Merlin’s Path: Downwind Flyer Needs Upwind Boost

Preparing for the Newport Bermuda Race means planning the appropriate sail inventory. Crewmember and onboard reporter Chris Museler reports.

Bill Lee’s groundbreaking 70 footer Merlin was designed to surf. In 1977, from Los Angeles to Diamond Head, Hawaii, that’s what she did, setting a Transpac Race record that held for more than 20 years.

I am privileged to be a crewmember on Merlin for my fifth Newport Bermuda Race. But there’s a problem: the stretch of water between the City by the Sea and that island in the Atlantic in June historically produces reaching and upwind points of sail.

Hmm. I will be reporting on my personal preparation for the race as well as the team’s as I learn the boat and meet my new shipmates. But first I wanted to learn how this downwind flyer that defined a breed of modern Ultra Light Displacement Boats is being optimized for conditions it was never designed to tackle.

Smaller jibs Merlin St. Petersburg

Smaller, flatter jibs are new for Merlin, with only one jib bigger than this 95-percent all purpose headsail.

“Before, the sail inventory approach was, ‘Let’s design some really rockin’ spinnakers, and let’s put a jib on there, too,’” says Brian Malone, the boat’s program manager and sailmaker. “Now we have to go upwind. So we’ve been creating a new suite of jibs and putting more attention to not tipping the boat over.”

And tip over is exactly what the 12-foot wide Merlin does when reaching and going up wind. That tippiness combined with her light weight makes pounding upwind more challenging than the average boat as she is nearly stopped in her tracks at times, with little momentum.

Malone’s challenge along with the top designers at North Sails, was to create headsails that still drive Merlin through the waves, but that don’t overpower her to the point where she’s on her ear and sliding sideways. The solution, Malone says, is smaller, flatter headsails.

Merlin has low form stability,” says Malone, who owns the North loft in St. Petersburg, Fla. “We want to make sure the boat is fully up to speed before she heels past her optimum heel angle, then we want to be able to down shift.”

If Merlin is not fully up to speed as she heels in puffs, she will just tip over with “too much torque and not enough horsepower.” Malone says the balance here is between boatspeed, righting moment and angle of heel. “Once the boat hits its upwind target speeds, we have to reduce headsail area pretty quickly.”

Kat Malone (left) and James Clappier put battens into the leech of one of Merlin’s three new jibs for upwind and close reaching.

Where once there were several large headsails, now the boat has only one genoa and three jibs, the largest of which barely overlaps the 85-foot masthead rig. At around 16 knots apparent wind speed (8 knots true), Merlin is wearing small jibs upwind.

Last April’s St. Petersburg to Isla Mujeres Race was a good proving ground for Merlin’s new upwind sail program as she hung in there with a Tripp 75 upwind. Thousands of miles testing while delivering the boat this winter have also shown good results.

Merlin still carries some big downwind sails—asymmetrical spinnakers on a pole—for her sweet spot of apparent wind sailing downhill at 20 knots in a breeze. A Code Zero is flown from the stem, since the forestay is set back five feet. And a stubby bow sprit handles an A3 spinnaker for heavy running.

Merlin is still 40 years old and it is taking some work to keep her competitive, at least as far as handicap racing is concerned. “Since the ‘70s, she’s been out-designed, out-material-ed, and she’s not a real Grand Prix contender,” says Malone. “Now it makes you think more about rating. It’s against the ethos of the boat. Bill Lee always said, ‘Fast is fun.’ We’re not going to abandon that, but we do have to think about the rating.”

2 Responses to Merlin’s Path: Downwind Flyer Needs Upwind Boost

  1. Bob Steel June 11, 2018 at 11:59 #

    Merlin is a special boat, sailed Transpac on her chartered by Al Cassel.
    Al had ramped up bigger poles great crew including Gary Weisman Skip Allen; unfortunately Pacific High bubbled Stan Honey recounted to me his passing strategy on board Comanche prior to Stan breaking another record.
    I also recount sailing Bermuda Race 72 on board running Warrior. We ramped up bigger main & chutes hoping for some downwind. On the wind all the way finishing second to Dora.
    Al Cassel was a fearless competitor at the time owned Sparcaft builder of Boats & Rigs pushing the envelope
    Tribute to Bob Sloan our navigator, no GPS no sun, no stars &the Gulf Stream – bang on the finish right along with Blackfin
    Another Newport Beach boat Robon, Bob Grant I believe first to finish.
    So to all sail safe & fast
    Bob Steel

  2. Chip Merlin June 12, 2018 at 23:57 #


    Thank you for the thoughts and hopes of a fast and safe sail to Bermuda.

    Merlin is a special boat. Bill Lee did a fantastic job in the design and he still makes recommendations to us about Merlin.

    Like me, everybody else ever on the helm tells me the same thing about how special Merlin feels to skipper. I have told others it feels more like a larger one design than an offshore racing yacht.

    It has been an honor and our luck to have Merlin in Newport for this race. We have made numerous upgrades and maintenance work which only the best craftsmen only found in this area could complete.

    Cheers to you.

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