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Racing Thrills on Merlin at Rolex Big Boat Series

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.

Crew of Merlin
At the dock after practice on windy Wednesday afternoon. Back row left to right: Kip Wanaselja, John Pytlak, Ryan Kern, John Hayes, Karen Loutzenheiser, Miro Kaffka, and one of three guests from Santa Cruz that day, Matt Fraseur. Front row left to right: Hannah Weymuller, Theresa Brandner, Orlando Montalvan, Chris Watts, owner Chip Merlin, and boat captain Brian Malone. Missing is Doug Grant, who was driving up from Los Angeles.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Chris

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.

Checking in
ORR entries check in on Thursday morning for the Treasure Island course.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Chris

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.

Adjudicator
Paul Dorsey’s Fast 40 Adjudicator was among the competition in ORR B. That’s Daniel Thielman’s Melges 32 Kuai in the background.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Chris

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.

Afterguard
In the afterguard: main trimmer Chris Watts (who came with the boat), the quiet and focused skipper Chip Merlin, and Brian Malone calling tactics.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Chris

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.

Sail ties serve many purposes.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Chris
cockpit crew at the start
The cockpit crew at the start of the second race.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Chris

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.

crew waving
It’s always fun to get the gun!
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Chris

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.

Merlin at the finish
Merlin crosses the race deck finish line in Race 2. And no, this photo has not been stretched!
© 2021

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!

10 Comments

  1. Tom Carr 1 month ago

    Being involved in her first life from ‘76 thru ‘85 was a surreal blast. She was was (is) such a thill to to drive.

    9

  2. Scott L 4 weeks ago

    I’ve raced on Neptune’s Car SC 70 around the buoys in Puget Sound for several years; it’s a lot of work for grinders.

  3. Craig Brown 4 weeks ago

    Congrats on doing Big Boat with Merlin! We did it in 1985, and also tried to break every part of her. Read my chapter 13 of my book: “SURE–40 years of Sailing”. She still is the best downwind boat ever built. Long may she sail.

  4. milly Biller 4 weeks ago

    I have always loved Merlin !

  5. Jim "Goose" Gossman 4 weeks ago

    I was lucky to be a guest crew at BigBoat Series in the 90’s aboard Grand Illusion. She’s still going too. Sailed from Catalina on Panache (SC40 prototype of Merlin) @12k without chute. Currently “sailing through fleet ” on SC40 SeaStig in Vallejo. Bill Lee’s boats just are amazing!

  6. Craig Brown 4 weeks ago

    Dear Chip: Great to see the old girl out and about in her original home waters. Sorry about your breakage, but that is life on SF Bay. I am still in St. Pete with CORSAIR, my Serendipity 43, and congratulations on coming out with your own book. Welcome to the world of Authorship. We will have to get together the next time I come over to Tampa to discuss our respective books. I will be attending IBEX on 9/28, so look at your calendar.

    • Sam Wheeler 4 weeks ago

      Craig! Nice to see you’re name and that you’re still sailing Corsair.

  7. Craig Brown 4 weeks ago

    What are you now doing, and where are you? Still sailing what boats?

    • Sam Wheeler 3 weeks ago

      I’m in SF racing V15s regularly, J105s less regularly than I used to, an Islander 36 for Friday night beercans, sailing but not racing my C&C 35 that I lived aboard for a while, did some offshore on a Santa Cruz 50 until the owner decided to sell a few years ago, other boats when a good opportunity comes along…

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