We've been publishing Latitude for a little over ten years now, which means it's only appropriate that we identify a 'Sailor of the Decade'.
Ideally, this individual would have made great contributions to the sport not only as a sailor, but as a designer, builder, and a shaper of opinion.
As unlikely as it seems, there is just such an individual who fits the bill. A person whose achievements as a sailor span the decade; a visionary designer whose influence is appreciated now more than ever; a prolific builder of boats ranging in size and variety; an energetic iconoclast who has been instrumental in revising the way the west coast and much of the world enjoys sailing. And in the process, he's pushed for and to some extent has been successful in trying to make sailing an activity that includes those traditional nautical orphans: women and youngsters.
As far as Latitude is concerned, there is only one possible choice
for 'Sailor of the Decade', nobody else comes close. That person is...
Next to the coop is a trailer office nestled under a grove of trees. A few yards down the hill, which features a panoramic view of the Santa Cruz coastline and the blue Pacific beyond, is a similar structure. Formerly a milking shed, it now houses the welding operation for fabricating lightweight yacht parts. It also shelters a land-sailer that hasn't seen much action in recent years, as well as a covered-up 1930 Rolls Royce with Merlin 1 license plates.
This compound is the domain of Bill Lee, who at just 44 remains the premiere boat-builder / designer / sailor / guru of the "Fast is Fun" school of thinking. For the past 17 years, this bearded, bespectacled bohemian with a penchant for red socks, red sweaters and dockside parties has conceived and built sailboats that have proven to not only be extremely fast, but seaworthy, too. The impact of his efforts have spread like ripples in a pond, from Santa Cruz to San Francisco Bay to Southern California, to the rest of the sailing world.
It would be incorrect to suggest that Lee was the only godfather of the California ultralight movement. In the early 70's Santa Cruz was a hotbed of radical sailboat design, with both amateurs and professionals probing the outer limits of light displacement sailboat design and construction. There was plenty of co-mingling of ideas and construction techniques with such familiar names as Ron Moore and George Olson. There were other, lesser-known co-conspirators, too.
Some of the more radical efforts went too far and tragically lives were lost. And some of the early boats were crude. But by the middle 70's trial and error had yielded some excellent boats and the Santa Cruz region had earned a well-deserved reputation for simple but superbly crafted boats.
The shy Olson, the localist Moore and the later arriving Terry Alsberg of Express boats, however, never achieved the personal aura of Bill Lee. For Lee is a unique mixture of seeming opposites. He's both party animal and egghead scientist; a difficult interview who enjoys wearing a magician's garb and being the center of attention; a light displacement evangelist yet a successful entrepreneur. With his thick glasses and odd twang in his voice, he's the last person you'd expect to revolutionize the yachting set or prosper with one of the oldest and most active sailboat-building concerns in California.
Steve Taft of North Sails characterizes Lee this way: "Bill's never been the basic establishment boatbuilder or yacht club type. He's always done things a little different, marched to a different drummer. For a long time he was seen as a rebel and that worked against him. But things have changed. He's got such a record of success that people look up to him more than ever. Now, he's even seen as something of a Mr. Conservative within light boats."
A former employee and crewmate said: "He may be unusual in some ways, but he's great to work with and for. He's very genuine and honest, especially in his business associations." Indeed, long the biggest concern in Santa Cruz area boatbuilding, Lee is known for having assisted and encouraged some fledgling boatbuilders who could eventually have become his primary competitors.
Trained as an engineer at Cal Poly, Bill came to Santa Cruz in 1968 to work for Sylvania. That didn't last long, and he started messing around with boats. The 505 World Championships on Monterey Bay in 1970 set off sparks in the local boatbuilding community. Bill, George Olson and Ron Moore followed the ultralight, path but on a grander scale.
Lee's first real boat was Magic a 30-foot version of a 505, after which came Witchcraft, which was cruised through the South Pacific. Then there were the TransPac racers Panache, a 40 footer, and Chutzpah, a 35-footer. To the extreme consternation of the yachting establishment, Chutzpah took corrected time honors in the TransPac twice, in 1973 and 1975. Despite the success of these boats, there were few other owners and builders who jumped on the ultralight bandwagon. Many where skeptical of the light boat concept and IOR and racer/cruisers were still king.
Lee had sailed Panache in both and '75 TransPac's, where he learned one of the most enjoyable aspects of th perience was the post- race parties at the Ala Wai. No matter if you arrived at 0200 or 1400, volunteer Hawaiian hosts were sure to be there with gallons of mai-tais and beer and lavish spreads of mouth-watering edibles for their ocean warriors. And naturally everybody was welcomed to everybody else's post-race party. Bill's only regret in sailing Panache was that he'd missed the parties of the boats - although there weren't many - that had finished ahead of him.
The only remedy was a longer, faster boat.
Bill acknowledges that he first came up with the idea for his
next boat, the radical Merlin, way back in November of 1973. He
Panache, a wide, shallow ultralight, to La Paz where the
narrow. hardchined Spencer 62, Ragtime was already at anchor. After
seeing the boat Bill thought to himself: "Hey, that's neat, but we ought
to build a modern version, one that's longer, has more beam for stability
and a rounded bottom." Resources for such a project. however, wouldn't
be available for several years.
In fact it wasn't until 1977. four years later, that Bill's 'get - me - to - Honolulu - in - time - for - all - the - TransPac - parties' fantasy boat was nearing reality. He was building it for himself on a shoestring, and without benefit of all the exotic materials available today. It was a ballsy gamble, because Lee was building an ultralight on a scale that had never been attempted with such materials before.
Word of the outrageous 68-ft sled that would displace just 23,000 pounds spread up and down the coast, attracting the attention of Harry Moloshco of Southern California. Moloshco, looking for more attention than is usually afforded a manufacturer of cardboard boxes, approached Lee with an offer to buy Merlin. But Lee, who was probably gambling his company on his fantasy boat, said Merlin wouldn't be for sale until after the TransPac. Rebuffed, Moloschco returned to Southern California where he quickly had a very similar ultralight rushed to completion.
After Merlin was launched at Moss Landing (a photograph of the event appeared In Volume 1 of Latitude 38) word of the boat's tremendous speed potential spread throughout Monterey Bay. "Merlin was a special boat from the beginning," says Dave Wahle, who signed on as one of the eight crew members for the historic 1977 TransPac. "We knew that records would be broken."
Before the July TransPac, though, Bill put his baby through some sea trials. After sailing the Ano Nuevo Race and the Danforth series with a crew, he decided to do the first-ever Singlehanded Farallones Race. More than a few salty veterans thought the idea of such a race foolhardy in most boats and downright suicidal on a 68-footer. But Bill was excited to try everything.
Photo of Merlin and Bill and whitecaps.
And he got everything. Even though the was nearly becalmed on a glassy Bay the Alacatraz starting line, by 0900 it was already blowing 25 knots outside the Gate with the wind and seas still building. By the afternoon it was blowing a solid 40 to 45 knots, scattering the 70 boat fleet all over the approaches to the Gate and giving the Coast Guard rescue boats all they could handle.
Starting in very light winds with just a #4 and a double-reefed main, Bill and Merlin trailed a couple of multihulls out the Gate. But they soon overtook the other boats and dished out the ultimate horizon job. It took both belief in his design and construction and a lot of courage for Lee not to bail out of such a rough race when singlehanding such a radical and untried big boat. Although Lee later conceded, "I realized 1 was never going to be Eric Taberly" (the famous French singlehander), he persisted in those most adverse of conditions.
The ride back from the Farallones was exhilarating to say the least.
One of Lee's conditions of entering the race was that a helper be ready to hop aboard and help take down sails at the 5th Avenue finish line in the Estuary. That job fell to the publisher of Latitude 38. After the sails were stowed and the boat put away, Bill and his helper sat down at the nav station where Bill did a few time and distance calculations. Singlehanded, he'd covered the first 28 miles back from the Farallones in just two hours. That meant he'd averaged 14 knots carrying just a double-reeled mainsail and a #4!
The race had proved two things prior to the start of the TransPac; Merlin was very fast, and she could take heavy wind and seas.
Merlin has always had an aura of magic about her, but never was her name more appropriate than during in the 1977 TransPac. For in that race everything gelled in an almost fairy-tale fashion. The 34-year-old iconoclast, sailing the radical dream boat he designed and built, with a home grown Santa Cruz crew, got the consistent winds necessary to smash Windward Passage's old course record by a remarkable 22 hours. And in the process he nipped the man that would have purchased his dream. Moloscho and Drifter finished 15 minutes after Merlin in perhaps what has been the most exciting TransPac finish ever.
Ten years later, Merlin's elapsed time record still stands.
The race had been an eye-opening experience for the skipper and crew. For almost 8.5 days the long, low sloop literally charged across the Pacific, often submarining the bow through the waves in front of it. 'It was like riding in a planing motorboat," recalls Dave Whale, "with a constant bam, bam, bam vibration. I brought along a paperback copy of Shogun to read, but it was too hard to keep steady. I eventually ripped the book in half so I could focus on the print!"
Harvey Kilpatrick, the chef and social director, adds that sailing so fast was a totally new experience for everyone onboard. "It was like driving down Highway 101 at night in the middle of a rainstorm with no headlights," he says.
The finish was something special, too. The drama had been long building, for midway into the race it was clear that barring a complete disaster a new record would be established. But who would set it, the Magician or the cardboard box king who tried to buy the dream?
When Merlin pulled into TransPac row to the wild greetings of a tumultuous crowd, Bill was decked out in his star-covered magician's robes and hat, as un-yachtsman like apparel as could be found. But it was new, different, magical and a hit! The party raged on and on; in fact there hasn't been a TransPac party that's come close to touching
And thus the legend of Merlin was born, with the TransPac becoming her personal showcase for the next six years. True, in 1979 she was beaten by Drifter for first-to-finish honors, but it had been one of the slowest races in history. In 1981 Nick Frazee's chartered Merlin and missed breaking her own record by just 44 seconds after 2,200 miles of racing. Frazee professed not to be disappointed, but later said he'd never do another TransPac on a normal displacement boat again. He later built the ultralight Swiftsure III and finished first in the last TransPac.
Of course Merlin wasn't limiting herself to just the TransPac. She was setting new records in Vic-to-Maui races, Mexico races, and competitions all up and down the west coast. She's been the elapsed time victor in all of the San Francisco to Kauai Pacific Cups as well.
Having chartered the boat out, Bill has missed those later TransPac rides on Merlin. He didn't miss the welcoming parties, however, flying over to greet the fleet as they tied up in the Ala Wai harbor. We vividly remember one year when Bill was driving the humanity-covered Merlin up and down the harbor after the race and one of the race committee people got on the public address system and pleaded: "Bill! Bill! We've got to get organized." to which Lee shouted the response, "I didn't come here to get organized, I came here to party!"
Bill also came to later TransPac finishes to check out his newest
creations, the Santa Cruz 33's, 40's, and 50's, all smaller versions of
Merlin with the distinctive squared off stern, boxy cabin house
and clean, light interior. By 1983, TransPac Row at the Ala Wai was beginning
to look like a Bill Lee boat yard. Sixteen of the 66-boat fleet were his
creations. Many others were obvious derivations.
As often as Merlin was chartered. she did spend some time back in Santa Cruz. But even there she was busy, as Bill frequently took her out on daysails and on the famous Wednesday night beer races. He made it a practice to invite loads of people out for a ride; young, old, women, kids, friends of strangers people who would obviously never buy one of his boats. But he wanted them all to share a bit of the magic. His message was clear; sailing was something to be enjoyed by everyone, not just a select few.
During the fun sails, Bill, a diet soda in one hand, would preside over the crew, cracking one liners and making recommendations for sail selection. He has no idea how many people were his guests during the five years he owned Merlin (he sold it to Sunnyvale's Donn Campion in 1982), but he knows they were rides few people will ever forget. 'I wish we'd kept a log book," he now says wistfully.
Bill's inclusion of women was no happenstance. "I think women should be more involved in sailing," he says. "They're good sailors and they enjoy it." Bill fondly recalls Merlin's record run to Manzanillo in 1978 when the eight person crew included two women. When Blondie won the Big Boat Series in 1985, she was mostly crewed by couples. Ultralights, it could be said, are women-friendly because they require less sail area and hence less brute force to trim and grind.
In addition to his work as an innovative designer, Bill also managed to run a specialty boatbuilding business during a decade when many such outfits went to the bottom.
Numerically, the Santa Cruz 27 was Bill's most successful production boat, topping out at 150 units built and sold in the mid-1970's. Santa Cruz 27's are still extremely popular on Monterey Bay, well- known for their finqertip control when surfing. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Norton Smith's establishing the monohull elapsed time record in the Singlehanded Transpac with his Santa Cruz 27, Solitaire, like Merlin's Honolulu record, its yet to be beaten.
After the Santa Cruz 27's and Merlin came 15 Santa Cruz 33's, 15 Santa Cruz 40's, and the Santa Cruz 50's.
Of these, the Santa Cruz 50, of which an astounding 28 have been built, has been the most successful. Twice in the last five years the 50's have raced one-design in the St. Francis Big Boat Series. Class B in the TransPac is virtually Santa Cruz 50 one-design racing. Over the years there have been many distance races when several 50's have crossed the finish line overlapped.
While always popular, the Santa Cruz 50's seem to be enjoying something of a revival, being excellent sleds for races to Hawaii. Mexico, Catalina, Ensenada, Santa Cruz and other downwind destinations. Several 50's are even in charter service in Maui, and Hal Roth just completed the Singlehanded Around the World Race in another.
Current production at the former chicken coop factory is devoted to the Santa Cruz 70's. The sixth, Hotel California was launched not too long ago, and participated in the Cal Cup sled wars Memorial Day Weekend. Right now Santa Cruz 70 #7, Mongoose II, is being built for Northern Californian Paul Simonson, who like some other 70 buyers owned a Santa Cruz 50 when he ordered his big boat. Simonson's boat should be ready in August for the St. Francis Big Boat Series.
Bill sailed the first SC 70, Blondie, in the 1985 TransPac, but what proved to be a tactical mistake left them behind an avalanche of Nelson/Marek 68's. The loss was avenged In the Long Beach to Cabo Race two years ago, when Blondie, with Bill and his wife Lu as last minute crew members, smashed the old course record, and took first to finish, and corrected time honors in class and fleet. Bill will be racing the TransPac on Hotel California this year, in an attempt to make amends for the last one.
Bill's business acumen and reputation for delivering a quality product are well known in the sailing world. Most of his yachts are finished on time, a minor miracle in itself. As sailmaker Taft says,"I've dealt with a lot of boatbuilder's, and Bill is the only one I know who consistently gets his boats completed on schedule."
Those that are a little late are still done right rather than being slapped together. "We don't promise the moon," says Bill, "and we hit most of the dates we're supposed to. Olaf Harken (of Wisconsin's Harken Brothers, boat builders and block makers) once told me that if a boat is two weeks late, the owner will be pissed for two weeks. If it's on time but screwed up, the owner will be mad at you forever!"
In predictably atypical fashion, Bill never offered his boats through dealerships. "We don't make that many boats," he explains. He tried offering the SC 27 to dealers, but the boat's popularity was tailing off at the time and the plan never took off. Since then the most popular boat has been the SC 50, which offers the thrill of maxi-ULDB sailing and proven quality without the maxi price tag. Bill expects even more interest in the boat now that the International Offshore Rule (IOR) has granted the design two feet of old age allowance and two more for other rule changes. "I think we'll have enough interest to do ten or twelve more," he' speculates.
Bill's differences with the IOR have been well publicized. He's long decried -although in a more conciliatory tone than in previous years - the way the IOR has distorted hull shapes that sacrifice speed for rating benefits. "I don't think the fathers of the IOR saw the modern One Ton as a result of their efforts," he explains. Lee feels that the new International Measurement System (IMS) has the potential to encourage less single-purpose boats than did the IOR.
Merlin was built to go through the water quickly with noble disregard for the IOR rule and other measurement systems. When the TransPac Race Committee placed an upper rating limit of 70.0 on all entries, the speedster suffered heavily and has had to compete in a severely truncated form since 1983. Bill has since devoted tremendous energy to understanding the IOR rule, and while he hasn't drastically changed his boats to conform to it, he knows exactly how to get the biggest bang for the buck optimizing them in that direction.
"Bill Is a researcher," explains Harvey Kilpatrick, who became a close friend of Lee's after the 1977 TransPac on Merlin. "He's not afraid to say he doesn't understand and ask for more information. He didn't understand the IOR ten years ago, but now he's writing letters to the TransPac Race Committee advising them about the rules,"
Once at loggerheads with the TransPac Committee, time and serendipity
seemed to smooth out that relationship. The serendipitous occurance was
the setting of a top limit of 70.0 IOR on TransPac entries. Certainly this
was a slap in the face of Merlin but suddenly the mai boat buyers
no longer faced to uncertainty of keeping up with competitors who might
keep building longer and lighter boats. The stabilizing influence of the
maximum IOR limit led directly to the success of the Santa Cruz 70's and
the Nelson-Marek 68's. The rating limit turned out to be good for both
business and the TransPac.
Lee believes that everyone should enjoy the magic of fast sailing.
Easily recognizable, Bill enjoys great popularity in the Santa Cruz community. Strangers walk up to him to shake his hand when he goes out to lunch. Three years ago he was elected to serve on the Port Commission, and he's been a key player in dealing with the shoaling problem at the Small Boat Harbor. Bill ran on a platform of keeping the harbor open year round, and his inclusion on the commission swung the tide in favor of getting their own dredge rather than relying on the federal government. For the first time in almost 30 years, Santa Cruz now has a year-round harbor (although Bill points out that a big storm could dump enough sand to close it within 24 hours).
Santa Cruz has been mentioned as a possible site for the 1990 America's Cup. The Canadian and Chicago syndicates practiced there last spring and found the Monterey Bay waters great for 12 Meter sailing. Bill's already been talking to others on the Port Commission and in town about what would have to be done to make that happen. "You'd need about half an acre to handle each boat and their support facilities," he says with an engineer's training. "For twenty boats that would mean ten acres of undeveloped waterfront land. We've got some places around here that might work. It would be great to host the America's Cup!" Some might be surprised to learn that Bill's already built meter boats; he built St. Francis VII, the Six Meter that the St. Francis YC used to thrash the Aussies.
The thought of Bill Lee involved with 12 Meters, the ultimate
heavy displacement boats (each 67 footer weighs three times as much as
Merlin), rattles the brain. But he has that overview of the sport to appreciate
what's next and what will be hot. The television coverage of the recent
America's Cup, for example, was a tremendous breakthrough for sponsorship,
he says. He would like to see a change In the boats, however. A 6O-foot
monohull with few limits to design and construction would be his choice.
"They should have pedestal winches and trapezes to intrigue the viewers,"
he says. "And they will be required to carry six video cameras from the
mast to the stern. You need the pictures!" Dennis Conner are you listening?
Lee in the renowned magician's costume he sports for important occasions - like new TransPac records.
Other areas of the sport that excite Bill are windsurfing and Formula 40 catamarans. "You would think the world was out of things to invent." he says. "and now look at windsurfing. It's a breakthrough sport. There are no doubt other things that we haven't thought of yet either," The Formula 40's are popular in Europe right now, and they are drawing large sponsorship dollars. Bill hopes they catch on here too, allowing the professionals a forum to really strut their stuff. At the same time he doesn't want to see the pros damage club racing, which is where most sailors take part.
Whether Bill Lee, with his inquisitive mind and his ability to make things happen, can influence these areas in the next ten years as much as he has impacted ocean racing and ultralight designs in the previous ten remains to be seen. He certainly has made a mark, both locally and in the sailing world. His boats combine revolutionary design and exceptional craftsmanship. He has helped put Santa Cruz on the map as a major center for the development of the sport. Hundreds, if not thousands, of sailors have come to not only understand, but espouse, his sailing philosophy. Fast really is fun, and men. women and youngsters have Bill Lee to thank for making that so obvious and available.
For his contributions as a designer, builder, sailor, and custodian of the sport, Bill Lee is Latitude's runaway choice for Sailor of the Decade.
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