"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."