In the mid-1970s, Soquel yacht designer Bill Lee had a vision and threw conventional design and boatbuilding to the wind. Bill wanted to build boats light enough to catch wind waves which would make sailing much faster and more fun. The slogan “Fast is Fun” was born for these Santa Cruz line of boats. The popular Santa Cruz 27 was the first of these wave-catching boats.
Offshore racing is deeply embedded in the sailing culture of California. The most sought after offshore race on the West coast is the Transpac. In 1977 Bill designed and built a narrow and extremely light 68-foot boat named Merlin. Bill, and his crew of seven, raced his 68-foot creation in the Transpac, riding down the faces of waves that previously would have escaped over the horizon.
Merlin and two competitors, Ragtime and Drifter, were revolutionary boats in 1977 with their long, narrow and lightweight design that could pierce through the small waves. Merlin slid down the large North Pacific swells with speed and grace and it earned Bill the nickname “Wizard.”
During the 1977 Transpac, the boats sailed through squalls in the evening where gusty winds would launch them through the backs of the waves. Surprisingly Bill states, “The boat was easy to sail and the good guys were always able to keep her going.” In eight days and 11 hours, Merlin and her crew arrived in Honolulu setting a new record that stood for 20 years, beating Drifter by 17 minutes.
Bill Lee’s Merlin finishing Transpac 2017 in her 40th anniversary return to the race after setting the Transpac course record in 1977.
LOA: 68’ LWL: 62’ Beam: 12’ Draft: 9’
Weight: 24,000 lbs. Ballast: 10,500 lbs. Sail area: 1,834 sq. ft.
Santa Cruz Yachts, founded by Bill Lee, has a 35-year history of designing and building sailing yachts. The emphasis has been on ultra-light high performance racing designs generally offering amenities for long distance voyages. Santa Cruz Yachts has produced award-winning designs and these boats have performed well in racing including long distance ocean racing.
In 1977 the 66-foot (20 m) Merlin was considered unseaworthy by critics, however, the boat proved to be capable of 28 knots (52 km/h) surfing, and won the 1977 Transpacific Yacht Race from California to Hawaii in record time with an average speed of 11 knots (20 km/h) over 2,250 miles. In 1981 Merlin again won the Transpac, but this time seven of the top ten finishes were the Santa Cruz 50, a scaled down production version of Merlin. A 50-foot (15 m) Santa Cruz yacht weighs about 16,000 pounds with half of that weight in the ballast of the keel; this is very light compared to the 30,000 pounds normally associated with a 50-foot (15 m) boat.
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.”