Merlin’s Journey


Merlin undergoes a refit to bring the retro speedster into the modern age, at least below the waterline.

Courtesy Bill Lee

Lassie came home, and now, so has Merlin. It took a while, but who doesn’t love a warm and fuzzy reunion story? When Bill Lee and his classic ultralight displacement boat hit the starting line of the 2017 Transpac, together again, it will be 40 years on from Merlin’s record-­setting race that rocked West Coast ocean racing.

If you weren’t around in 1977, you can’t imagine the controversy. The bar talk. The arguments. Smaller, light-for-the-time Bill Lee designs had won the Transpac, from Los Angeles to Honolulu, in 1973 and 1975, and now the Transpacific YC’s handicappers were trying to hold the line. The “establishment” took it for granted that the ULDBs were not weatherly and might even be unsafe. Lee was a lightning rod, and his mechanical engineering degree received no credence; neither did his defense industry years performing stress, trim and weight analyses on designs for amphibious craft and submarines, nor the fact that one of his proof-of-concept races, in the world’s first 68-foot ULDB, was the inaugural Singlehanded Farallones Race, consisting of 25 miles upwind and then back to the Golden Gate on a day that blew a gale. He was first home, of course.

Lee shrugged and went his own way. His signature line was some variation of “It’s more fun to sail fast than to pick up trophies.” He called himself “the wizard” and wore a cape and a magician’s hat, not a blue blazer, for
Merlin’s launching. His layup shed was a former chicken coop situated ridiculously high up a sometimes-muddy road. The coop famously embodied an alternative yachting style in the California coastal town of Santa Cruz, known for alternative lifestyles period. The sign on the door read, “Bring a six-pack.”

The 1966 Spencer-designed Ragtime helped inspire Merlin’s narrow beam, but Lee also says, “Our building had a 12-foot ceiling, and we needed to turn the boat over, so we kept the beam at 12 feet.” The ratings committee of the Transpacific YC didn’t like any of this. Had you right then bet the bookies that Bill Lee would eventually have his turn as commodore of a new-look Transpacific YC, proudly running races dominated by downwind flyers — and that he would emerge as a trusted sage on rating rules — you’d now be rolling in dough.

The wizard himself, Bill Lee, inspects Merlin‘s new fixed keel, which replaced a canting version, a few weeks ahead of the boat’s launch.

Courtesy Bill Lee

Lee’s lightweights won races and kept on sailing. Santa Cruz 70s and Santa Cruz 50s came after Merlin, and today — with new fins and new rigs — Lee’s production boats form the backbone of an enduring West Coast ocean fleet. “They’re reasonably priced, and mere mortals can sail them,” he says. Meanwhile, California’s alternative lifestyles went mainstream, and more than one West Coast commodore has memories, however hazy, of time in Bill Lee’s hot tub.
Merlin hit the starting line of its first Transpac in July 1977, the same month the Apple I personal computer kit went on sale for $666.66. ULDBs were segregated into a new Division II. Navigation was by sextant and dead reckoning. There were no freeze-dried meals and no pros as we know them. A hastily built and slightly bigger rival copy had been rushed to completion for the race. Drifter, in that Transpac and in races to come, would often show well and occasionally win, but would never spark the magic of Merlin. Going into the race, Merlin’s crew knew her as part submarine, knifing through waves without slowing down. Her forward hands developed techniques to cope, laughed at green water on deck, and recited Lee’s mantra, “Fast is fun.”

Three days into the race, with Merlin reporting 150 miles ahead of Kialoa, the legendary designer of another generation, Olin Stephens, said of Merlin’s navigation, “Those people are hopelessly lost.” But far from lost,
Merlin arrived at Diamond Head in eight days, 11 hours, leading Drifter by 17 minutes. The crossing lopped 22 hours off the record of another legend, Windward Passage, and two hours off the unofficial record of Eric Tabarly’s trimaran, Pen Duick III.
The year 1977 was not the first year that party animal Bill Lee attended the dock celebration of every Transpac finisher that followed him in, but it was the first year that he made every party. Merlin’s Transpac record would stand for 20 years while the boat plowed through first-to-finish races, always a contender, and set course records in San Diego-Manzanillo, Vic-Maui and the Pacific Cup.

Lee sold the boat in 1982 and bought it back in October 2015. He is the first and eighth owner. For next year’s Transpac, he has removed a previous owner’s canting mechanism, and he’s fitting a bulb keel and high-aspect ratio rudder: 1977 meets 2017. Merlin is once again everybody’s favorite party boat. It’s known around Santa Cruz that “everybody” can fit aboard Merlin for an evening sail, and “everybody” knows that with the wizard, fast will be fun.