At the end of a rough and sometimes muddy road above Soquel, four miles south of Santa Cruz on the California coast, is a big old chicken house. A small, crudely lettered sign on a telephone pole says BILL LEE YACHTS. The parking lot lies some 30 feet below the coop, and an unpainted wooden staircase leads up to the hen-house door, which bears another sign: BRING A SIX-PACK. A lot of rich people have carried six-packs up those rickety stairs.
Most arrivals, rich or poor, six-packed or empty-handed, step inside the door to find nobody home. There is no foyer, no carpeting, no secretary, no bank of easy chairs. The visitor sees only a cluttered corridor opening into an enormous loftlike room. The floor is strewn with boat hulls and forms that from a distance look like hulls that have been sliced in two, stem to stern, with a cleaver.
Eventually, a man emerges from one of the doors, a stocky, medium-size fellow with an aureole of dark curls framing a high forehead and a pudgy face decorated with a wispy beard. Unsmiling eyes, magnified by thick-lensed, shell-rimmed glasses, inspect the visitor, who finally breaks the silence. "I have an appointment with Bill Lee."
A hand is extended—in welcome or for the beer?
November 20, 1978
"I'm Lee," says the greeter. "You bring a six-pack?"
The beer is produced and accepted.
"Okey dokey," says Bill Lee and turns back toward the door.
Okey dokey? The visitor follows, trying to remember the last time he heard that expression. Is this morose, shambling figure in the saggy old sweater—it would hang to the seat of his pants if the seat of his pants weren't already drooping halfway to the back of his knees—is this really the roistering, party-loving sailor who has been called "the king of the downhill racers"? Can this be the carefree builder whose ultralights won seven out of 19 trophies in Trans-Pacific yacht racing in 1975 and who, this past summer, was first to finish the Victoria-Maui International race?
Well, yes and no. The roisterous, boisterous Bill Lee is on public display only at the end of triumphant ocean races, when the smile he reserves for old friends goes public and the six-packs yield to champagne and mai-tais. And why is that Bill Lee happy? Because the boats he designs go like—as well as with—the wind. That's the Bill Lee, warmed by tropic rum and bedecked with leis, who told a Honolulu reporter after he finished first in the 1977 Transpac, "We sail for the fun of it—any excuse for a party. We don't even like to maintain a boat. It cuts into valuable party time." In the rush of that success, in which his boat bettered the 6-year-old record of nine days, nine hours, six minutes and 48 seconds by nearly a whole day, Lee told another writer, "We weren't out to break Windward Passage's record. We knew we could do that. The mark we wanted was Eric Tabarly's 1969 time of eight days and 13 hours in his trimaran Pen Duick IV. And we beat that by nearly two hours."
This man in the hen house is the other Bill Lee, the wary and suspicious wizard who has become one of the most controversial figures in racing-yacht design. And it was here that his masterpiece, the 67-foot, 22,000-pound sloop Merlin, was conceived and sent out to create new interest in yachting and to outrage the yachting Establishment. The crowds that throng Diamond Head and Lahaina at the conclusion of the biennial Trans-Pacific and Victoria-Maui International ocean races aren't there to see traditional yachts wallow home to victory on corrected time. They are there to see the Merlins and the Drifters and the Rag-times come home across the vast savannas of the sea as though they were, in truth, pursued by the hounds of heaven.
Why are there two Bill Lees, and why is this one sad? It is because his boats go so fast with the wind that critics say they can't go up it or across it. The somber Bill Lee has found that indifference, real or feigned, is a reliable defense against charges that he builds one-purpose downhill sleds and that such lightly built boats can't possibly be safe.
The allegations have gained a certain credence since Lee's most publicized victories have, indeed, been won going downhill—that is, with the wind behind him. The 1977 Transpac, with Lee at the helm of Merlin, and the Vic-Maui this past July, with Merlin chartered by Doug Fryer of Seattle, cut a total of two and a half days off the old records—and both are downwind races, with no serious weather or reaching legs. Once clear of Los Angeles and Victoria, respectively, the racers soon pick up the northeast trade winds and run before them all the way to Hawaii. But Merlin did not "win" either the Transpac or the International. Jim Kilroy's 80,000-pound ketch Kialoa won the former, and Bravura, a 48-foot Freres heavyweight, won the Vic-Maui, though she finished almost four days after Merlin. Both won on corrected time. Corrected time is the handicapping system based on the International Offshore Rule.
Sometimes, that is.
Although the IOR is the worldwide standard, regional yachting associations have power to modify it in emergency situations. Such emergencies are being generated by the appearance of new, light designs that threaten the dominance of heavy, traditional vessels. For the 1977 and 1978 races, the Pacific Handicap Racing Fleet, which had been stung twice in the past by a Lee boat, decided that neither Merlin nor Harry Moloscho's Drifter—a boat similar to Merlin—could be beaten in a scratch race by conventional yachts. Well, the fleet had bent the offshore rule in previous years to discourage catamaran and trimaran skippers, so now the handicap committee of the Trans-Pacific Yacht Club simply heavily penalized ultralight boats and put them in their own division. By the time Merlin and Drifter set out in the Transpac, the only way either could have "won" the race would have been to hitch a tow from a 747.
Although the IOR rating system has proved effective over the years as a means of diminishing the disparity between large and small boats of comparable design and relative weight to length ratios, some builders fear that it discourages advances in the state of the art. Bill Lee does not seem to give it much attention either way, much as the penalties may rankle. "Under Pacific Handicap rules there's no reason for me to build a faster boat," he says, "but I don't worry about that. The feeling of going fast is the thing."
Lee views the honorific "king of the downhill racers" as a slur rather than a compliment, even while conceding that Merlin has yet to prove her competitive ability in a long heavy-weather race embodying all points of sail. (After the Transpac, Merlin took on Phantom and another light heavy, the 61-foot Sorcery, in a series of triangular races off Maui. Merlin won two out of three, but in light air.) And he fiercely disagrees with a Hawaiian yachtsman who not only denounced the ultras as downhill sleds, but also added, "I wouldn't feel safe sailing in one."
"There are only two divisions of sailing," Lee says. "Racing men who want to go fast in heavy weather and cruising men who want to feel safe in heavy weather. Actually, they'd be safer in medium-to-light boats. One of the safest things you can put in the ocean is a Ping-Pong ball. Racing people often want a boat designed right down to the edge, but I won't do that. Merlin is safe in any weather."
Some of the charges of lack of safety stem from a notion that Lee, who designed his first boat in 1969, is a by-guess-and-by-God operator who "builds light and shoves lead here and there if it seems appropriate." Not true, says Charles Mason, a respected yachting writer. "Lee is a trained engineer who knows exactly what he is doing, both in matters of design and construction." This conclusion is borne out both by Lee's record as a sailor and by his predesign training.
Bill Lee began sailing traditional craft—and winning races—as a high school student in Newport Beach, Calif. After graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in mechanical engineering, he spent two years doing stress, trim and weight analyses for manufacturers of armored personnel carriers, submarines and amphibious craft. But he hated going to the office—it left no time for fun—and in 1969 he quit and moved to Santa Cruz, ostensibly to sell real estate but actually to sail.
"Then I got the bug to build a lighter boat than any then available," Lee says, "so I designed Magic. We built it outdoors, and it really wasn't a professional job, but I had real good luck with a 'sandwich' hull—fiber glass, balsa core, more fiber glass." Perhaps luck had nothing to do with it. He subjected every aspect of Magic's design to the stringent stress and weight tests he had mastered in his previous job.
"I didn't originate the sandwich hull," Lee says. "I was interested in going fast, but in a boat that would be structurally sound. Most boats are made of glass, wood or aluminum. The weakest hull forms are sprayed glass, and while the average stock glass boat is strong enough, it's heavier and slower. Some builders use chopped fiber glass put on with a gun, but it's not as strong as the woven fiber glass we use. We do a hand lay-up, paint the glass with thin resin for additional stiffening, then add the core—it can be either foam or balsa wood, but I think balsa's better—and then the inner weave." Lee has used this sandwich ever since.
A 30-foot boat that displaced only 2,500 pounds and carried nearly 450 square feet of sail, Magic ran away with the Monterey Bay races in the summer of 1970, with the young skipper getting as much attention as his radical boat. Lee was invited by Art Biehl, a San Francisco yachtsman, to sail in the 1971 Transpac, in which Windward Passage achieved the record that Merlin was to break in 1977, and Biehl asked Lee to design a 36-foot ultralight for his next ocean try. Witchcraft came out of Lee's makeshift shop at 7,500 pounds and, in response to a plea from Honolulu yachtsman Stu Cowan, he duplicated her in a boat Cowan named Chutzpah. The Pacific Fleet handicappers were beginning to get upset by this design trend, and when Cowan entered Chutzpah in the 1973 Transpac, the committee corrected her rating to account for extra anticipated downwind speed. Ragtime, the big ultralight from New Zealand, was attracting even more attention from the handicappers. Ragtime finished first, but Chutzpah sneaked home to victory on corrected time, of all things.
That fall Lee, realizing that building an occasional custom yacht was hardly a way to make a living, found the chicken coop, a huge structure built on a 10,000-square-foot concrete slab that had housed the laying stock of a big poultry firm. The fact that it was at the end of a hilly road, more than a mile from the water, only persuaded Lee that it would be a perfect place to build a lot of better boats in peace. He trundles them to the water on flatbed trucks. When he moved in, he already had one boat on his board—a little 27-footer that would be within the means of modest sailors.
The Santa Cruz 27s, which displaced only 3,000 pounds and cost only $16,995, started fluttering out of the coop in 1974. The next year Lee sailed Panache, his first 40-footer, to Manzanillo in Mexico, and it was there, while partying on the deck of Ragtime, that he and his crewmen, all longtime buddies, decided to do a big one. He was still working out the design of Merlin—a yacht so long and narrow (a 12-foot beam against her 67-foot length) that it has been called half a catamaran—when Stu Cowan slipped Chutzpah past the handicappers again for another corrected-time victory in the 1975 Transpac. For the second time, Ragtime ran interference.
"It took four of us about 10 months to build Merlin" Lee says. "Moloscho dropped in from Los Angeles one day, looked her over and decided he wanted one just like her. We said next year—so he went home, drew his own plans and started Drifter just a month before we launched Merlin. He had her built a little bigger all around and used an Airex foam core instead of balsa—lighter but not as strong." It was a remarkable job of eyeballing.
Drifter has outrun Merlin several times, including the La Paz race, which Merlin won on handicap, and the Cal Cup match race series last spring at Marina Del Rey. The first two races of the series were divided, and Drifter eked out the decisive third by only 14 seconds in air so light that the reach leg was eliminated. Merlin beat Drifter by 17 minutes in the Transpac and by 14 hours in the Vic-Maui.
Matching ultras against each other in light air may not prove much of anything as far as the present controversy goes, but it isn't quite true to say Merlin has never been asked to function in choppy seas and brisk winds. Lee took her to San Francisco Bay last year for a Sunday singlehanded race around the Farallon Islands. He won the first-to-finish award in a course-record nine hours, beating out to the Islands against 35-knot winds and whitecaps and steering home through quartering seas. A trimaran finished second, three hours later. "It was no big deal," Lee says. "I had self-tailing winches and just streamed all the sheets back to the cockpit."
Still, a great majority of the world yachting fraternity remains convinced that the ultralights are strictly downwind boats. Gary Mull, the respected designer of the Ranger 23, says, "It would be amazing if Merlin didn't go fast downwind—but she doesn't go upwind worth a didley." And some critics still fear that the structural integrity of Lee's boats is questionable. But support for the ultras is growing among seasoned blue-water sailormen. Both Greg Gillette, who nearly sailed Sweet Okole to overall victory in the SORC, and Doug Fryer, who won the 1976 Victoria-Maui race and skippered Merlin to her record 1978 finish, believe the ultralights can perform competitively on all points of sail. "Sweet Okole has gone six knots dead upwind," Gillette says of the boat designed by New Zealander Bruce Farr. "I think we could have won the Hawaii Around-the-State race, and this is an event in which sailors often contend with 14- to 16-foot seas and winds of up to 35 knots."
In the Vic-Maui, the racers went to windward coming out of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. "Merlin doesn't have the depth, weight or stability to hit into the wind," Fryer says, "but those problems are easily solved by just holding a course off the wind a little more than usual. The speed of the boat makes up for the difference in course. You are still going a lot faster than anyone else. It doesn't take much wind to get this boat going fast. I'd say Merlin can perform very well in all kinds of weather."
What Gillette and Fryer are saying is that the ultras have to be "sailed." They don't run on automatic pilot, and they don't reward inexperience or lassitude. Gillette puts it in terms of sustained output—"You have to make more trim adjustment, and it takes more effort by the crew." A sailor from the Vic-Maui concurs. "The boat is very lively and hard on the crew," he says. "Everything happens instantly. It means you are constantly changing gears—staysails go up and down with every shift in the weather or slight adjustment in the course. You can go from 10 to 16 knots in 20 seconds." Another ultra crewman, while conceding the hard work involved, says, "These are grand prix racing boats. They have brought the thrills back to big-boat racing."
There is less agreement among ultra supporters on seaworthiness. Last spring Merlin won the 1,110-mile San Diego-Manzanillo race, with Lee first to finish, first in his big-boat class, and fifth overall on corrected time. Mexican yachtsmen sponsored a number of subsequent races, and Gillette says that in one of them Merlin dropped out after she opened a leak at the juncture of keel and hull. This is the kind of information Bill Lee does not volunteer. He says, "I never discuss races that I lose."
Before the Vic-Maui, Drifter, under charter to a group from Hawaii's Lahaina Yacht Club, was damaged while bucking 35-knot winds and 15-foot seas on her way north from Oregon. After repairs, Drifter competed in the International but did not do well, and in the ensuing Pan-American Clipper Cup yacht series in Hawaii she finally quit. "She couldn't seem to go to weather at all," Gillette says.
Drifter's misfortunes do not necessarily imply that other ultras have similar structural weaknesses; she was, after all, a rush job. Gillette says, "A tough race is no harder on an ultralight than on any other boat. I've raced all over the world and have never seen any weather that I'd be afraid to take Sweet Okole out in, if any boat could go."
Both builders seek a combination of lightness and strength. Farr-designed boats have to sacrifice amenities because wood makes for heavier hulls than Lee's fiber glass-balsa sandwich. "Sweet Okole was stripped—we had built-in hammocks," Gillette says. "We carried only what the IOR requires." Crewmen on Lee boats, from the SC27s to Merlin, are not asked to endure comparable hardships. Merlin's interior finish is nearly as luxurious as that of a cruiser—a Honolulu writer suggested she could be a "party boat." and in fact Lee spends most of his "valuable party time" aboard. He has no interest in luxury ashore. A bachelor, he lives in two tiny rooms, one stacked above the other in a corner of the chicken house, and both as cramped and cluttered as Merlin is neat and, relatively, spacious.
It will take more big-boat ocean races, in rougher waters, to settle the question of the ultras' structural soundness. But the Lee SC27s—more than 100 are now in the water—frequently sail in one-design and handicap races in Monterey Bay, at Marina Del Rey and at Redondo Beach, and none have shown design or construction flaws. Lee now has a new 33-foot class in progress, with some 12 boats already delivered or shaping up in the chicken-house molds.
One place where there is almost no controversy about Bill Lee is Santa Cruz. Among people who know him, the fun-loving, party-going Lee is a familiar and well-liked figure. Dave Garibotti, a general contractor and regatta chairman of the Santa Cruz Yacht Club, not only likes Lee but also denies that the ultralights are hard to sail or slow to weather. "In races in Monterey Bay the SC27s and the Moore 24s are almost always first at the windward mark," he says. "Merlin is easier to sail than Ondine. In the SCYC we've divided our boats into heavies and lights so we can have races—otherwise the lights would win them all."
His Santa Cruz friends recall with delight Lee's prescription for a successful ocean sailor, which he passed along to a Honolulu writer after the 1977 Transpac: "There are four things a racing sailor has to do. He has to sail the boat. He has to eat and he has to sleep. And, most important, he has to avoid falling overboard. In the history of the Transpac I believe only one guy has fallen over. It took 30 hours to find him. That's no way to win a face."
In Santa Cruz hardly anybody now thinks Bill Lee has either fallen or gone overboard, and nobody doubts that he knows how to win a race.