If you’re over 40 and know anything about sailing, you probably know exactly who Bill Lee is. The image is clear: bushy brown hair escaping from a Gilligan-style bucket hat, oversized sunglasses and a wrinkled flower-print button-down shirt. We (I’m 43) can also picture the rundown, wood-and-tin chicken coop atop a dusty hill four miles from Santa Cruz Bay in California, where for 20 years Lee plied his trade as a boatbuilder.
A six-pack was the price of admission to the shop where Lee struck out and started a movement. Call them ULDBs (ultra-light displacement boats) or “sleds,” they were super-skinny boats that dominated West Coast ocean racing for decades. The epitome of the type, Merlin, was Lee’s personal 68-footer aboard which he set a new Transpacific Race record in 1977 that held for 20 years. His mantra: “Fast is Fun!”
Fast forward to last winter, and no one in the greater sailing world knew what Chip Merlin looked like or who he was. Since the beginning of the 2018 offshore sailing season, however, astute observers have started to see more and more of this Florida attorney’s bright white, contagious smile and healthily tanned skin.
His hair is trim and he’s not a big beer drinker, but more and more his name and Bill Lee’s are starting to be used in the same sentence. As the ninth owner of Merlin, Chip (yes, Merlin really is his last name) is also actively writing a new East and West Coast chapter for this famed spear of a yacht, which recently began with two Florida ocean races and the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race.
Just by Chance
The story of how Chip Merlin bought Merlin from Bill Lee has a less obvious beginning than it would seem, if for no other reason than the fact Chip had never raced big boats or even taken part in an ocean race until the late winter of 2017-18. What did exist, though, was a connection with the Newport Bermuda Race.
Specifically, Chip’s father, former U.S. Coast Guard admiral Bill Merlin, raced in the 1954 and 1956 Bermuda races, and on both of their bucket lists was a chance to sail in the race together. Chip was searching for a large yacht charter to take his 83-year-old father on the 2018 race when Lee’s advertisement for the legendary racer popped up on his laptop.
“I called Bill Lee that night,” Chip says, “and the next day I had my boat captain fly out to meet him and see the boat.”
In fact, Merlin’s shockingly narrow white hull was etched into Chip’s mind more than most: their common name reminding him of reading about the boat’s 1977 Transpac victory in Sports Illustrated, where the writer referred to the boat as “a yacht so long and narrow that it has been called half a catamaran.”
In the years since, law school had interrupted Chip’s small-boat career, which included a number of Flying Scot titles. After that he’d become a successful attorney representing corporations and individuals with insurance disputes, usually after natural disasters. More recently, though, he’d returned to racing 30-footers out of the Gulf Coast’s Davis Island Yacht Club, which in turn had rekindled his desire to recreate his father’s Bermuda Race past, despite having no idea what awaited at the other end of the plan.
As for Lee, his experience with his masterpiece is framed by visions of Transpac wins off Diamond Head, colorful victory leis around his neck, Mai Tais and the joy rides he would take on Merlin along with a party of whoever was around the hip enclave of Santa Cruz. Racing never got in the way of having a good time, and just going fast.
A couple of years earlier, Lee had also snatched Merlin back from a Midwest owner to do the 2017 Transpac on the 40th anniversary of the boat’s record run. By then the boat had a canting keel and a super-long, high-aspect rudder that had been installed in the late 1990s. After redesigning the keel and cabintop along with ULDB disciple Alan Andrews, known for carrying on the long, thin torch of fast, thin boats with his famed Andrews 70 design, Lee finished a respectable third in class. Then the boat went up for sale.
By the time Merlin was trucked to Florida, Chip and his boat captain, Brian Malone, owner of North Sails Gulf Coast, were already putting together a plan to prepare for Bermuda. Included were two warmup races out of their home waters: St. Petersburg to Habana, Cuba, where Merlin received line honors; and the Regatta del Sol al Sol to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
“I was so unprepared the first time to Cuba,” says Chip, who gathered some friends with offshore experience for the race. “There was no anxiety, it was just, ‘Let’s get the boat there.’ With Isla Mujeres, we were just focused on installing the new electronics.”
Fast forward another few months, and this author found himself getting in touch with the Merlin team while working out the media strategy for the Newport-Bermuda as a race reporter. This, in turn, led to joining up with the boat for its historic “thrash to the onion patch.” The storyline was as compelling as it gets: legendary record-breaking West Coast flyer trying to win the East Coast’s premiere ocean race in her first go. As a backstory, there was of a guy named Merlin buying the boat to have a father-son experience of a lifetime.
Shortly after that, in Newport itself, I found that even among so many famous boats, Merlin’s reputation clearly preceded her. Although some might have expected all eyes would be on the deluxe carbon catamarans in the fleet (allowed for the first time in race history) conversations on the docks were instead all about the dark blue, low-slung boat with the rainbows on her topsides and boom, complete with sparkling stars. Some almost expected a unicorn to jump out of the companionway.
“Everyone has sailed a Transpac on Merlin,” explained Artie Means, the navigator aboard the Gunboat 62 Elvis, a race favorite in the inaugural multihull division. “If you haven’t, you want to.”
At the New York Yacht Club’s patio that overlooks Newport’s glimmering harbor, Chip was introduced to renowned sailor and North Sails president Ken Read. So new to modern sailing was Chip that he’d never even heard of this America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race veteran. Read, on the other hand, who had been the skipper of the ocean record-setting 100-footer Comanche for the boat’s first four seasons, knew all about Merlin and wanted very much to meet current her owner: especially after seeing the boat on the starting line of the 2017 Transpac.
“I don’t take pictures of many boats,” Read told Chip. “At the Transpac start, when everyone had their cameras out and were taking pictures of Comanche, I took out my phone and took a picture of Merlin. Can I come sailing with you some time?”
“Sure, anytime,” was Chip’s casual response.
For my part, once aboard Merlin I quickly learned what all the excitement was about, as our only practice session had us sailing in a gusty 15 to 22-knot westerly on Narragansett Bay. With a full main and #2 nonoverlapping jib (Merlin only has one genoa as her narrow form tips over quickly in more than 10 knots of breeze) we reached along at 13 knots. Upwind we were touching double digits.
With a new crew of talented inshore sailors and three professionals filling key roles, the boat felt like a enormous whip, which provided a sensation of speed and power I soon learned is what this boat is all about. Dissecting this feeling exposes why this boat was so ahead of its time.
“We call her a mono-maran,” says Chris Watts, a legacy crewmember from the 2017 Transpac and the boat’s guru. “She heels quickly over, but when the bulb of the keel gets outside the sheerline, that’s when she ramps up.”
Sure enough, at the beginning of the race the following Saturday, a second-row start soon had us coming over onto port tack. The boat is not known to point well, and Watts wanted us to have some room to let Merlin do her thing. A few minutes later we tacked back onto starboard. Next thing we knew we had rolled the fleet and were first in our class, as we were treated to an example of Merlin’s ramping up firsthand.
After that we spent much of that first afternoon, we were in the top group, holding off the fleet’s fastest, and in the days that followed, we enjoyed a number of mini-rivalries, the most memorable a close reaching drag race with the original Gunboat Tribe. For more than a day this 62-footer that is the archetype of modern high-performance catamaran cruising couldn’t shake Merlin. Each time the boat would kick over to a steep 30 degrees or more, the crew’s eyes would open wide as the speed jumped into double digits. Spray would begin to fly as the leeward chainplates dipped underwater, and Watts would just shake his head as if to say, “I told you so,” and say, “Here she goes.”
Unfortunately, while sailmaker Brian Malone had optimized Merlin’s sailplan for the historic reaching and upwind conditions of the race, a surfeit of light air meant we never got to test the boat’s “giddyup.” That said, an afternoon of broad reaching with the boat’s famous giant rainbow spinnaker just south of the Gulf Stream’s electric blue water was straight out of a Transpac Race log.
In fact, this year’s Bermuda Race was not a good one for the big boats in general, as the smaller boats in the fleet snuck up each time the leaders parked in the light spots. Still, early that Tuesday afternoon we found ourselves beating alongside the green hillsides of St. David’s Head with its red, turquoise and pink houses. As we were doing so, Bill Merlin took the helm, and steady as a rock, with the blue wheel almost reaching his strong chin, the former Coast Guard admiral soon had the boat above her target speeds in the flat, clear water. As he carried the boat across the line for his third Bermuda Race finish in 64 years, his and his son’s emotions could be clearly seen behind their dark sunglasses.
Later, when the team hit the docks, family and friends were on the pier with an improvised luggage bag filled with ice and beer, some adorned with shiny, golden temporary tattoos of Merlin’s star-clad wizard’s cap and smile.
“I’m just starting to digest the Bermuda Race,” Chip said immediately after the experience, “I’ve been learning through four races. Bermuda is one of the iconic races, and it started this whole process.”
Looking ahead, Chip is planning on doing the spring ocean races on the West Coast, Merlin’s old stomping ground, in preparation for 2019 and the 50th-anniversary Transpac Race. After that will come another run at Bermuda and the Chicago-Mac Race in 2020. (Although Merlin started the Mac race this past summer, the crew withdrew after diverting to try and help find a sailor lost off one of her competitors shortly after the start.)
The team has also retained Alan Andrews and is trying to make Merlin faster without changing the original design concepts. “We are making sure not to change her too much, otherwise she wouldn’t be Merlin,” Chip says, suggesting he may incorporate the use of different, lighter materials for some of the onboard equipment and possibly a new rudder.
Beyond that, true to Lee’s ambivalence to trends and rules, Chip says of the boat’s future, “We won’t let the rating get in the way of making the boat go faster and having a good time. We want to break all the records Merlin had in the past. That’s the goal and that’s the plan.”
A veteran East Coast sailor, Chris Museler has sailed and competed aboard everything from schooners to full-foiling Moths, Stars and maxis