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We lucky few... Or Pwllheli reviewed, through a glass darkly

by David Henshall on 23 Aug 12-18 August 2017
Aspire Merlin Rocket Championship at Pwllheli day 3 © Andy Green / www.greenseaphotography.co.uk

To coin the popular phrase from that strange game men play with their balls (and now, even more successfully, ladies too) the 2017 season is shaping up to be a game of two halves.

For those classes that held their championships and major events in the first half, it was a tale of blazing sunshine and sea breezes. The weather then went downhill just about as quickly as it was possible for it to do so, as lashing rain and fierce winds swept in on the jet stream from the west. With the Met.Office warning of "lots more of the same" it is little wonder that events scheduled for later in the season found that their numbers were down on predictions.

Of course, it would be simplistic to simply blame the weather, for the pressures on championships attendances are many, complex and way beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, many of our traditional 'domestic' classes have their Nationals in August and it is these that are bearing the brunt of the unexpected and unexplained downturn in boats turning up for the annual sailfest with their own kind.

One class that has really felt the effect of the chill winds has been the Merlin Rockets, who have been back up in what is normally one of their happy hunting grounds on the Llyn peninsular in North Wales. Their 2017 Championships are being hosted at the excellent Plas Heli centre at Pwllheli, a location that could have confidently expected to see an entry list of way over 60 boats.

This event should have been a no-brainer for the core supporters of the class; a great stretch of water in a wonderfully scenic location (if it wasn't for all the cloud you can see Snowdon from the gybe mark), slick organisation, a world class Race Management Team and the ever-present warmth of the Welsh welcome.

Instead, only 38 tallies were required which is something of a bitter blow for the hard-working organisers. Some of the shortfall is down to circumstances beyond their control, such as many teams focused on the production of the next generation of Merlin Rocket sailors. For a class with such a long and illustrious history of 'girl power' (at both ends of the boat) this is a normal occurrence and like buses, they tend to come along in bunches! Others have major life events such as house moves, a result of the class having been able to attract a younger element in recent years.

Then there are those away on active duty in other classes, for the Merlins have always been rich in multi-class talent. An even bigger number choosing to stay at an alternative minor event down in the South West is maybe harder to explain, yet what is clear is that a crowded and expensive stretch of restricted water will always have a strong lure for Merlin sailors living west of the Exe.

Whatever the reasons, the stay-aways missed out on a fantastic week in Wales that started with a day of light, fluky and fickle breezes, when the ability to sniff out the next catspaw could mean rapid elevation up the fleet. Those who missed the opportunities found themselves drifting into windless holes that swallowed them up, only to spit them out at the back of the fleet.

With what breeze there was barely reaching the lower limit of what is sailable, the surprise was that it was the windy weather team par excellence of Nick Craig and Alan Roberts that led the fleet around from start to finish. Moreover, Nick had broken away from the conventional thinking in the fleet that the highly popular Winder package was the boat to be in; instead, Nick had gone to the class innovator Jon Turner (see: www.yachtsandyachting.com/news/196102/The-Sorcerers-Apprentice) for one of Jon's new Genii designs. For the chatterati in the class, the Genii was a straight-line speed machine that would only perform in a breeze, yet here was a team that could be vulnerable in the light stuff front running in what should have been unfancied conditions. With so much going on, there was plenty for the class to be mulling over in the bar that night.

The following day the wind was at the other end of the spectrum, blowing hard from the South into a strongly running tide. It wasn't just the wind but the sea state that would keep the fleet ashore and for some, it would be a taste of what was to come. Before that, Pwllheli would lull them into a sense of false security, with a full-on day of brilliant Merlin Rocket sailing in that hoped for combination of warm sunshine and breeze.

The term 'Champagne Sailing' has become hackneyed and over-used, but this was a day to put the fizz back into the sport. Before a backdrop of the Welsh mountains, the fleet romped around for three races, thus catching up on one of the lost heats from the day before. The conditions were tailor made for the Craig/Roberts/Genii combination who would rack up a dominating 1, 2, 1 score line for the day, though he was constantly chased by Andy 'Taxi' Davies and Alex Warren who managed an equally impressive 2, 1, 3.

These results show something of the enigma that is the modern Merlin fleet, for whilst the leading boat is to the latest design, the second place one is old enough to qualify for a 'prime of life category' prize! The build quality of the Winder boats is such that a ten-year-old boat is still competitive at the front of what has to be one of the most competitive fleets around. The only 'recent' change to this boat came with the jib tack being moved to the point of the bow and a smaller jib, which Andy, of HD sails, felt helped open up the slot.

Another talking point in the fleet was the happy performance of the three NSSA entries who were sailing in loaned boats at the event. The leading pair of April Whitley and Hazel Newport, sailing in a boat loaned by Guy Winder, might have been outside of their comfort zone but were loving every minute of being Merlin sailors! That comfort zone would shrink alarmingly the following day when the strong winds returned with a vengeance. With even more wind forecast to arrive at lunchtime, the race was on to get one start in before conditions deteriorated further and in the boisterous conditions, Nick Craig was again in his element. With 4 wins to his credit, he could now afford to discard his earlier second place to keep a perfect scorecard. The forecasters had got it right and as the boats finished, flag N was flying and they were sent back to shore, it was clear there would be no further sailing on the day.

It was still breezy the following day, making it something of a marathon for the fleet, as again 3 races were scheduled. This would be the day on which the Championship would be decided and in a building wind and sea, Davies and Warren took rose to the challenge with two immaculate bullets, whilst Craig and Roberts couldn't even lay claim to being the best of the rest; that honour went to the two Chris's, Gould and Kilsby.

For the final race, in a wind that was officially 'strong', it says much of the boat handling capabilities of the top Merlin helms that Craig and Davies engaged in close quarter match racing. Craig eventually crossed the finish line in 12th place but could start to relax as Davies was a non-finisher. All the talk now was of the morrow; would the forecast storm arrive earlier than predicted, keeping the fleet ashore for the second time, or would it be a classic breezy final day race, something that has become almost expected by the class.

In the end, the 2017 National Championships finished with a final race sailed in big winds, big seas and the brightest of sunshine. This was a race that will go down in the history books as a 'belter'. Davies, who would finish the race with yet another win for second overall, called it the "best sea sailing we've had for ages, it was ******** brilliant". "Even when the weather was grim" he continued, "the sailing out there was still ********* brilliant", a sentiment that was echoed by many of the other crews as they came ashore.

Meanwhile, for Craig and Roberts, victory is sweet as returns them to the pinnacle of the Merlin Rocket fleet, having previously won the National Championships back in 2014 at Tenby. Ominously for the Class, Nick commented that he hadn't done as much Merlin Rocket sailing as he would have like this year, but he is hopeful of doing more in 2018. Part of this desire comes from the realization that there is a great deal more in the way of potential in his new boat, for, as Nick happily commented, "it has a lot more gears to go"!

Equally jubilant with the result was the designer and builder of the winning boat, Jon Turner, who had plenty to celebrate. It is 36 years since a Turner built boat first won the Championships, now he will be back in the Class Year Book as responsible for the first placed boat. Jon rightly felt that he had another first, for never before has a top builder retired (in Jon's case for more than a decade) and then come back with this degree of success.

Everyone's a winner is another much used cliché, but in the case of the Aspire 2017 Merlin Rocket Championships, it could well be true. PRO Peter Saxton and his team ran a taut, superbly managed event with a fine balance of determination to get the programme completed on schedule. Plas Heli showed a warm, personal touch to the running of the event, with little things that were big things taken care of, such as the use of quad bikes to help bring the boats up the shore when they came in at low tide. The organisers from the Class tweaked the format slightly to make the event a more attractive proposition for all.

Yet the successes of this year's event do pose some awkward questions for the class as a whole. With a well-run, top class event in a prime location, why DID so many core sailors stay away? Even harder to answer might be the future direct for the class; after 27 years of unquestioned dominance, the stranglehold of the Ian Holt designed Canterbury Tales and the Winder Boats variants that it spawned has been successfully challenged. Is the Genii finally let loose out of the bottle? Come the 2018 Championships at Lyme Regis, will there be even more innovative designs front running in this most competitive of classes?

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