This story was originally published in the 2014 August/September issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Chris Thomas leads a busy life as the director of the ℹ️ Chattanooga Market. Over the past seven years he has grown the market to 1,100 vendors selling $3.5 million in goods each year. At the same time he took on ℹ️ Chattanooga WorkSpace—studio spaces for artists and creatives of all types in the old St. Barnabas building on 6th street. He filled it up in short order and now it’s a beehive of artistic production.
So, when he gets time away from work, he wants peace and quiet. That’s when he heads for his 30-foot sailboat on Lake Chickamauga. “I love the quiet power of sailing –and the therapy is cheaper than a hospital,” he laughs.
Thomas named his 30-year-old sloop “The Grateful Dad” – an unusual name, but one that makes more sense when you know his story. Coming to Chattanooga from Dallas, where he had started a record label, he and his wife Kim chose Chattanooga as their new home because they sensed it would be a great place to raise their two children. Drop one letter from the name of a famous music group and the boat name becomes a reference to his role as a parent.
A day-sail with Chris and Kim is a delightful way to hear about their love for Chattanooga. “Where we lived in Texas, families didn’t seem to hang out together,” says Kim. “We wanted to raise our kids in a better environment and be near our parents in Kentucky.” Chris quickly adds, “When we visited here, this place had an identity…people were proud to be Chattanoogans. This city has an Austin, Texas feel to it.”
“I really feel like Chattanooga is going places,” he continues. “The Gig, the start-up scene, the University— Chattanooga has all the elements for a great future. I can’t think of another place I want to live.” And then you add water.
The boat sleeps four, so it has been a perfect fit for his family of four. “We’re almost empty nesters, so more and more it’s just me and Kim,” he said. But the boat has been an important part of their family life. “My son Andrew and I probably like the actual sailing part the best, but we all like the togetherness of the boat.” Andrew is now a sophomore at the University of Alabama and their daughter, Sarah, is a junior at Notre Dame High School.
The Thomas family moved to Chattanooga in 2001 and Chris was surprised to find such a great sailing venue here. Lake Chickamauga is 65 miles long and a half mile wide in places. The warm climate provides year-long sailing, something New England and Great Lakes sailors are very envious of. And the wind is better than most people would imagine for an inland lake.
“There are very few days where the wind is completely flat,” says Thomas. “Most days there is quite a bit of wind. I’m not sure why, but as the summers have gotten hotter in recent years, there seems to be more wind, too.”
Thomas isn’t an avid sailboat racer because he is at work at the Chattanooga Market when the Privateer Yacht Club is holding races. However, he appreciates the high-tech competition of the recent America’s Cup. He took son Andrew to California to watch some of the preliminary races as a high school graduation gift. “We saw the giant AC 72’s (72-foot carbon fiber catamarans) go by at 45 miles-per-hour!” he says with schoolboy enthusiasm. “We also got to sail on the replica of the America – the boat that started it all by defeating the fastest British boat in 1851.”
Another way that Thomas enjoys his sailboat is to motor it through the Chickamauga lock and bring it downtown to Ross’s Landing for big community events like RiverBend or Wine Over Water. And since Andrew was a high school rower, the boat has made a few trips down for The Head Race and the Head of the Hooch Regatta. The latter has now become the second largest rowing event in the U.S., behind the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. In 2013, the race drew 1,999 boats to downtown Chattanooga. This November, organizers expect even more.
“I had just come to Chattanooga when the downtown waterfront was being created,” Chris says. “I don’t know of another place in America where you have a vibrant city on such a beautiful waterway. It seems like every year, Chattanoogans find a new way to enjoy the water. When we bring our boat downtown for a rowing regatta, it’s like having our own condo on the finish line.”
In the past few years, Chattanooga has become a popular venue for open water swimming competitions, and even a stand-up-paddleboard (SUP) race through the river gorge. And of course, downtown Chattanooga will be the central location of the IronMan competition in September, which includes a 2.5-mile swim to Ross’s Landing.
The variety of outdoor sporting activities is comparable to the variety of arts and crafts produced and sold at the Chattanooga Market. “This is a community full of surprises,” Chris smiles. “There are very creative people here and we just help them, as small business people, to get pointed in the right direction. It makes a difference in people’s lives while it builds tourism and powers economic impact.”
Story and photography by Ron Harr