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Thistle Sailing and the Westport Mafia

Mike McBride of Stamford, skipper, was one of three local entries in Thistle Midwinters East in Florida last week. Photo by Daniela Clark /

Vol. 1, No. 108

by Daniela Clark

Cedar Point Yacht Club is one of the country’s Thistle sailing hotspots.  CPYC’s Fleet 99 boasts 26 competitive boats.  The sailors are known as the “Westport Mafia” due not so much to Saugatuck’s Italian-American population, as to the sailors’ supposed ability to “off” the competition.  A handful of Long Island Sound Thistlers, including One Design expert Ched Proctor, headed all the way to Florida last week to compete in Thistle Midwinters East.  As the event photographer, I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with the group, just as I had in 2009 when we covered their North Americans at Cedar Point.  That’s when we got our first sense of how cool Thistle sailors are.

The Thistle fleet is very competitive yet extremely family-centric.  Not just parent and child, we’re talking entire extended families.  Last week a competitor explained to me proudly that he’s on his second Thistle.  He had sold his first boat to his brother-in-law.  Oh, and he had bought that boat from his father.  That’s how it goes.  Maybe Mafia’s not such a bad descriptor for the whole fleet.

The Thistle fleet is also incredibly dedicated to the Thistle “brand.”  On the last day of Midwinters East, somebody from the class (@Thistlesailing) tweeted “Someone got a Thistle tattoo last night”.  I figured some of the competitors had hit the St. Petersburg bars too hard the night before, and somebody had gotten carried away and gotten a Thistle tattoo.  As if they were the first, or the only.  But at the awards ceremony, one of the class officers called out: “Stand up if you got a Thistle tattoo last night.”  Two people stood up and were applauded by their peers.  I wanted to ask: “How many of you have Thistle tattoos?”  Now I was starting to think it could be the majority.  By comparison, I doubt there’s a single sailor out there with a Melges tattoo.  The Thistle sailors have a lot of spirit.

The close-knit, down-to-earth group of Thistle sailors of all ages lingered in the St. Pete Yacht Club ballroom after dinner, then after the bar closed, then after the staff cleaned up.  Fleet 99 in Westport has the same attitude: sail hard, have fun, and leave plenty of time to hang out at CPYC afterwards.

Want in?  41 thistles are currently for sale across the country, from free fixer-uppers to high-performers at $16k, with ready-to-race boats for as little as $5k.  The group is more than happy to teach new members the tricks of rigging and sailing a Thistle.  For more info about Thistle Sailing in Westport, check out the CPYC Thistle page.

Thistle quick facts:

LOA 17′ 0″
Beam 6′ 0″
Draft up 6″ /down 4’6″
Weight 515 lb
Sail Area (main and jib) 191 sq. ft.
Sail Area (spinnaker) 220 sq. ft.

Designer: Sandy Douglass

Thistle #1: built in 1945

Builders: Great Midwest Yacht, North West One Design, Lamb’s (new builder).

See more photos from Midwinters East at