Bill Lee, Merlin, and the cosmic thrill

Reprinted from Sail Magazine, June 1977

By Charles Mason photos by Greg Dorland

 [Note: this was printed one month before Merlin raced her first Transpac and set the still standing elapsed time record.]

 Monterey Bay, California, in the middle of March. The waters glisten brightly and, encouraged by the bright afternoon sun, the wind off Santa Cruz is beginning to pick up. It is a good day for a sail by anyone's standards. On board the 67-foot Merlin out on the bay there is excitement and anticipation. That's a bit unusual, for everyone on board has known each other for years; they have sailed together on all sorts of boats and in all kinds of situations. There's little they haven't seen or been through. Still, today is special because it is the first real sail for the big sloop since its launching a week or so earlier.

 A few routine tacks to get the feel of things, and then it's time to start having some fun. Somebody gets the spinnaker on deck; someone else hooks up the sheets and guys; and up the mast it goes for the first time.

 There's a bit of slatting at first but the sheets are quickly trimmed end the big sail starts to pull. The reaction is almost instantaneous. A slight nudge at first, then the steadying heel and the lifting bow, and finally the speed. And zingo- there goes the steam gauge punching past 20 knots with no sweat at all!

 A cheer goes up from the deck as the big sloop blasts across the bay with her wake streaming straight out astern.

group in cockpit ofMerlin
Do you recognize this group from '77 aboard Merlin going surfin' 'round Monterey Bay?

Usually the owner of a boat this size is easy to spot; perhaps there's a shock of distinguishing gray hair, a monogrammed T-shirt, white pants, even a club tie or hat. But always there's the well-practiced posture that says, I own this boat. If you followed these guidelines on this particular afternoon, Merlin's owner would have been especially hard to pick out dressed as he was in a faded polo-shirt, well-laundered dungarees, and a pair of sneakers that clearly had run far over the mileage recommended for trade-in.

Bill Lee Photo The only thing that might give this owner away today is the fact that he is yelling and cheering as loudly as anyone on board. This is what sailing is all about for Bill Lee, Merlin's 35-year-old designer, builder and owner: the big boat, his friends, and the fun of sailing at high speed. And if Lee is right with Merlin, as he has been with other boats, and if Merlin is a breakthrough as many are beginning to believe, both stand a good chance to rip up the elapsed time record for the Transpac Race of nine days, nine hours and six minutes. Whether that happens, of course, won't be known until a week or so after the July second start when the bigger boats start closing in on the Diamond Head finish line. But in the meantime Bill Lee is doing the two things he likes to do best: sailing boats fast, and having a great time doing it.

 Lee has been alternately damned and praised - it all depends on who is doing the talking - for being the chief practitioner of what has come to be called the "ultra-light-displacement boat," more popularly termed the ULDB. Lee's critics say that boats designed by him have given their owners an unfair advantage, particularly in downwind conditions. Lee's equally numerous followers say that riding on one of his boats is for the offshore sailor the ultimate sailing experience. For his part, Lee continues to go his own way happily unencumbered by any labels. He just does what he thinks works best. But in maintaining his independence of thought Lee has kindled enthusiasm for what has become, for him, and others, the ultimate cosmic thrill: planing a light-displacement ocean racer at high speed across the face of some wave far offshore.

 But don't think for a moment that Merlin is a half-baked nutcake idea cooked up by someone who hasn't anything better to do with his time. Nothing is further from the truth. Though Lee has never actually put out his shingle as a "yacht designer," he has drawn the lines of any number of successful boats. Witchcraft, Panache, Chutzpah and the popular Santa Cruz 27 all have come both from his board and his building facilities.

 Merlin, like the others, is a combination of some sophisticated engineering in over the years. Lee won't fell you and a lot of very hard work Lee has put that, preferring to talk about what a kick it would be to top 100 miles an hour in a landsailer-for he is, by the way, one of that sport's most ardent enthusiasts.

If there are common threads to all Lee's sailing activities they are to sail fast boats fast, and have a lot of fun in the process.

When pressed, Lee will talk modestly about the boat. About its construction: "It's fiberglass with a balsa core and no exotic materials." About its accommodations: "It's got a conventional deckhouse, and the galley and chart table arrangement are really good for cruising." Though his friends like to add that the boat is extremely well laid out for having parties, Lee quickly counters by saying he's convinced that's in part what a big boat is for.

 Whatever the recreational possibilities, the bottom-line fact is that Merlin, fun as it may be for Lee and his friends to sail, is a very carefully engineered undertaking. Even the most obvious things are well thought out. Take Merlin's huge steering wheel for example. "We thought hard about putting on a tiller," says Lee, "but the experience has been that you can't stand up to steer with a tiller when you're going downwind. And even if you are strong enough, you always have to see where you are going. A wheel also allows a wider range of people to sail the boat, for if you gear everything properly, a lot of good sailors who aren't that strong can steer with a wheel."

 Merlin's namesake was a fifth century magician, intellectual, and principal advisor to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at their Camelot headquarters. Merlin is also, as Lee points out, the famous Rolls Royce engine that gave the P51 fighter its lethal punch during World War II. Lee's Merlin combines these traditions of creative ingenuity and straight bore power. At 67 feet overall and 62 feet on the waterline, Merlin has a conventional enough readout for an International Offshore Rule maxiboat, which she is. But as with all of Lee's designs, it's what is under the hood that finally counts. With a beam of about 12 feet, which some think makes her look like half a catamaran, and a designed displacement of only 22,000 pounds, Merlin sports about 1,850 square feet of sail, which is available, when needed, to blow the doors off the competition.

Merlin is long, narrow and light which requires minimum sailpower and winch power to get around the course.

Sailors who know agree that Merlin tracks better than most One-Tonners (maxiboats do tend to wander), requires less sailpower to push than a Two-Tonner, and they praise the engineering that has gone into the state-of-the-art rudder and keel sections. It's the boat that could just take it all in this year's Transpac.

 The Transpac. Los Angeles to Honolulu. It's a classic race sailed over a classic course. Run every other year by the venerable Transpacific YC, the course begins off Los Angeles Harbor, then chinks back and forth as the fleet beats offshore past the Santa Barbara Islands. There follows a quick skirt along the southeast quadrant of the Pacific high as the boats drop down through the latitudes looking for the northeasterly trade winds that will let them run-setting everything they've got for the push to the southwest and Oahu.

 Once the trades fill in, it becomes a downwind sprint with those fabulous sweeping rushes across the crests of endless trade-wind rollers. It can go on for days until finally the thumping surge of the Molokai Channel precedes the full speed press across the finish line at Diamond Head. It's a test of seamanship, and if there's any wind at all, it is not a race for the fainthearted.

 A Bill Lee design has been the overall winner in the last two Transpacs; in fact the same boat and the same owner have won. Stu Cowan, a Honolulu attorney, and until 1973 virtually an unknown in ocean racing circles, decided he wanted to win the Transpac. He went to Lee. Lee built him a boat, and despite heavy time assessments by the Transpac Handicap Committee, Cowan and his Chutzpah, won it all in the 1973 race. To prove it was no fluke, he came back again two years later and did it again.

Merlin from the air
With a magician's hat and eyes high on the mainsail, Merlin tracks along nicely in a good breeze of wind.

Blood pressures, primarily the establishment's, have been raised by Lee's successes. Because he cannot be pigeonholed by his designs, his critics prefer to call him a pragmatist who works strictly from the seat of the pants, building a boat light and shoving lead here and there if it seems appropriate. Actually, Lee is a trained engineer who knows exactly what he is doing, both in matters of design and construction; he is one of the very few designers who also builds all his own boats. The fact that Lee flatly refuses to be drawn into creating hull distortions demanded by some rules and still comes up a winner, gets blue-blazered pressures going even higher.

 As for Lee, he just keeps on doing what he likes to do best, though he does have some strong ideas about yacht design. "There are nine conditions of sailing that you have to look at," he says, "beating, reaching, and running in light-weather, medium and heavy. In any race you are going to have a probability of sailing in one or more of these conditions, and there are opportunities for some major or minor design improvements in each of these conditions.

 "Most boats, unless they are badly distorted, will reach fairly well in moderate air, but it is the beating and the running where the dramatic design improvements can come." But as for toeing the line to optimize to a specific rule, Lee simply says, "Personally, I have always preferred a boat that rates high and goes fast to a boat that rates low and goes medium."

 With Merlin, Lee may well have the best of both in the forthcoming Transpac. This year's fleet has been broken into two classes, "light" boats and "heavy" ones, and penalties have either been added or taken away depending on what the formulae say. When the computers finally print out Merlin's rating, it will be something like 128 feet, which seems a bit on the high side for a 62-foot waterline. In fact, one observer has already made the tongue-in-cheek comment that Merlin might have a good shot at the prize if she started the race two weeks early.

 Lee, who incidentally is full of praise for what the Transpac Handicap Committee has done, looks at it a bit more philosophically. "I know the rating sounds kind of shocking at first. But once you start to calculate it, the higher you go the less your seconds per foot per mile are. And so a foot of rating in that range only costs about a second per mile, whereas a foot of rating down in the Two-Ton range is closer to 10 seconds a mile."

 While the Handicap Committee has given boats like Merlin hefty ratings, it has also taken away the traditional little boat advantage by making the computed handicap distance for the race only three quarters of the total 2,225-mile length. This now gives the bigger boats a far better chance to win on corrected time than they have ever had.

 If you try to find a key to Lee's design success you have to keep going back to the way he views sailing: if has to be something that is fun to do. "I far prefer the sensation of going fast to the sensation of being handed a trophy," he says. And I like a good-looking boat; I won't design a boat that isn't pretty, and I just hate the idea of obsolescence. A boat should not be subject to the quick obsolescence of something like a One-Tonner."

The fact that Lee refuses to create hull distortions demanded by some rules, and still wins, raises some blue-blazered pressures

Bill Lee was born in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. When he was eight, his family moved to the San Gabriel section of California near Pasadena, and when he was 15, they moved again and settled in Newport Beach. There he began to sail, first in El Toro dinghies, and then with the Sea Scouts. And there was always a job as crew on larger ocean racers.

bow shot After graduating in 1965 from Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo with a degree in mechanical engineering, Lee found himself working for the defense industry as an engineer in Southern California. First there was some work on submarine parts, then followed exhausting studies on trim, stress, and weight analysis for armored personnel carriers and things with similar intent. As part of the design crew for the personnel carrier prototype, Lee learned a great deal about the practical side of stress analysis and the critical importance of weight. There were other projects, but finally Lee decided he had had enough of the military industrial complex. On his 26th birthday he left it to spend the next year or so sailing off Santa Cruz with his friends-getting odd jobs when he could to keep himself going, but generally enjoying the pleasant time that part of the world is good at providing.

 Santa Cruz then was getting ready to host the 505 Worlds, and for a long time prior to the event, the hot-doggers around the waterfront were thinking of nothing but five-o's. Lee was too, but in a far different way. He thought it would be fun to build a 30-foot 505-now there was something crazy that could really get out and go! It was strictly a part-time project, done when he could scrape together enough money to pay for the materials. And when Lee got a keg of beer and announced that there was going to be a boatbuilding party that afternoon, there was plenty of help available. Even so, it took about a year to finish the boat. At first Lee thought it would be sensational if he could rig it just like a 505-complete with trapezes and centerboard. But he soon saw that, despite the possibilities. this would be less than practical offshore. So the wings came off and the keel went on.

Working sails from cockpit When the boat was finally finished in the spring of 1970, Magic as it was called (with Lee in his magician's hat at the launching) displaced a mere 2,500 pounds. It spread the better part of 450 square feet of sail, and it went on to win the Monterey Bay series that spring. It also got people thinking about whether Lee was onto something.

 One year later Lee made his first Transpac, crewing for San Francisco yachtsman Art Biehi. Biehi had just been nipped for first place the previous race, and he was all set to take this one. As things turned out, the wind went light, and he again finished out of the money. But Biehi was even more taken with the Transpac challenge and decided that he needed another boat. That was when Lee gave him his idea of what it would take to win the race "I told him that to win the Transpac (under the old conditions) you needed the smallest possible boat, the lowest possible rating, and the lightest possible boat, for little boats can surf when the bigger boats can't." Biehi said he was on, and told Lee to design and build the boat. Witchcraft was the result, and when it was completed, the all-up displacement was around 7,500 pounds but it had about 600 square feet of sail area to move it off the starting line. Launched in April of 1972, Witchcraft went on to win the Mazatlan Race that year. And it started heavy rumblings of concern among some members of the Transpac Handicap Committee (which Biehl, coincidentally, happened to chair). Lee's boats, some of them said, were going to make a mockery of the race and possibly ruin it forever if nothing was done. Action came quickly, and proposals that were on the table for the 1975 race were hurriedly enacted. Whopping penalties were assessed to many of the lighter boats, and none of Lee's escaped. But when the 1973 race was finally over, there it was, Chutzpah, a sistership to the boat Lee had fold Biehl could win the Transpac, was at the top of the standings.

 The funny thing is that no matter what the race results say, Lee is determined to go his own way. "I'm involved with sailboats," he says, "because I enjoy it. And I'm certainly not at all interested in having my career dependent on winning or losing. I would rather design a boat I like to go sailing on any day than one that might win the Half-Ton Worlds that I don't want to sail on. And that goes for cruising boats too. One feature of every cruising boat is that it shouldn't cost any more than it has to. And it should also sail well enough so that in five knots of breeze you can sail to your destination instead of having to turn on the motor to get there.

 "Of course I knew the word cruising means different things to different people. Some like to take their time and plug along in a Winnebago while others get fun out of driving a Porsche, then having time to enjoy the surroundings when they get there. Both have their place, of course."

 If Lee is in the mood, he can go on for hours about sailing, and about life. As for his role as a designer, "It's fun to design boats, and it would be fun to design a boat that would win the One-Ton Worlds. But I'm not going to lock myself in a room forever to do it; there's just too much going on." And about sailing: "I do enjoy racing, especially from the design aspect. I'm always wondering why boats pass us, if they do."

 Have things changed for Lee since those early days when Magic was the crazy boat that became the boat to beat off the wind? "My game has changed a little bit since then," Lee says with a grin. "Now my idea of fun is to beat them all to the windward mark, and then plane away from them on the reaches and runs."

Merlin going surfin' Merlin's first big test will come next month in the Transpac but it seems clear right now that the boat is a downwind flyer.

Larry Herbig, a sailmaker with North Sails in Alameda, has known Bill Lee for a very long time. "Bill has always been hang- loose in his own attitude toward racing. Because of this he really doesn't get the credit he should for his design and engineering skills. When it comes to racing he just isn't going to go out to the starting line a half hour before the race to clock the shifts. And he isn't the guy who puts up all his headsails to see how they look, and gets just the right one for the race.

 "Bill is interested in going out and having a good time sailing, and he is totally absorbed by the flash that you get off the wind in a breeze when everything picks up and the boat starts going. It's indescribable, really, for anyone who hasn't done it. His way of doing things is to get out there and let the crew flow together. There's never a lot of tension with someone always holding onto the genoa jibsheet and another guy on the halyard. Bill feels that when he goes sailboat racing, the crew should have a good time, and if they sail well they will win."

 Out on. Monterey Bay, the sun has started to head down toward the horizon. On board the big Merlin most of the sandwiches and beer have been consumed, and it's time to start in. Lee is at the helm and puts the wheel down, heading back toward Santa Cruz. With the spinnaker up and the westerly still blowing, Merlin is clicking off an easy 14 knots. His friends call for a huddle in the cockpit. There is a short discussion followed by unanimous agreement that it would be pretty funny to leave Lee all alone on the deck of his 67-foot sloop with the spinnaker up. So everyone piles down the companionway leaving Lee at the wheel with the 14-knot wake stringing straight out astern.

 The big boat is moving nicely now, and Santa Cruz is getting closer all the time. Lee holds the wheel gently, reflecting on how beautifully Merlin is tracking. And then in typical fashion he goes all his friends one better. "Hey look at this," he says, "this is kind of neat." And with a big grin and a quick turn of the wrist he locks off the huge wheel-and walks back to the stern. Holding onto the backstay he watches her go. Merlin and the magician are planing away from everyone again, just for the fun of it. Just the two of them, tracking downwind at high speed straight as an arrow.

Bill Lee at Wizard Yachts, Ltd.

[email protected]

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