The Wizard of Santa Cruz

Dobbs Davis goes fireside with the man who wrote the book on ‘Fast is Fun’

There are few personalities in offshore sailing who combine skills learnt in design and construction into a creative insight that has helped to fundamentally improve the game. It takes a lot of inner strength to move paradigms, so often this kind of talent comes with a unique persona or distinctive personal style, and in this sense too Santa Cruzbased Bill Lee is the complete package.

In fact, based on appearances alone one might get the wrong impression of Lee’s influence. Well removed from the conventional US yachting social scene in what was a small seaside town in northern California, the bearded and thickly bespec - tacled Lee was fond of donning a wizard hat, red socks and jumper in his heyday of the 1970s and ’80s to bring attention to his breakthrough 67-footer Merlin, but also to highlight how different the Santa Cruz sailing scene was from more conservative corners of the US. Even now Lee’s email address contains the wizard moniker.

But appearances deceive: for sailors on the west coast of the US (particularly us older ones) Lee is truly an iconic figure for his pioneering design work in promoting the ‘Fast is Fun’ philosophy at a time when sailors on the rest of the planet were dragging themselves around in heavy, slow boats. And this was more than just design – Lee’s Santa Cruz Yachts was the largest and most stable production builder of that Santa Cruz boatbuilding culture of the late ’70s through to the early ’90s.

Lee and others in Santa Cruz were taking a fresh look at the existing paradigms in offshore design and sought to find innovative solutions that made sense for striking that ever-important balance between the opposing forces of performance, safety and cost. Moreover, his influence continues in high-performance design to this day, with his authorship of the first TP52 box rule a decade ago, and most recently the HPR rule which is just getting off the ground.

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