We were pleased to be invited to race aboard the 71.5-ft sled Merlin on the first day of Rolex Big Boat Series. The experience did not disappoint. The legend of Merlin began when the long, lean sled emerged from a chicken coop in 1977. Designed and built by Bill Lee of Santa Cruz, she revolutionized yacht racing on the West Coast.
She’s been a sleek cat with at least five lives, having been reinvented that many times since her birth. Current owner Chip Merlin of the Tampa Bay area in Florida has restored her retro looks, but with lots of weight-sparing carbon fiber. Her spinnakers have the panels arranged in a ’70s-style rainbow, but they’re modern asymmetrical kites.
The start of yesterday’s first race was delayed, although the wind was already in the teens by 11 a.m. The course sent us on a double windward-leeward, with a windward mark set up near the Golden Gate Bridge and a leeward gate down by the start and finish lines west of Treasure Island. Merlin sported a J2 jib in the first race.
Merlin’s motion through the water is smooth, stable and fast. She reacts quickly to puffs. She clocked 9 knots upwind and 15 downwind and finished first in her division, ORR B. But her ratings guaranteed that she’d be bested on corrected time. She was made to sail in one direction for a long, long time, not to race around the buoys.
The second race was delayed even more. The wind direction had shifted, and the race committee reset the start line. This delay proved fortunate for Merlin. After the finish of the first race and at some point during a sandwich-and-water break, the crew saw that the mainsail track had begun to pull out from the carbon mast. They jumped into action and lashed the track to the mast, allowing us to start and finish the second race. The J3 would be the weapon of choice for the beats.
This course took us on a lap around Blackaller Buoy off Crissy Field, down to an R2 buoy, then out the Gate to a drop mark just below Point Diablo. After the rounding it was quick work to get the gun at the finish off St. Francis Yacht Club.
The wind cranked up into the high teens with stronger gusts. In the bigger puffs, the boat was on her ear, water washing over the decks. A reef in the main would have helped — and wouldn’t have hurt boat speed — but with the track lashed to the mast reefing wasn’t possible. The runs were a blast — the boat speed seemed to match the wind speed.
Racing continues with two more races today and tomorrow, and one final Bay Tour before the awards (and the bestowing of three Rolex timepieces) on Sunday afternoon.
Hosting yacht club St. Francis has a proof-of-vaccine requirement for entry into the clubhouse. The big parties are still on but outdoors. It’s good to be back!