Around the same time that Santa Cruz was becoming known worldwide for its legendary waves and burgeoning surf industry, it was also becoming internationally renowned for producing a new class of ultra-light racing sailboats. At the center of it all was Bill Lee, “The Wizard of Santa Cruz.”
By Joel Hersch
“It was like driving down Highway 1 at full speed, at night, in the middle of a rainstorm with no headlights.” That was how the late Harvey Kilpatrick described their first record-shattering race across the Pacific Ocean aboard the breakthrough sailing yacht Merlin, recounts his fellow crewmember Dave Wally.
It was the 1977 TransPac race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, and Merlin—a 68-foot experimental design—had eclipsed the previous record time, set in 1971, by more than 22 hours. The new record: 8 days, 11 hours, 1 minute and 45 seconds. It blasted off of waves and accelerated with the wind blowing from the stern, which caused the long, almost awkwardly narrow hull to power westward like a toboggan down a steep hill.
Wally says that much of the time Merlin raced across the Pacific, the bow was plunging—or “submarining”—ferociously underwater. “We called the experience of sailing that boat ‘the cosmic thrill,’” Wally says. “It’s a magic boat.”
This wicked new sailing vessel, built and put into the water earlier that same year, was the brainchild of Santa Cruz yacht designer Bill Lee, a sailing enthusiast with a background in mechanical engineering. For Lee, the most important thing when it came to sailing was speed.
“Fast is fun,” Lee tells Waves, repeating the mantra he coined decades ago that came to represent the mentality for sailboat racing during that era of innovation.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Santa Cruz was the epicenter for radical sailboat design, and at the time it seemed to involve everyone, says Capt. Jo Rodgers, who has worked on boats for more than 40 years, sailed and raced all over the world, and recently retired from his career as a marine surveyor, which included appraisal of Bill Lee Yachts.
“Bill threw away the rule book,” says Rodgers. “Everyone was abiding by the rules of the IOR [International Offshore Rule], which were standardizing qualifications for race boat designs. Bill came around and said he didn’t care about any of that, he just wanted to go fast.”
Lee was not alone in his pursuit of designing sleek hulls and faster race boats. Fellow Santa Cruz boat designers George Olsen and Ron Moore helped him forge a new class of yachts called Ultra Light Displacement Boats, which are defined by their relatively low amount of water displacement based on their overall hull length. “These boats had fin keels and space rudders, taller masts and all the ballast way down low in their keel,” Rodgers explains.
The majority of the materials being used were balsa core and fiberglass, making them considerably lighter than other boats. The Merlin, for example, weighed just 25,000 pounds—a quarter of what an average 68-foot racing boat weighed.
Lee designed and built his boats on a hilltop property in Soquel that came to be known as “The Coop” because he had converted the property’s old chicken coop and a milking barn into manufacturing space. “The buildings were long and skinny, so they were perfect for boat work,” Lee says.
Lee was known for hiring dozens of local surfers, and Rodgers says that the boat designs inevitably were influenced by the surf world. “A lot of surfers worked for me because of their fiberglassing skills,” Lee says. “At the time, there was lots of boat-building talent available in Santa Cruz, all you had to do was teach surfboard builders to build sailboats. It was the same basic stuff, and very high-quality laminations. Fiberglass professionals from other areas didn’t know how to shape things that were fast—they knew how to build shower stalls.”
Merlin has sold nine times over four decades. Lee himself purchased the boat back in order to race Merlin last summer in the 2017 TransPac, and though it didn’t set any records, its notoriety makes waves in any regatta. Last November, Merlin sold once more, this time to a buyer based in Florida.
Lee’s Santa Cruz brand of yachts can still be found sailing on the Monterey Bay almost daily in the form of the Chardonnay II charter boat, a Santa Cruz 70 with a reduced rig.
When asked about his old moniker “The Wizard,” Lee shrugs it off, saying he thinks it was just something that people liked the sound of. Rodgers, however, recalls specific origins: he says Lee would regularly wear a long robe with stars on it and a pointed wizard hat at each boat-hull launch. With his spectacles and the aura of mystique around his boat designs’ incredible speed, the characterization of a wizard was an appropriate fit.
Lee, now 75, retired from boat building in 1994, selling the business in the Soquel Hills. He continues to work as yacht broker under the title Wizard Yachts, Ltd.
Rodgers says that the impact Lee made on the sailing world was monumental, referring to him at the “the godfather of the California sailing ultra-light movement.”
He adds that the era was equally as formative for the identity of Santa Cruz. “It was a really magical time for the sailing world, especially here in Santa Cruz,” Rodgers says. “People’s eyes were opening to what was possible. It brought so many people closer to the water, just like surfing, and it made this place a true sailing community.”