New challenges for iconic Merlin

Published on March 13th, 2018

When the fleet of competitors begin the 635 nm course out of Narragansett Bay toward Bermuda, within their midst will be a legend of Pacific Ocean racing. Merlin, the 68-foot Transpac Race trend-setting, record-breaking Bill Lee design has come east for the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race, fulfilling a lifelong dream held by, coincidentally, Chip Merlin.

Chip was racing Flying Scots with his father and sisters on Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1977 when, a few thousand miles across the country, the arrow-like Merlin hit the Transpac starting line for the first time.

Bill Lee’s risky, ultralight design wound up taking down the top maxi race boats of the time, Kialoa III and Windward Passage, and setting a course record that held for 20 years. And Chip, at 18, heard about it.

“When you’re younger and don’t think much about money, you think, ‘Oh, I want a boat like that,’” says Chip, who admits that the name was what put the boat on his radar screen.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Chip’s father, Bill, is the reason Merlin was trucked to St. Petersburg, Florida, last fall and is being refit for the legendary boat’s first Bermuda Race.

A retired Coast Guard admiral, Merlin senior was a recent graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1956 when he led a team of cadets in that year’s Bermuda Race. The boat was in a pack of three in contention for a class victory when a final squall flushed the Coasties to third by the finish.

“My dad’s 83 and I thought this would be the last chance to do a race like this, with him,” says Chip, who found out Merlin was for sale last fall while browsing the internet for a Bermuda Race charter. “I called Bill Lee that night, and the next day I had my boat captain fly out to meet him and see the boat.”

The deal was easily made. Now Chip wants to make Bill Lee proud, with a goal of sailing all the rest of the major ocean races of the world, too. Merlin had a triumphant comeback in the 2017 Transpac, where Lee himself skippered the ‘sled,’ as the type was dubbed after the ’77 race.

Merlin won line honors and her class on corrected time in her first ocean race with Chip and team in the 2018 St. Petersburg to Habana[sic] Race. Next is the Isla Mujeres Race from Tampa Bay, then up to New England Boatworks to prepare for Bermuda.

Merlin will be ready in June, and so will the Admiral. “He had back surgery last week,” says Chip. “I just got a text saying, ‘On to recuperation, so we can race the Merlin!”

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Author: Chris Museler is a freelance journalist and is a regular contributor to a range of publications including The New York Times. He is a CCA member and has competed in four Newport Bermuda races. A version of this story appeared in the Official Program of the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race.

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