Back Where It Belongs
Published on November 19th, 2015
by Skip Allan
Much anticipation and excitement has prevailed at Santa Cruz Harbor where Bill and Lu Lee’s iconic 68-foot ULDB “sled” MERLIN recently arrived back in town from the Great Lakes. MERLIN, built in the infamous “Chicken Coop” on Hill Top Road, is to Santa Cruz sailing as Bill Lee is to “Fast is Fun.”
In Santa Cruz, MERLIN has always been a “people’s boat” and the more the merrier. On Wednesday Night Races, a crew of 25 to 35 aboard MERLIN was not uncommon. If docklines weren’t cast off promptly at 5:30 p.m., more would have climbed aboard. Bill would sip brandy in the main cabin and watch the passing action through the large cabin windows.
From the aft cabin, a bunk the full width of the boat, people drifted in and out, experiencing contact highs as purple smoke wafted out the transom ports. One of the favorite activities for guests was to climb into the narrow bow of MERLIN and position their backs on one side of the hull and their knees on the other. Going to weather, MERLIN’s bow would flex and pant, compressing you gently in a fetal hug known as the “Cosmic Squeeze.”
During those years, it seemed everyone in Santa Cruz claimed they had sailed on MERLIN at one time or another. That was probably true, as in one local election. Bill Lee, without campaigning, received more votes as Port Commissioner (for which he still serves) than the newly elected Mayor.
Since 1977, when MERLIN set the Transpac Race elapsed time record that stood for 20 years, times have changed as boats have gotten bigger, faster, and more hi-tech. New owners attempted to update MERLIN with mixed results.
The list of modifications included a canting keel monstrosity installed in 1997 that took up much of the main cabin, a complete deck rebuild with a less pretty cabin house, and blue topside paint with rainbows and stars. The only thing that remains of the original MERLIN are the many memories and its balsa-cored fiberglass hull.
With MERLIN now back under Bill and Lu Lee’s ownership, goals are being set for the future, primarily focusing on racing in the 2017 Transpac, the 40th Anniversary of MERLIN’s course record. In time, Bill hopes to restore some elements of MERLIN back to original configuration, stressing high reliability, ease of handling, and the recreational “no big bucks” program that introduced so many to the thrill of “Fast is Fun.”
The canting keel and mechanisms, never of high reliability, have been removed from MERLIN as Bill Lee searches for a used fixed keel from a Transpac 52 or equivalent. Any ideas out there? Click here to email Bill.
Members of MERLIN’s original crew are dropping by to visit. All are welcome. If you are in the Santa Cruz area, be sure to check MERLIN out. She looks fast just sitting on the hard.
Reprinted story from Sail Magazine, June 1977… click here
Photos from the early days: