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.