The Right Boat
I''m in much the same boat (sorry, couldn''t resist). I''ve only recently gotten serious about sailing (after crewing infrequently for years). My predicament may be worse, however, because I don''t even own a boat yet, and being a confirmed bachelor, I have to find friends who can tolerate a "good" heel (or they''ll never speak to me again... I''m hoping your wife isn''t so fickle).
Without a boat, I''m stuck renting from a local sailing club, which on my budget means a Santa Cruz 27 (LWL around 24'', 8'' beam, similar displacement/ballast/sail area to your Thunderbird). In San Francisco, the mildest of summer afternoons includes a Small Craft Advisory (which seems meaningless here) and 20+ knots of wind... often much "worse."
With such a light boat, I''ve found only two things help with a nervous crew. First, get very good at blading out the main. There is an excellent discussion of this in the Learning to Sail forum entitled "Heavy weather sailing." I won''t attempt to improve on this description of the technique, penned by far more accomplished sailors than I. Using this technique, I can keep the toerail dry on a Santa Cruz 27 under a working jib and single-reefed main (I hate the way the SC 27 sails in a fresh breeze without the jib, so I leave it up). That keeps the boat reasonably upright through winds approaching 30 knots (but that''s the limit). Even on a bigger boat, I assume that you''ll need this skill to keep everyone happy.
Second, I have the queasy-looking crew person handle the mainsheet. If we catch a strong puff, he or she can ease the main to spill some power. Most folks seem a bit more comfortable having some control over their destiny, but it does require good coordination between the skipper and the crew. This arrangement works well on the Santa Cruz because the traveler is well forward in the cockpit. It may not work well on other rigs.
As for buying a boat, I''m looking for something that my nieces won''t freak out on as we cruise through the slot (which they would refer to as the "scary part" of the Bay) for a camping adventure on Angel Island, and be sufficiently seaworthy and roomy to get to me and a few friends to Monterey and back without incident (that''s hardly bluewater crusing, I realize, but I''m not looking for the be-all, end-all boat). While using my newly improved mainsail-trimming skills certainly helps, I''ve noticed some big differences in how boats handle in the roughly 32'' cruising range. I assume that the same would be true of boats nearer 40-foot. As such, I would certainly hesitate to buy a boat (especially something as gargantuan as that 40-foot schooner) without a sea trial, even if I had to forfeit some earnest money in the process. It just seems pennywise and very pound foolish.
When I raise questions about what boat is safe with the saltier folks at the marina, I get a lot of conflicting advice, with one exception. Everyone agrees that safety is a more a question of skill and maintenance than boat design (within reason, of course). I''m guessing that there are a lot of boats available in the Pacific NW that could fit the bill. Don''t get overly attached to one design because it''s the "safest."
I hope there''s something useful for you in all of these novice observations.