William “Bill” Shields Lee, Jr.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

June 26, 1942

William “Bill” Shields Lee, Jr.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

June 26, 1942

The Wizard

Bill Lee’s family moved to Newport Beach, California in 1955 when he was 13, and it was like a kid in a candy shop with water and boats everywhere. He started sailing in Naples Sabots and learned a great deal with the Sea Scouts. At one point rigging a 27’ WWII Uffa Fox air sea rescue drop boat for sail and winning the Balboa Yacht Club Beer Can series. Bill attended Newport Harbor High and Orange Coast College, lettering in Sailing. In 1962, he was accepted into California Polytechnic State University, and he earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Cal Poly had an active sailing club and team with lots to learn. His first job, after graduating in 1965, was working on submarines followed by a stint at the Sylvania Company which brought him to Santa Cruz, CA in 1968.

In 1970, he built a 30-foot lightweight speedster for himself named Magic. He skippered her to finish first in the MORA long distance race from San Francisco to Ensenada, Mexico. Then racing to Honolulu with Art Biehl on the Cal 37 Quasar in 1971, Bill formally started in the boat design and build business. Lee used his basic “light is fast – fast is fun” design concept for innovative 35-footers named Witchcraft and Chutzpah, and a 40-footer, Panache. It was Chutzpah that Stu Cowan sailed to first overall corrected in the Honolulu Race in 1973 and again in 1975. All of which triggered significant rating rule changes by Transpacific Yacht Club.

In 1973, he founded his Santa Cruz boat company on a property was known as “The Coop” because it was originally a chicken coop before Lee started his boat yard. One year later, Bill brought the Santa Cruz 27 to market, of which 150 were built and which was ideally suited to the conditions off of Santa Cruz.

In 1977 he came up with perhaps his most famous design, the 68 foot Merlin. Transpac did not have a rating limit at the time and so Merlin was built without regard to rating rules, other than the ‘boat speed per dollar rule.’ Merlin was an Ultra-Light Displacement Boat (ULDB), a name coined at the time to match the type. The boat was built in a shed with a 12-foot ceiling so both to turn the boat over in the shed and because long skinny boats are faster than short fat ones, beam was limited to 12 feet.

The yacht was exceedingly light for its length at just 25,000 pounds and targeted for a race that features mostly downwind sailing. This lightweight speedster was the first to finish the 2,225-mile ocean race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, setting a course record of 8 days and 11 hours. He beat the old course record by 22 hours and defeated Windward Passage and Kialoa III by 11 hours. Based on Merlin’s success, Lee designed and built 19 Santa Cruz 70s beginning in 1984.

Merlin’s Transpac course record stood for twenty years until broken by Roy E Disney’s Pyewacket in 1997, a Santa Cruz 70 designed and built by Bill Lee.

Lee’s design philosophy was to make boats sail swiftly. His motto was “Fast Is Fun.” Unlike many other designers who worked to exploit loopholes in handicap rating rules, Bill favored speed and creating boats that were easy to sail. His boats were able to be sailed with fewer crew than other designs of the era.

Bill has been a sought-after advisor on handicap rating rules. He offers a pragmatic approach on how rules should work to make racing fair for a wide range of types and sizes. In 2000, Bill was also the facilitator for the Transpacific Yacht Club team that put together the Transpac 52 rule which went on to become the TP52 rule. He served as Transpacific Yacht Club Commodore for the 2011 race.

Lee credits the inspiration he received from earlier designers such as Skip Caulkins, designer of Legend which won the 1957 Transpac. Just visualize less freeboard and 2-feet more beam and you have a Santa Cruz 50. Also, Bill Lapworth, for his early work on light displacement yachts which of course are medium displacement by today’s standards.

Bill took the concept that “light is fast” and the sailors on his boats have learned that “Fast is Fun.”

~Gary Jobson

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