William “Bill” Shields Lee, Jr.

June 26, 1942

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

William “Bill” Shields Lee, Jr. designed a lightweight 27 footer in 1973 that proved to be lightning fast on the windy waters off Santa Cruz, California. Lee used the basic design concept for an innovative yacht to win the Trans Pacific Race. In 1973 and again in 1975, his design “Chutzpah” was the overall winner of the Trans Pacific Race. In 1977 he came up with perhaps his most famous design, the 68 foot “Merlin.” This lightweight yacht was the first to finish the 2,225 mile ocean race from California to Hawaii, setting a course record of 8 days and 11 hours. “Merlin” was built to the International Offshore Rule (IOR). The boat was built in a shed with a 12 foot ceiling. Since the builder had to roll the boat over during construction the beam was kept to 12 feet. The yacht was exceedingly light at just 24,000 pounds. It was a fast design for a race that features mostly downwind sailing. Merlin’s record stood for twenty years and was broken by Roy Disney’s “Pyewacket” in 1997. Based on “Merlin’s” success Lee designed 19 Santa Cruz 70s beginning in 1985. “Merlin ” was considered to be an Ultra Light Displacement Boat (ULDB).

Lee’s family moved to Newport Beach, California when he was 15 years old. He started sailing in Naples Sabots and learned about the sport with the Sea Scouts. In 1961 he was accepted into California Polytechnic State University and he earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. His first job, after graduating in 1965, was working on submarines followed by a stint at the Sylvania Company. In 1970 he built a boat named “Magic.” His next design was named “Witchcraft” and built in 1972. Her sistership was “Chutzpah.” In 1974 he founded his Santa Cruz boat company. The property was known as “The Coop” because it was originally a chicken coop before Lee built his boat yard. His company went on to build 145 Santa Cruz 27s. 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 Lee 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 Lee 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 boats of all sizes. Lee credits the inspiration he received from earlier designers, George Kettenburg and Bill Lapworth, for their early work on light weight yachts. Lee 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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