MERLIN - Bill Lee’s Magic Bus

Reprinted with permission from Latitude 38, September, 1995

by Shimon van Collie

If there’s one boat that has embodied West Coast sailing for the past two decades, it has to be Bill Lee’s 68-foot long, 12 foot wide, 25,000-pound Merlin. The sweetheart of Santa Cruz, Merlin ranks in sailing’s pantheon with boats like Olin Stephens’ Dorade, Alan Gurney’s Windward Passage and Ron Holland’s Imp. No one who’s ever sailed this “one hulled catamaran” - and there have been hundreds - is likely to forget the thrill of slicing through the water with such speed and power. When it comes to going fast, Merlin is the boat of choice.

Tracing Merlin’s roots requires scanning back to the years prior to her emergence from Lee’s 200-foot long converted chicken coop on a hillside in Soquel, California. Lee, an engineer from Cal Poly, was one of a group of sailing enthusiasts who found Monterey Bay a marvelous playground. Steady northwesterly winds and long Pacific swells made for long hours of sailing bliss, with an ever increasing desire for more speed. Lee’s colleagues, especially Ron Moore and George Olson, were forging their own visions with boats like Summertime (precursor to the Moore 24) and Pacific High (ditto to the Olson 30).

Lee’s initial entry was the 30-ft Magic, followed by the 35-ft Witchcraft. For the TransPacific Race, the biennial dash from Long Beach to Diamond Head, Bill came up with the 40-ft Panache and the 35-ft Chutzpah. The latter won overall corrected honors for the race in 1973 and 1975.

All of the above boats benefited from the Santa Cruz philosophy of taking conventional sailboats of the time and making them longer and lighter. Some of them were extremely beamy as well, like Panache. But In 1973, Lee raced Panache to La Paz and saw the Spencer 53 Ragtime, a narrow, hard-chined sloop that won line honors in the TransPac earlier that year. Lee liked the Idea of getting thin and rounding off the bottom. The Merlin concept was born.

Construction of the boat was not exotic. Both hull and deck are balsa cored and covered with E-glass and woven roving with some unidirectional glass in high-stress areas. Lee used Bruynzeel plywood for the interior structures, which include a raised main settee over the water tanks, a total of 10 berths strung along the hull, a navigation station and galley and a head jammed way up in the bow.

Although much of the competitive sailing world fretted over complying with the ever-shifting International Offshore Rule (IOR), Lee simply focused on making Merlin fast enough to break not just Windward Passage’s existing monohull TransPac record of 9 days, 9 hours, but also the muitihull record of 8 days, 13 hours set by France’s Eric Tabarly in 1969. He relied on the numbers his engineering background provided him, but he also drew on his and other’s intuition to get the boat just right. “I’d go over after work,” says insurance agent and TransPac veteran Harvey Kilpatrick, “and Bill had the keel on a dolly under the boat, moving it back and forth to where it looked right.” By February 23, 1977, Merlin was ready to hit the water.

Named after a combination of the Arthurian legend, the P-51 aircraft engine and a small falcon hawk, Merlin surprised even those who expected her to be fast. Kilpatrick came along for the initial sails, including the first time they hoisted a spinnaker. In anticipation of this crucial moment, Lee wondered aloud if he should drive or let his insurance man have the helm. He opted for the latter, went below and sipped on a soda as the sail went up. “We were going 12 knots under the main alone,” recalls Kilpatrick, “and with the kite up we jumped to 17, Everyone was whooping and hollering. It was really something.”

Weighing half as much as contemporary 68-footers, Merlin presented Lee and his crew with a whole new world of sailing. “It was like riding a motorboat without the engine,” says Dave Wahle. Merlin was so active in a seaway that Wahle recalls he had to rip his paperback copy of the novel Shogun In half In order to focus on the print!

With so little beam, Merlin was never expected to go upwind with any speed. Off the wind, however, she created tremendous apparent wind. In flat water she would sail with the pole on the forestay while the true wind was well aft of the beam. “For those of us used to heavier boats, this was totally unique,” says Steve Taft, an early crewmember and the boat’s sailmaker for many years. “If the true wind died, we’d experience these incredible apparent wind crashes.”

Out of money after building the boat, Lee relied on his TransPac crew, which included Kilpatrick, Wahle, Jack Halterman, Rob Wade, Bob Larson, Phil Vandenberg and navigator Don Snyder, to help out Each took on a job and they all helped shake the boat down with some coastal races off the Golden Gate. They blew up gear and fixed it. They learned how to sail when the boat ran over one wave and down into the next, covering the foredeck with a couple feet of water. ”We were all pretty scared at first,” recalls Vandenberg. “The bow would be three feet underwater but the boat didn’t slow down or load up and the speedometer didn’t go down. After awhile, we’d just shrug our shoulders and keep going.” Once Vandenberg was on the bow dropping the blooper when a wave came along and washed him down the forward hatch along with several hundred gallons of water. Left hanging upside down and from his safety harness, Vandenberg dubbed this experience “the Cosmic Flush.”

The favorite going into the 1977 TransPac, Merlin faced some stiff competition from Harry Moloshco’s 69-ft Drifter. The Southern California boat, built after Merlin and perhaps as an enlarged copy, actually led the race for six out of the eight days. Merlin went north and began to leg out on Drifter as the pair reached Oahu. As Lee remembers it, they weren’t sure who was ahead as the duo sped toward the finish line. Then a plane appeared from the direction of the island. It circled overhead as a photographer recorded Merlin’s ‘Das Boot’ imitation. When the plane finally peeled off and headed behind them, the crew realized that they must be ahead of Drifter. “It was a sobering moment,” says Bill. “All we had to do was finish the race and not goof up.

“For our final jibe at Molokai, we dropped the chute, jibed the main and raised a new chute on the other side. Drifter tried it with their kite up and put the spreaders in the water.” In the end, Merlin crossed 17 minutes ahead after 2,200 miles of racing. Her elapsed time of 8 days, 11 hours and 1 minute broke Taberly’s mark by two hours and has remained the official TransPac record ever since.

Merlin’s smashing success was not greeted with hurrahs in all quarters. Steve Taft was part of the America’s Cup effort in Rhode Island, when the TransPac was happening. During a conversation with Olin Stephens, designer of the classic ocean racer Dorade and one of the world’s preeminent yacht designers, Taft brought up the subject of Merlin. “What’s that?” inquired Stephens. As Taft described the minimalist concept downwind sled, Stephens harrumphed and peered down his nose at this misguided west coast concept. When the newspaper reported that Merlin was actually leading the race the next day, Stephens commented that “those people are hopelessly lost!”

A few months later at the St. Francis Yacht Club Stag Cruise, Taft brought Merlin to the delta and late one night was asked by Stephens for a tour of the boat. “All he could do was shake his head,” Taft laughs.

For the town of Santa Cruz, Merlin became its goodwill ambassador. Dozens of folks flew over to welcome the boat In Honolulu, and Bill invited them on board to go out and greet other finishers as they arrived. Merlin T-shirts were a growth industry in the docks of the Ala Wai. The legend of Merlin was born.

Feeding the Legend was Merlin’s continued success in the TransPac She didn’t always get to Honolulu first, but she was always the boat that the other big, fast, expensive sleds had to keep their eye on. After a light air race in 1979, Merlin returned in 1981 under the charter of Nick Frazee. Once again, Lee’s creation battled Drifter on the way over. And once again, she prevailed, falling only 45 seconds short of breaking the 1977 record.

In 1983, the TransPac committee, fearing that Lee’s success would prompt a rash of Merlin copies that lacked her structural integrity, capped the race entries with a 70.0 IOR rating. Nolan Bushnell, the man who brought us Pac-Man and Chuck E Cheese, spent several hundred thousand dollars on the maxi ultralight Charley to make it both legal and fast enough to beat Merlin. Steve Taft came aboard as the expert. In sea trials the boat showed it had plenty of speed.

In his sailmaking capacity, though, Taft also had a chance to sail on Merlin, which had been chartered to Cliff Wilson, Dem Smith and their Better Boating Syndicate. With a shorter boom and reduced sail area, as well as several thousand pounds of lead ingots bolted to her deck and bilge, Merlin had been handicapped down to the 70.0 rating, While testing some sails, however, Taft was treated to some eye-opening sailing. “With the bow under water we pegged the speedometer at 30 knots, which is the fastest I’ve ever gone on a sled before or since,” he says. “I called my mates on Charley and told them that we had a problem on our hands.” Charley’s crew worried about Merlin throughout the TransPac, but managed to hold her off, winning by two hours. Wilson and Smith won the moral victory, however. including reeling off an amazing 358 miles during one 24-hour period.

1983 was also the year Merlin changed owners. Donn Campion bought the boat from Lee with the idea that she would be chartered out regularly for West Coast ocean races. Campion has been proven right year after year since. Merlin became the workhorse racer, campaigning in odd-numbered year TransPacs - as well as even-numbered years in both Pacific Cups (San Francisco to Kaneohe) and Victoria (Canada) to Maui Races.

Although her results have varied, Merlin has always remained a threat wind swung aft of the beam. In 1987 Skip Steveley chartered the boat for TransPac and Campion came along for the ride. In the early going, Merlin lagged behind the competition and the crew began to wonder aloud if perhaps the magic had worn itself out. “Then the wind filled in from behind and we started to pick up the pace,” says Campion. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Merlin charged into the lead and scored her second first-to-finish victory in a decade.

In 1992, a group of Canadians headed by Dan Sinclair chartered the boat to take a crack at the boat’s run record of 10 days, 2 minutes in the Vic-Maui race. Sinclair admits that he and his pals weren’t used to sailing such a tender boat at such high speeds. “We’d hit 16 knots before In other boats,” he says, ”but now we were going 24. It was exhilarating, but we broached a lot.” Nevertheless, the Canadians sliced 46 minutes off the old record in winning class and fleet honors.

This past summer Sinclair returned for the TransPac. Getting to the race wasn’t easy, however. After preparing the boat the syndicate suffered a collision with a rock off Victoria that put Merlin in the yard for 2-1/2 weeks of around-the-clock repair work totaling $120,000.

Declared fit shortly before the start of the TransPac, Merlin joined the fleet of modern, expensive entries including IMS maxis Windquest and Sayonara. Race prognosticators gave the 18-year-old boat little hope, but the Canadians weren’t panicked. “We figured we had to stay within 130 miles of them to have a chance,” says Sinclair. “When they sailed into a hole, we dove south and it paid off.” The last days of the race found them surfing neck-and-neck with the turbo-charged SC 70 Pyewacket. A crash jibe in the Molokai Channel let Pyewacket get away, but Merlin still corrected out as division and overall winner - more jewels to add to the legend’s crowded crown.

Setting records and winning races spell only part of the Merlin saga, however. Ever since she was launched, the boat has been the locus of ‘Fast is Fun’ sailing, a term coined by Bill Lee. Many credit the popularity of ultralight sailing to the fact that Bill generously opened the boat to anyone who wanted to come aboard for a ride. On Santa Cruz’s summertime Wednesday night races, she would be loaded to the gills with men, women and children who would ‘oohh’ and ‘ahhh’ as she slithered through the sparking seas. Niels Kisling, who’s done the lion’s share of deliveries for Campion since 1983, says the boat always draws a crowd. When coming up the coast from Mexico or Southern California, he tries to schedule a Thursday night stopover at Morro Bay Yacht Club during happy hour. “We always get 30 or 40 people onboard for cocktails,” he says. “It’s always been open house on Merlin.”

Currently for sale, Merlin retains both her mystique and, as was shown in the ‘95 TransPac, her ability to go fast. “Merlin showed us that you could blow away the big, powerful maxi boats by going light and simple,” says yacht designer Carl Schumacher. “Sleds don’t load up like heavy boats. They’re easier to jibe and they take fewer people to sail. Merlin is certainly a boat that had a major impact on the sailing world.”

According to Bill Lee and others, Merlin could conceivably win TransPac again in 1997 and 1999. If she competes in both, she will attain yet another milestone as the boat with the most TransPacs to her name.

For Bill Lee, who has always given the sailing world many memorable boats since 1977, Merlin remains his favorite. The two will always be linked in sailing lore. While he acknowledges pride in her many racing triumphs, though, Lee still believes ‘fast’ and ‘fun’ go hand in hand. “We had a lot of fun with Merlin,” he says, “and people are still having fun with her.”

Memories of Merlin

Skip Allan, crewmember: “Merlin has always been a ‘people boat’ and the more the merrier. A Wednesday night crew in Santa Cruz of 35 to 45 was not uncommon, and if Bill didn’t cast off promptly at 5:30 p.m., more would have climbed aboard. Bill would sip brandy in the cabin and watch the action through the windows. One of the favorite activities for guests was to climb into the narrow bow of the boat and position their backs on one side of the hull and their knees on the other. Going to weather, the bow would flex and pant, squeezing you gently in a fetal hug.”

“Before the 1977 TransPac, race safety inspector Hays McClellan wanted all the requirements meticulously adhered to by this new rogue boat. As he went down the list, he stopped at the motoring requirement. ‘OK, I want to see this boat motor at 8 knots,’ he boomed. Dave Wahle cast off the docklines and, with Hayes aboard, roared down Santa Cruz Harbor at 8 knots backwards. The winter sandbar blocked the entrance, so when Merlin reached the end of the harbor, Dave spun the wheel. Merlin turned on a dime, nearly throwing Hayes overboard. They then motored triumphantly in reverse, back to the slip. Hayes quickly checked off the rest of the safety items and bemusedly fled this craziness.”

Harvey Kilpatrick, crewmember in 1977 TransPac: “When we left Los Angeles after the start of the race, we still weren’t sure how fast we could go. At the finish, we were all wound pretty tight. We had a drink and the crew disappeared. Bill and I were just blown away by the whole thing. It didn’t hit us what we had done until the next morning.”

Dem Smith, charterer for 1983 TransPac: “Merlin is the most incredible ride I’ve ever had. Sometimes I think of her as 67 feet of sheer terror. My job was jibing the pole and the first time I did it I found myself underwater with the wire guys dragging across the face. I immediately thought there had to be a better way to do it. I shortened the tether on my harness to three feet and fastened it to a deadbolt on the foredeck so I wouldn’t get swept away every time she dove. I literally did every jibe during that race underwater.”

Jim Antrim, yacht designer: “There’s a photo of Merlin at the Santa Cruz YC that shows her sailing under this huge kite. With her low freeboard and narrow hull, Merlin has always represented the minimal life support system needed for a spinnaker. She really started the West Coast downwind racing scene.”

George Olson, crew and fellow Santa Cruz boatbuilder/designer: “We were one of four couples who sailed Merlin back after the 1977 TransPac. It was during that trip that we had conversations about building a 30 footer that became Pacific High, which was the prototype for the Olson 20. Building a 70-footer was just beyond me or anyone else in Santa Cruz at the time. Merlin stands alone as an effort to see how fast we can really go.”

Latitude 38 and the Wizard both invite anyone who have ever ridden Bill Lee’s ‘magic bus’ to forward your favorite Merlin story for publication in a future issue of Latitude 38 or inclusion here.

email to Latitude 38: [email protected]
email to the Wizard: [email protected]

Bill Lee at Wizard Yachts, Ltd.
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