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.