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Magical union: a wizard’s boat and a wizard’s wind indicator

2017 September 1

You can buy the best sailing instrument ever made for 40 bucks.

I was reminded of this by a PR release I actually read. This in itself was remarkable. People in my line of work regularly wear out computer mice clearing their inboxes of product-promoting communications that purport to be news releases. 

This one avoided a quick delete because its first sentence reported a significant happening in the world of sailing without hyperbole: The legendary Merlin would be sailing in the 2017 Transpac Race, with her designer Bill “The Wizard” Lee aboard as owner and skipper.

As I read on, it turned out the email was also about a product, but that was OK because the product was the aforementioned best sailing instrument ever—the Windex Wind Indicator. 

The promo piece announced that Merlin would be equipped with a Windex as it sailed in the race that marked the 40th anniversary of the boat’s stunning 1977 Transpac record.

That was not quite breaking news. It is safe to say that every boat in the race, which started July 3, carried a Windex. It would not be a stretch to say that most of the sailing yachts in the world have a Windex atop their masts.

The reason is that the elegantly simple and cheap Windex is more accurate, more sensitive and faster reacting than any electronic apparent-wind indicator, which is why it is standard equipment even on sailboats with state-of-the-art performance instrument arrays.

When tacking racing yachts, the eyes of most boat drivers look aloft to the Windex to find the groove on the new tack before they settle in on their digital readouts.

Downwind, the Windex gives instant reports on critical apparent wind angles that are constantly changing as boats under spinnakers surge in puffs and accelerate down waves.

In heavy air jibes on boats with gigantic asymmetrical spinnakers, a Windex informing the person at the helm can be the difference between a smooth transfer of sails from one side of the boat to the other and what in pre-political-correctness days was known as a Chinese jibe—a violent, spin-out, slam-down, all-hands-hanging-on-for-dear-life broach.

But on most of the thousands of boats that carry them, Windexes are simply used to answer the ancient sailors’ question: Where is the wind coming from?

Before the Windex, sailors tied yarn to shrouds to get the answer. In the days when cigarettes commonly glowed in cockpits, the drift of smoke was often used as an apparent wind gauge. 

One of the design criteria for the Windex was that it would be “as sensitive in light air as cigarette smoke.” This was achieved by having the wind arrow turn on a sapphire bearing.

The Windex was conceived in 1964 by three Swedish inventors, Lars Bergstrom, Harald Unden and Sven-Olaf Ridder. Bergstrom and Ridder later partnered in developing the B&R Rig, a mast-staying system that is still standard on some production cruising boats.

Bergstrom was an aeronautical wizard (a brave one—he was killed in the crash of an experimental glider). He was also a stellar seaman, as he demonstrated when he sailed with Warren Luhrs in 1989 to break the 135-year-old New York to San Francisco clipper ship record, and as I learned sailing with Bergstrom and Luhrs on a rough winter passage on the North Atlantic. 

The Windex took off after Davis Instruments began marketing it in North America in the 1970s; hundreds of thousands have been sold.

Tabs that can be adjusted to mark a boat’s optimum upwind sailing angle contribute to the genius of the device. Notice that the tabs in the accompanying photo are set at abnormally wide angles. That’s because this is Merlin’s Windex. Close-winded sailing is not this boat’s forte.

Upwind sailing ability was far from Bill Lee’s mind when he drew the lines for the boat in 1976. What was on his mind was a boat that would sail downwind to Hawaii faster than any in the storied history of the Transpac race.

The design brief was simple—the boat had to surf under control in strong breezes and big Pacific swells at what were then astonishing speeds, upwards of 30 knots. The narrow, 66.5-foot-long, ultralight hull did exactly that a year later when it set a Transpac record that endured for 20 years.

As SAILING’s Technical Editor Bob Perry wrote in our 50th anniversary issue, “Merlin changed everything for downwind racing.”

Lee sold Merlin in 1982, and one of her later owners took the boat to the Great Lakes, where I sailed against her in Mackinac races. 

Low in the water and skinny like a sharpened pencil, she was easy to recognize, and a pleasure to see when we encountered her far along the course at a point where she owed us eons of time. 

She was out of her element on the Lakes, even after her owner installed a canting keel to improve windward performance. But when the freshwater seas were in a mood to serve up Pacific surfing conditions, Merlin flashed her downwind speed and any satisfaction over pacing the famed speedster disappeared as quickly as the slender hull dropped over the horizon.

When Milwaukee sailor Jere Sullivan, who campaigned Merlin when he was well into his 80s, decided to sell the boat, the buyer who stepped up was a 73-year-old youngster named Bill Lee.

It’s one of the nice stories in sailing—a legendary boat back in the hands of her creator. No wonder Davis Instruments wanted a PR marriage of Merlin and Windex.

I suggest they keep the relationship for the next Transpac, but with a new wrinkle: Merlin will sail the race with a Windex, but no other instrument except a GPS.

That should be no handicap. That cheap apparent-wind indicator will still be the best sailing instrument ever made.