Bill Lee, Merlin, Return to the Transpac After Historic Race 40 Years Ago
By Staff Commodore Kimball Livingston, photo by Sharon Green 

In the 1970s, ultralight-displacement boats from Santa Cruz – ULDBs – changed offshore racing forever, and the boats with the biggest impact were designed by Bill Lee. It was in 1977 that he went large, meaning 68 feet but still smaller than the “Maxi standard” 80-footers such Windward Passage and Blackfin. The real difference, however, was in pounds per foot of LOA. Much as they had when Cal 40s appeared in the 1960s, traditionalists predicted sinkings and disaster. Appearing at Merlin’s christening robed as a wizard, Lee shrugged off arguing on behalf of his in-depth engineering background. 

It’s a good bet that in 1977 you would not have found, among either the man’s detractors or supporters, a single person who would predict that, one day, Bill Lee would be Commodore of the Transpacific Yacht Club.

Merlin was designed for sailing downwind and being first to finish in West Coast races and the heck with corrected time. She may have shared a few characteristics with a submarine. But Merlin was fast.   

She beat Windward Passage’s 1971 record by over 22 hours, and the record held for 20 years.

Like Black Beauty, Merlin was eventually sold to a future of successive owners with their own ideas. Unlike Black Beauty, when Bill Lee bought her back, he had no thought of putting her out to pasture.

Bill and Lu Lee entered Merlin in the 2017 Transpac, 40 years after she set the stage for so much of what has come since.  Her elapsed time of 8:02:34:09 did not set records, but it did beat her 1977 time of 8:11:01:45, a testament to the design improvements Lee continues to make.  

To many, Lee is a Transpac legend. To Lee, Merlin is the legend. He says: “This boat has had seven keel changes, four mast changes, deck layout changes and countless sails through its life. Right now she sails better and is faster than her original self, so much so it’s really a different boat.”

You can find our model of Merlin in the Golden Gate Room, and here is one more thing: on board Merlin in 2017 was StFYC member Morgan Larson. In 1977, his father was part of the Merlin crew.