Remembering Merle Hallett

Merle Hallett waves to other boaters during one of the many MS Regattas he organized. Photo by Sandy Marsters

Winter 2023

By Sandy Marsters
For Points East

In the days when I delivered Points East to vendors up and down the coast, one of my favorite stops was at Handy Boat in Falmouth, Maine. I’d find my way through the maze of hallways to a cozy office with a window overlooking the docks.

This was the hideout of Merle Hallett, who purchased the yard and grew it into a destination for cruisers. Merle always greeted me warmly from behind the desk, a black lab snoozing at his feet, and set aside whatever he was doing to chat.

About sailing.

He would dredge up stories from his many years as a world-class sailboat racer, share some jokes, and never fail to ask me about my life. Merle was not the typical gruff, harried marina owner. He was gentle, kind and thoughtful, to me and I imagine to all those whose lives he touched.

Merle died December 13 at his winter home in Vero Beach, Florida, at the age of 94.

In an obituary, a former employee remembered his boss fondly. “Merle was my role model, my friend, my teacher and mentor and, as an adult, my inspiration. He was a legend.”

With Merle, who accomplished so much, it wasn’t about what he accomplished as much as how he went about it – with grace and dignity.

But those accomplishments are notable. With a friend he founded the MS Regatta, a multi-day festival of boats and racing in Casco Bay. It was one of the earliest and most successful charity sailing events, raising millions of dollars for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

And he won regattas around the world, first in class in the Bermuda Race and Transpac, all sorts of races in the Gulf of Maine, Maxie regattas in Europe, Block Island Race Week and a PHRF New England Championship.

In 1985 Merle was named Yachtsman of the Year by Points East Magazine and the Gulf of Maine Ocean Racing Association.

On his many boats, most of them named Scaramouche, Merle recruited his family. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, that was Jay, Cindy, Connie, and Richard, and their mother, Priscilla. Later, when Merle remarried, Barbara joined the crew as did their son, Willy.

“It was pretty much a family affair,” recalled Richard, who owns Hallett Sails in Cumberland, Maine. “The family was always racing.”

Merle raced his last Bermuda Race at age 78 or 79 with his three sons as crew. Richard recalled that early in the race he noticed a ditch bag filled with an EPIRB and other emergency equipment sitting on the floor of the saloon.

Richard suggested to his father that that may not have been the best place to leave it. “No, no, no, it’s fine,” he was told.

A little while later, Richard noticed a light blinking inside the bag and found the EPIRB had been accidentally tripped. A call to the Coast Guard revealed that they had received the alarm and rescuers were already on the way.

The coasties turned back, and Merle went back to the race, neither assigning blame nor taking responsibility for the incident.

“The old man was very kind,” Richard recalled. “He rarely yelled…win, lose or whatever, he had a smile on his face. He just enjoyed being out there.” He would, though, send Richard below if he caught him yelling at his brother for being too slow with the spinnaker on the foredeck.

Merle’s own yelling came later, but only to compensate for a hearing deficit, his old friend Dodge Morgan wrote in a Points East column in 2007.

In those days Dodge, Merle, and Mike Mitchell, affectionately known as the Body Bag Crew, would deliver Dodge’s boat, Wings of Time, to the Virgin Islands for the winter.

“The loud voice is against the very nature of how I have always believed life aboard should be lived,” Dodge wrote. “But Merle Hallett and I are losing our hearing, so we’re forced to get close and bellow to each other.”

“We are testing an alternative,” he went on, “which is to just shut up, and this is reasonable because…we realize what we say is most often not worth listening to anyway.”

Those voices will be forever missed.

“A life so rich, so full, it is difficult to capture,” Merle’s obituary recalled. “An incredible voyage forever tucked away in the hearts of all who knew and loved him.”

Sandy Marsters is a co-founder and former owner of Points East.