When the Transpac race decided to go off with an unprecedented fleet of racing yachts – both in size and quality – for it’s 50th edition, many of the fastest, most cutting-edge boats on the water signed up but so did some of the more historic boats in the west coast fleet.

Cal 40’s are back racing one-design to Hawaii for the first time in more than a decade while past winners and legendary one-offs are sprinkled throughout the fleet, none more famous than Chip Merlin’s custom Bill Lee-designed MERLIN. Since setting a Transpac record that stood for more than two decades, the prototype that inspired the west coast ‘Sled’ movement has spent time on the Great Lakes, been hacked up and converted to a canting keel before being brought back to the west coast and campaigned in the Transpac by Bill Lee himself. 

Since making her return to the Transpac two years ago, she has again changed hands and is now owned by Chip Merlin of Tampa, Florida. The first thing Merlin did after buying the boat was fly to Santa Cruz with project manager Brian Malone and pick Bill Lee’s brain on how to make the boat better. “We took Bill out to dinner and asked him what he would do to make the boat better. He gave us a wish list of the top ten ways that we could improve the boat… and then recommended that we work with Alan Andrews the designer and Dennis Choate the boat builder.

“So we did.”, explains Chip Merlin. Having just recently come out of the shed at Diversified Composites in Long Beach, MERLIN is sporting an all-new carbon mast, boom and lightweight carbon rigging, which adds up to a significant weight savings aloft. Down low, she has been re-powered with a lighter engine with a sleek sail-drive as opposed to the original shaft and propeller, with the whole lot having been moved forward a good amount. Also moving forward is the helm and rudder. 

“For the first time in her entire life, she sits properly on her lines, the way Bill designed”, a crew points out to me. Project Manager Brian Malone chimes in, “The boat’s the best it’s ever been, and that’s the result of a great group of people putting their expertise and passion into it, it’s really incredible.”With her new white paint job with classic red ‘MERLIN’ lettering on the side, the boat is a modern re-creation of how she looked when new. Throughout the boat, from the new grinder and winches to the new North 3Di sails, running rigging and improved cockpit layout, the boat has been meticulously prepared and modified to be as fast and efficient as possible while keeping to her original roots.

Also keeping to her original roots is the owner Chip Merlin. “You know, a lot of people were afraid that we were going to take the MERLIN away from Santa Cruz and sail it on the east coast and that would be that. But now they see what we’ve done with the boat and that we’re back for Transpac, and everyone’s been really impressed and very supportive”, says bowman James Clappier of Richmond, CA. Back to MERLIN’s roots, Chip has been sharing the boat with as many people as possible, both on the east coast and the west coast. To that effect, the boat will be sailing back to Santa Cruz, California after the Transpac to do some local sailing before contesting the Rolex Big Boat Series in San Francisco in September. 

I had the opportunity to do onboard media with the MERLIN team for most of a week as they prepared for the 2019 Transpac and came away hugely impressed. With a talented and passionate core group of sailors from Chip Merlin’s home state of Florida, combined with top west coast and Hawaii talent and an imported rockstar navigator in Australia’s Adrienne Cahalan, the new and improved MERLIN should be a very serious contender in this year’s Transpac, which starts on Saturday for the 70-foot sleds, Division 1 maxi’s and fast multihulls.

The newly refit Merlin will be on display at the Long Beach Yacht Club this Thursday, July 11, from 6-9 p.m. for a Transpac sendoff party. The Merlin Yacht Racing crew is honored to host designer and builder Bill Lee as well as naval architect Alan Andrews and boat builder Dennis Choate, both of whom were instrumental in Merlin’s most recent refit. Friends, supporters and competitors are invited to join in the festivities and can RSVP to [email protected] or by calling Kate at (813)-229-1000, EXT. 212. 

-Ronnie Simpson