distinguish themselves, and it is what makes the rotating sites so much fun, Howell said.
Bringing the event to Sandpoint has been a large undertaking, and Pignolet said the City of Sandpoint has been very helpful and accommodating throughout the process. City Beach is a popular spot in the summer, and Pignolet said he appreciates that the city is allowing them to use its space for nearly a week.
“(The city) definitely came through and saw the vision and said, we get the vision, and they’ve been really good to work with,” Pignolet said.
Spectators are welcome to come down and check out the event. Boats will be pulled up on the beach above the swim line, Pignolet said. Each boat has a story, and the owners are happy to share those stories as well as teach spectators what to watch for in the races.
“If people want to understand, come down and talk to people. They love sharing their passion. Everybody who’s showing up here is pretty well committed,” Pignolet said.
The races will be held close to the shore, so spectators can walk out onto the point in the park for a good view of the competition. Alternatively, people with their own boats are welcome out in the water, so long as they stay clear of the course.
“It will be very accessible,” Howell said, and easy to “see all these crazy people who’ve driven halfway across the country” with their sailboats. Not that it will be difficult to spot them.
“It’s gonna be hard to miss us,” Pignolet said.