by Wendy Hinman -- As the outbreak of COVID19 rages across our world, we are stunned by news reports of infection and death. The devastating statistics become personal when we hear that someone we know has died from this highly contagious and deadly virus.
Legendary Thunderbird sailor Sanders (Sandy) Pratt succumbed to COVID19 on March 26th. His longtime crewmember Laura Wagner broke the news to the fleet:
“Prior to this Sandy had been doing great, healthy mentally and physically like he always was! The whole crew—Brian Flaherty, me, Dennis Counts, plus his wife Phyllis, and our son Kallen—saw Sandy for dinner at his new retirement condo in Issaquah last fall. We met his wonderful partner, Marta, who he met after his wife Letha passed away in 2016. Sandy seemed well and very happy in his new home! Sandy will be missed by so many people.”
He is survived by two children and four grandchildren. Sandy's daughter, Barbara, said that he was admitted to the hospital on Sunday the 22nd for the coronavirus. The cruelest part of COVID19 is that such a well-loved and respected man was forced to spend his last moments in isolation.
We take comfort in knowing that Sandy lived a long and happy life. This strapping man, who was 92 when he died, remained a fierce competitor on the race course to the age of 90. He was a stalwart racer, aggressively maneuvering for room on the starting line. He’d been a member of Corinthian Yacht Club Seattle since 1957 and rarely missed a race.
My husband Garth Wilcox and I first met Sandy back in 1991 when we bought our T-bird, Atomic Salsa, and joined CYC. Since then we’ve raced against him and crewed for him. He was always a tough competitor, jovial on the dock, but all business when on the race course. After dispatching his competition, he was always eager to chat with beer in hand about the race. We could spend hours analyzing the race, tactics, strategy, and sail shape. He subscribed to lifelong learning and always sought to find ways to get more drive out of his boat. It was no surprise to us to learn that before retiring from Boeing Sandy had been involved in producing the wing of the 747. His engineering mind was ever tweaking his sails and messing with foil shape in pursuit of another knot of speed. He could ghost along in light air better than anyone.
Sandy was in his eighties when Garth and I left for our voyage around the Pacific. Seven years later when we returned he was still racing Falcon. We rejoined the fleet, racing on Kuma with Stuart Burnell in preparation for the International Championships at Whidbey Island Race Week. Sandy was still just as tough to beat then as ever.
Sandy raced into his nineties, only stopping because two of his regular crew had a baby and replacing half his crew proved frustrating. Laura Wagner raced with Dennis Counts and Sandy for 10 years. She met her husband Brian Flaherty aboard Sandy's boat. She said
"I always thought Sandy would retire before us but instead we did!"
Sandy’s love of sailing started around the age of seven. He represented the Husky Sailing Club in 1949 at the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Sailing Regatta at Berkeley, California in International 14s after he excelled in the qualifier races. In his 20’s Sandy raced a star boat My Sin, appropriately named for his passion. After his wife Letha told him his Star wasn’t a good family boat, he chose a more family-friendly one-design that he deemed race worthy: the “Thunderbird.” The Thunderbird was designed by Ben Seaborn to help the American Plywood Association sell plywood to the backyard boat builder. Sandy finished wooden Thunderbird hull #711 from a bare hull in 1967 and named it LeBar. He won the Thunderbird International Championship in 1975, besting 75 boats in an intense competition. His hard-earned gold bird proudly adorned his mainsail ever afterward, marking LeBar and his next boat, a fiberglass T-bird he named Falcon (#1177), as a key boat to beat. Fleet member Roger Schip noted,
“Watching him move through the T-bird fleet was like watching a Chess Master.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Sandy was always focused on the competition at hand, eking out every knot of speed he could.
A longtime Boeing engineer, Sandy oversaw the manufacture of Boeing 747 wings, fashioning new techniques and tools to overcome challenges in the early years of building this iconic aircraft. He had an engineer's curiosity and quest for knowledge, constantly probing others to gain new insights and find ways to make his boat go faster. He was especially good at ghosting along in light air and has schooled many sailors over the years.
Sandy was a mentor and friend to so many over the decades and a stalwart on the race course. News of his passing prompted an outpouring of heartwarming messages and fond memories.
Laura, who I also raced with aboard Stuart Burnell’s Tantivy, reminisced about sailing with Sandy:
"Sandy barked at me a lot that first summer and after a week in Victoria for Internationals I thought for sure I'd quit at the end of the season. But, I loved Dennis and our crew Anthony Colfelt at the time and Sandy was so wonderful off the boat. He was all smiles, stories, and laughs. And he often apologized for yelling at me or at least cheered up 100 % once the race was over. I stayed on all summer as the pit person and by the 2nd season we had found our groove and the barking stopped."
“Brian and I got to the boat early every Wednesday to haul the boat over on its side with the spinnaker halyard. If anyone came down to Leschi on a Wednesday night they'd see us scrubbing the bottom of Falcon. Dennis often made it down in time after work to do 1 side! It became my job to make sure Sandy had his helmet on. The 4 of us, Brian, Dennis, and Sandy and I had a great rhythm on the boat after so many years of sailing together. We probably had the quietest boat too. As others have said, Sandy didn't like too much chatter on the boat and if he took your advice on a tactic you should be honored! He was the skipper and the tactician. But, that made it peaceful and quiet and the three of us crew could just get into our rhythm and pull the sheets! We each drank just 1 beer after every race, not during. This was such a tradition as we sailed in every Wednesday night that I had to hide my root beer or ginger beer label at the beginning of my pregnancy so they didn't suspect anything."
Sandy liked to win and cursed costly blunders. Crewmember Anthony Colfelt noted,
“There are many funny stories of crew members being sent downstairs to hug the mast on the floor to get the boat balanced just right, especially in light winds. But we generally enjoyed his intensity and competitive spirit.”
Many joked about the brief explosions of fiery expletives he would bellow when everything went sideways, especially when he was training new crew. Tim Satre shared how Sandy barked at him for talking too much during a race,
“I don’t need the news, Walter Cronkhite!” Yet his crews were quite loyal. Dennis Counts raced with him for more than thirty years.
Most everyone remembers Sandy’s jovial personality and hearty laugh and his willingness to teach. He was the kind of skipper who always shared his knowledge and conclusions for achieving the best performance. Longtime fleet member Kemp Jones said,
“Sandy taught me a lot about making a T-bird go fast when I was struggling to learn at the back of the fleet. He was an incredible gentleman, Jedi, and hero to me.”
Adam Southerland concurred,
“An amazing man, I will never forget the talks after Wednesday races down at Leschi; he kept us motivated and excited even after beating us.”
Anthony Colfelt echoed the sentiment of many when he remarked,
“Sandy was thoroughly decent. He looked out for people and offered his knowledge and assistance to all, generally lifting the caliber of the Fleet.”
Dan Carey remembered,
“He was a great sailor and a fine gentleman. He was fun to be around and to talk with. He always seemed to be smiling and having a good time. It was always nice to gather with him after sailing and discuss the race and other finer points of sailing and boat trim.”
Ballard Sails sailmaker Alex Simanis said,
“Sandy was a legend. I doubt anyone knew T-birds better than him. Sail on Sandy.”
A few years ago, Sandy brought my husband Garth and I the band saw he and many others used during the heyday of building Thunderbirds in the 60s and 70s. We have used it extensively since then and have made great progress, but are sorry Sandy will never see our finished boat. We have so many fond memories of him, jamming to Bob Marley as we worked on our boats, discussing sail shape and tactics. Ken Lane said,
“The T-bird flock has lost a loved member.”
Beyond that, as Pam Schwartz summed up what many expressed,
“He was an inspiration to us all.”
It is too early to plan an official tribute to Sandy Pratt since gatherings are not yet sanctioned because of the risk of the Corona Virus. Sandy was a great fighter and it took a global pandemic to bring him down. In his memory, let’s strive to minimize the number who join him. Stay safe everyone.
Wendy Hinman is an adventurer, speaker, and the award-winning author of two books: Tightwads on the Loose tells the story of her 34,000-mile voyage aboard a 31-foot sailboat with her husband. Sea Trials details the harrowing round-the-world voyage of a family who must overcome a shipwreck, gun boats, mines, thieves, pirates, scurvy and starvation to achieve their dream. For more information, please visit: www.wendyhinman.com.