At the end of a rough and sometimes muddy road above Soquel, four miles south of Santa Cruz on the California coast, is a big old chicken house. A small, crudely lettered sign on a telephone pole says BILL LEE YACHTS. The parking lot lies some 30 feet below the coop, and an unpainted wooden staircase leads up to the hen-house door, which bears another sign: BRING A SIX-PACK. A lot of rich people have carried six-packs up those rickety stairs.
Most arrivals, rich or poor, six-packed or empty-handed, step inside the door to find nobody home. There is no foyer, no carpeting, no secretary, no bank of easy chairs. The visitor sees only a cluttered corridor opening into an enormous loftlike room. The floor is strewn with boat hulls and forms that from a distance look like hulls that have been sliced in two, stem to stern, with a cleaver.
Eventually, a man emerges from one of the doors, a stocky, medium-size fellow with an aureole of dark curls framing a high forehead and a pudgy face decorated with a wispy beard. Unsmiling eyes, magnified by thick-lensed, shell-rimmed glasses, inspect the visitor, who finally breaks the silence. "I have an appointment with Bill Lee."
A hand is extended—in welcome or for the beer?
"I'm Lee," says the greeter. "You bring a six-pack?"
The beer is produced and accepted.
"Okey dokey," says Bill Lee and turns back toward the door.
Okey dokey? The visitor follows, trying to remember the last time he heard that expression. Is this morose, shambling figure in the saggy old sweater—it would hang to the seat of his pants if the seat of his pants weren't already drooping halfway to the back of his knees—is this really the roistering, party-loving sailor who has been called "the king of the downhill racers"? Can this be the carefree builder whose ultralights won seven out of 19 trophies in Trans-Pacific yacht racing in 1975 and who, this past summer, was first to finish the Victoria-Maui International race?
Well, yes and no. The roisterous, boisterous Bill Lee is on public display only at the end of triumphant ocean races, when the smile he reserves for old friends goes public and the six-packs yield to champagne and mai-tais. And why is that Bill Lee happy? Because the boats he designs go like—as well as with—the wind. That's the Bill Lee, warmed by tropic rum and bedecked with leis, who told a Honolulu reporter after he finished first in the 1977 Transpac, "We sail for the fun of it—any excuse for a party. We don't even like to maintain a boat. It cuts into valuable party time." In the rush of that success, in which his boat bettered the 6-year-old record of nine days, nine hours, six minutes and 48 seconds by nearly a whole day, Lee told another writer, "We weren't out to break Windward Passage's record. We knew we could do that. The mark we wanted was Eric Tabarly's 1969 time of eight days and 13 hours in his trimaran Pen Duick IV. And we beat that by nearly two hours."
This man in the hen house is the other Bill Lee, the wary and suspicious wizard who has become one of the most controversial figures in racing-yacht design. And it was here that his masterpiece, the 67-foot, 22,000-pound sloop Merlin, was conceived and sent out to create new interest in yachting and to outrage the yachting Establishment. The crowds that throng Diamond Head and Lahaina at the conclusion of the biennial Trans-Pacific and Victoria-Maui International ocean races aren't there to see traditional yachts wallow home to victory on corrected time. They are there to see the Merlins and the Drifters and the Rag-times come home across the vast savannas of the sea as though they were, in truth, pursued by the hounds of heaven.