The return of the magician

Rich Roberts brings news of next year's Transpac

Friday July 16th 2004, Author: Rich Roberts, Location: United States
Merlin, the boat that once revolutionised the Transpacific Yacht Race to Hawaii, will return under fittingly historic ownership in the Centennial Transpac a year from now.

Patricia (Trisha) Steele, representing one of four family generations that have raced Transpac since 1939, this month purchased Merlin from the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship. Her timing couldn't be better, and not only for the historical context.

To give all boats, great and small, an equal chance for first place overall on corrected handicap time, Transpac directors have voted to stretch the rating distance of the race to 2,300 nautical miles. The actual distance will remain 2,225 from the Palos Verdes Peninsula south of Los Angeles to the Diamond Head lighthouse at Waikiki.

The longer rated course is intended to give the smaller boats with their higher handicaps more track to eat away at the faster boats' times.

Although Merlin won the Barn Door trophy for fastest elapsed time in 1977, '81 and '87 and held the race record for 20 years, Steele realises it can no longer compete with newer and larger high-tech speed machines like the maxZ86s. "I know we won't be first to finish, but we could correct out well," Steele said.

The Bill Lee-designed 68-footer last sailed Transpac in 2001 as Merlin's Reata, following a complete makeover by short-term owner Al Micallef, a Ft. Worth, Tex. restaurateur who donated the boat to OCC afterward. Steele will keep part of the colorful graphics created by Gary Miltimore that show the namesake legendary magician twirling a Reata, or lariat.

"[The name] Reata's going away," Steele said. "It's back to Merlin. The big guy's going to stay, and we're going to a rainbow type graphic." Miltimore will re-do his original work and also be part of the crew.

Steele's grandfather, Harry G. Steele, was owner-skipper of Odyssey in 1939, with his son Richard - Trish Steele's father - as a crew member. Richard Steele sailed Odyssey in 1955, joined Charles Ullman - Dave Ullman's father - on Legend in 1957 and took Odyssey again in 1961 with Trisha Steele's brother, Ricky, as a crew member. Ricky Steele was lost at sea later that year while delivering a boat.

Later, Trisha Steele sailed the first of her three Transpacs with her sister Libby as co-owner-skippers of Tres Hermanas and their father Richard as navigator. A third sister had to scratch because of childbirth. Finally, a nephew, Paul Bittner, sailed with Steele when she and Owen Minney chartered Ragtime in 2001.

Merlin and Ragtime currently share the record for most Transpacs sailed at 12.

Merlin, a Bill Lee-designed 68-footer, was the forerunner of the downwind 'sleds' that dominated Transpac's Barn door competition through the end of the 20th century. Even in 1995, as technology passed it by, it won the King Kalakaua Perpetual and the Governor of Hawaii take-home trophies for best overall corrected time - its goal again in 2005.

"I've never won a yacht race in my life," Steele said, "but it's not about that, really. You get out in the middle of the ocean and it doesn't matter."

Well . . . to some others it matters a lot. With the Barn Door out of reach for all but a handful of entries, handicap honours are huge.

Speaking for the board, Stan Honey said, "We want to make it as attractive for a skilled and knowledgeable sailor to race a good small boat as it would be to race a good large boat."

Honey has done both, as navigator for Roy Disney on Pyewacket's record run in 1999 and on his own Cal 40, Illusion, in 2003 when he posted the third fastest corrected time on a 40-year-old boat.

The smallest winner ever was Stuart Cowan's 35-foot sloop, Chutzpah, in 1973 and '75. The largest boats have dominated since, except for Seth Radow's Sydney 40, Bull, in 2001. The smallest length overall now allowed is 30 feet.

Besides the longer course rating, the new formula also will consider updated Velocity Prediction Programs (VPPs) for all boats that include the 'Pacific Swell' factor, taking into account the fact that, as entry chairman Bill Lee said, in a predominantly downwind race "some boats surf [the waves] better than others." The basic VPP used was developed mostly in flat water.

Designer Alan Andrews elaborated, "The Pacific Swell factor has the potential to really help the bulk of the fleet - moderate to non-surfing boats - considerably, as well as the shorter surfing boats that still don't fit the wave length as well as longer boats."

The Transpac directors also refined the new rating limit It will be based on the rating certificate of the designated base boat, Roy Disney's new maxZ86, Pyewacket, in its fastest configuration.

No boat may be configured to rate faster, although larger and faster boats such as the new 90-footers emerging on the world scene may power down with smaller sails or other changes to meet the standard.

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