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The Sorcerer's Apprentice

by Dougal Henshall 24 May 2017 12:00 BST 24 May 2017
Jon Turner and Richard Parslow return to the Merlin Rocket fleet with the radically different Shabazzle ©

Those of you who are regular readers and followers on the website, will know that in my articles there is a recurring theme on the topic of innovation. It is that rich vein of clever inventiveness that has provided so much of the diversity and development that we see in the sport of dinghy sailing and I have been proud to capture this, with articles such and the Three Wise Men, the Fourth Wise Man and Radical Thinking.

It is worth remembering that much of the most innovative lines of new thinking took place when the development and building of boats and fittings relied on what would now be known as a cottage industry. It was an apt term, for it rightly described what was so often just a couple of boatbuilders, working ankle deep in wood shavings in a small workshop of shed somewhere. Delivery dates were something of a moveable feast and actually getting hold of your boat bore little resemblance to the time that you actually wanted it by! Record keeping was sketchy and what notes were made, ended up on paper thick with tea and coffee stains, cascamite traces and more often than not the odd blood stain or two from a nicked finger. 'Elf and safety' was a long way off in the future and would have been ignored anyway. Yet in conditions such as this, designs were improved on, build techniques enhanced, fittings developed with the result often being an amazing Championship winning dinghy.

Today of course it is all very different, with most boat building taking place in near-sterile production facilities and with materials that almost smack of the alchemist's art. Hulls and fittings are created out of modern composite materials before being baked to a perfection that Mary Berry would approve of. With high-tech production line techniques, a build slot should be a date you can put in the diary with confidence (though last summer I did watch with interest as a well-known sailor waited for his new boat – a popular, modern double hander - that arrived weeks late and only just in time for a trip to the North Wales Nationals) and more importantly, each boat should be exactly the same as all other boats made in that class; the very epitome of one design racing.

Yet it is that on-going search for perfection on the assembly line, as foreseen nearly two hundred years ago by the industrialist and gunsmith Samuel Colt (as in "God may have created man, but Sam Colt made them equal") that is at risk of curtailing the much needed development and innovation that will help create and refresh ideas within the sport. Indeed, if you wish to build a lot of dinghies, all identical to each other, then the mantra can soon become that 'innovation is an unwanted distraction'. Instead, it is left to a few far-sighted individuals, still working in that cottage industry environment, to keep that fire of innovation alive and moving forward. And without a doubt, the leading light of this movement of change has to be one of the UK's most successful helms and boat builders, Jon Turner. Jon's story, from a chequered beginning, through boat building in wood, then FRP, must also be measured alongside his record out afloat, as a multiple championship winning crew and as a helm. It is a salutary lesson to us all, that it is what we chose to do that defines us, not from whence we came!

Certainly, Jon didn't have any of the head start advantages that come with being born into one of the sailing dynasties, though he would soon be working for one of them. Instead Jon's family were farming folk, with the only link to the world of small boats being that his father wanted a dinghy and got a YW Dayboat. Their only claim to fame with this was in their ability to capsize it, which sounds fun but, seeing that their sailing was on the Bristol Channel, probably wasn't. After the Dayboat came an early Mark 1 Fairey Albacore, which was raced around at great speed and an even greater number of capsizes, until at some point the stem fitting pulled out, leaving the boat needing some fairly serious corrective surgery. After making enquiries as to where the boat could be repaired, the Turners were referred to Exmouth and the workshop of Rowsell Brothers. Even back then, Rowsell's had an enviable reputation for the high standard of their craftmanship with their signature boats being the National 12 and Merlin Rocket. When Jon and his father took the Albacore in for repair, they were offered a test sail in Spud Rowsell's Merlin, which they took up. The swirling Exmouth tides and skittish handling of the Merlin Rocket may have scared the sailing trousers off Mr Turner senior, but it made a positive and lasting impression on Jon. Not only did he want to sail one, but he wanted to be involved in building one too.

This was not such a far-fetched idea, for Jon had not been what would now be classed a model pupil when at school. Illness meant that he had fallen behind in many of his academic studies, and with Jon feeling that he was unable to catch up, he started playing the time-honoured game of 'hookey', meaning that he fell even further behind. However, in the practical subjects, it was another matter altogether. Jon speaks of always having had an enquiring mind, wanting to know how things work, whilst having the vision to see that they could be done better. Plus, he had wonderful hands when it came to making things, to the point that older boys looked to him for advice. With support from a far-sighted craft teacher, Jon was able to get an apprenticeship at Souters, the Cowes based boatbuilder, where he started to learn his trade. In the mid to late 1960s Souters were building International 14s and Flying 15s, which suited Jon fine, but the situation was about to change. Souters took the decision to drop the small boats out of their range, allowing them to focus on larger craft. In so many ways this was an inconsequential event, yet in the end it would see Jon moving down to Devon, to take up employment with none other than Spud Rowsell. This allowed Jon to not only build Merlin Rockets but to sail them too.

He would compete in his first Championship at Falmouth in 1968, crewing for a customer. After this event, Jon realised that there was an opportunity to crew for the 'boss' in Spud's Merlin, so he set about making himself indispensable. He worked hard to do all the boat preparation and setting up, leaving Spud to focus on the all-important helming aspect in what was then a big fleet. The partnership immediately started to make its mark as a notable front running boat, and in the wild and windy Championships at Pwllheli in 1970, in a high-class fleet of 227 boats, they could so easily have won but for getting the course wrong: not once but twice.

With Mike McNamara making sails and Rowsell Brothers building the most exquisite race winning Merlin Rockets, Exmouth now overtook the Hamble as the hot spot for dinghy development and the Merlin Rocket fleet were right at the heart of it. The last years of the 1960s and the first years of the 1970s were the last hurrah for the traditional narrow boats and Jon had experienced at first hand the race winning power of innovation. Hulls, rigs and fittings (the Merlin Rocket fleet were front runners in the development of the centre mainsheet track) were all in a state of flux and Rowsell Brothers were at the forefront of the new ways of thinking. There then followed almost a decade at the top that included two Championship victories and many other winning results.

Although the Rowsell/Turner partnership may have appeared so powerful both out on the race course and in the workshop, things were becoming difficult for Jon. Rather than just remain as a functionary on what had become a production line building Merlin Rockets, Jon wanted a more responsible role and greater freedom to innovate and develop his own ideas. This was always going to be difficult within the confines of a family business and in the end, Jon took the very hard decision to leave Rowsell Brothers and follow his own destiny. At this point he could well have become a woodwork teacher and, having seen the gentle tolerance and helpfulness he shows when explain matters to other sailors, he would have been a natural at this too. Instead, Jon found a house with some outbuildings that could be rebuilt as a workshop, and set about building his own boats, starting with a Scorpion. The choice of class was important for Jon, as he wanted to build something that had not already been done at Rowsells. The change in direction for Jon now went one stage further, as not only was he building something new, but out afloat he was now at the back, rather than at the front of the boat.

When he first started sailing his Scorpion, he didn't make much of an impact at club level, but Jon has one skill that is both rare and sought after; he can handle the 'big fleet' mentality. When it came to the Nationals, Jon took the relaxed approach of knowing that he could sail, so he reasoned with himself that all he had to do was 'go out for a sail' every day. To everyone's surprise he won the Championships, with none being more surprised than Jon himself. This win showed another side of Jon's fairly radical approach (at that time) to small boat racing in that he placed great importance on the role of the crew. This also meant giving more recognition to the crew, for having started out in the front of the boat, he knew all too well how easy it was for the crew's efforts to be overlooked.

Throughout his sailing career, Jon has been lucky to forge a number of very strong partnerships that have become enduring friendships, with one of these being with legendary sailmaker and designer Phil Morrison. In 1981 Jon would crew for Phil in the Fireball, with the pair winning the World Championships together. Jon Turner speaks with a real depth of feeling for this time in his sailing career, recognizing that not only did Morrison have a wonderfully analytical approach to his racing, but he was happy to discuss the event on the way back home in the car. Jon is fulsome in his praise of Phil, pointing out how much he had learnt from the designer during this important time in his career. Jon says that this analytical retrospection is something that he has worked at himself, pointing out that the answers are there if only people take the time to sit down and work through the issues. With Jon working to establish himself as a boatbuilder, Phil Morrison then gave Jon first 'dibs' at his new Merlin Rocket design, the NSM II. What followed may not sound like innovation, but in reality it was, as Jon eschewed many of the time saving short cuts that boat builders of the day employed, to instead focus on the most demanding degrees of precision in the way the hull was constructed. The results were outstanding, as Turner built boats suddenly started filling the top spots.

One of these places was taken by Jon himself, as he added a third place in the 1982 Merlin Rocket Championships to his win in the Scorpion Nationals. The Merlin Rocket result also saw the beginning of one of the great enduring sailing partnerships, as Richard Parslow, who had been Fireball World Champion Crew the year before Jon, now moved into the front of the Merlin, a role that he still successfully fulfils today.

With so many years together, Richard was an obvious choice to comment on what it is like sharing the confines of a small racing dinghy with someone like Jon. It helps of course that Jon had been one of Richard's sailing 'heroes', after he had seen Merlin Rockets racing at Queen Mary and watched the speed and fluidity with which the notoriously tricky 'short pole' spinnaker set up could be gybed. It also helps that both came up the classic route of starting in the front of the boat. But in answer to the obvious question, Richard says that Jon can be very competitive but focuses any anger outside of the boat. But the underlying competitive killer streak is there, as was witnessed in the last race of the 1988 Nationals when they ground down the overnight leader, Mike Lennon, to end up taking yet another Championship win. The strength of the Turner/Parslow partnership comes with both knowing what has to be done to win: be that wearing weight jackets to address the lack of kilos in the boat, to the ability to play the mind games needed to reach the very top. Richard points out that at the front of any highly competitive fleet, you sometimes have to screw around with the heads of other competitors, whilst keeping your own focused. In the sports psychology of today, this is textbook stuff; back in the early 1980s, this was yet another innovative approach.

The following season saw an overflowing order book, another win in the Scorpions (as Jon says, he was "two for two and gobsmacked"), and then the big one as he and Richard took the coveted title of Merlin Rocket champions. Their success in the Merlin Rocket then reached near legendary proportions as, in a six year period, they were champions four times, second once and third once (but only because Jon's flight back from a Team GBR event was delayed, causing him to miss the first day's sailing).

In the small world of UK dinghy sailing it was inevitable that people would talk up the competition at the head of the Merlin Rocket fleet between the Rowsell and Turner built boats, but Jon was quick to play this down. Instead, he cast around for a class where his desire to innovate would have more freedom and quickly settled on the International 14. As a class, the 14s were going through their own period of fundamental change, with talk of fully battened mainsails, asymmetric spinnakers and twin trapezes. Funnily enough, it was this final point that created some of the most heated discussion, with many in the UK voting against the development. Instead, Phil Morrison was tasked to design a super wide 14 (just like one of his Merlins) which would remain single wire. Jon got the job of building this trial horse, which would soon be consigned to history as it was overtaken by developments allowing the second trapeze. This did though bring Jon into the fleet, where, as he is keen to point out, "it was all new, everyone was starting from the same point".

Twin-wiring a 14ft boat whilst flying an asymmetric spinnaker needed new techniques, new fittings, new designs; the perfect opportunity for a forward-thinking development sailor such as Jon. With Zeb Elliot as his crew and another new design from Phil Morrison, Jon's 14, as beautifully built as any of his Merlin Rockets was a wonderful front-running advert for the class. The 14 fleet was now 'the' place to be, as helms migrated over from other classes, all keen to join in the buzz of something very new.

Back in Merlin Rocket land, change was happening there too. Although Phil Morrison had enjoyed unprecedented success as a designer with 16 consecutive championship victories, Ian Holt (no relation to Jack!) had arrived at a new design philosophy that was producing a number of very quick boats. He then penned another new design for a boat called 'Canterbury Tales', which legend records as being planked up by Jon on the night of the great storm of 1987! Ignored at first, this design would eventually create its own storm within the Merlin Rocket fleet as it rendered so many of the existing stock as uncompetitive. Although the first boats were conventionally built in wood, it was Jon, wanting to innovate further, who started building FRP hulls, which he then decked in wood. Even then, Jon was limited in the amount by which he could innovate, as he was forced to make the FRP hulls as similar as possible to those he'd been making in wood. As Jon says, "with the Merlins, it was all about acceptance; I made the foam boats like the wood so that the class would buy into something new". It is rare in dinghy racing to get a step function in performance but with Jon's FRP Canterbury Tales, that is what happened, as iconic boats such as Charge of the Light Brigade and Savage exerted a total stranglehold on the top of the class.

Sailing the 14 gave Jon something else, a taste for international competition and at that time the pinnacle of this had to be the Olympic scene. Jon has never enjoyed sailing single handed, always preferring to sail in two-person boats. With his love of development and innovation, he had a natural affinity with the Flying Dutchman class. Even here, in a fleet where development started on day one, he found areas where his new way of looking at the boat could be used to his advantage. As an example, by revisiting the way in which the hull was measured, Jon found that he could make the boat at least 40 mm beamier, giving him the widest FD ever! But it was in the area of the rig that Jon would exert the greatest influence. The FDs were already raking their rigs, but it was Jon who recognised that dropping the mast aft was one thing, but it was another to completely change the geometry of the fore triangle. By re-cutting the genoa and adding in extra take off points for the sheets, Jon could now line the mast up with the line of the genoa luff.

This made the boat devastatingly quick in a breeze, but dog slow in the lighter airs until Jon worked out how to get the rig back upright enough to make the boat go in all conditions. So nearly selected for the top spot in the UK team, Jon would enjoy his time with (what is now) Team GBR, where with the likes of Pete Allam and big Bill Masterman on the wire, he was one of the form boats on the European circuit.

These days we know so much more about the perils of burn out and the need to manage sport as a sub-set of life (rather than the other way around) and Jon was no exception. For a number of years he was absent from the front of the fleet, until rumours started circulating that a boat, a Merlin Rocket, had been seen sailing out in Weymouth Bay with the rig canted to windward. Developments as radical as this could only mean one thing; the Turner/Parslow/Merlin Rocket show was back on the road. There was so much that was different about the boat that it was hard to work out what looked to be working and what wasn't, except for the very real possibility that it all was. A radical new design, that included a great deal of input from Jon was allied to a rethink on the Merlin Rocket rig. As the leading light behind deck stepped raking rigs some years earlier it was only to be expected that the new boat could drop the mast aft, but now, if required, it could be hoiked up to windward: windsurfer style.

Not only was Jon building again but he and Richard were back on the circuit, older, wiser yet still able to post some very creditable scores in their first championships in a number of years. Just as the Canterbury Tales, then FRP construction had struggled at first in the acceptance stakes, so the new Genii design, complete with true one string rig control (most one string systems are actually two strings; it is far from a moot point, for Jon has now developed a low friction system that is a genuine one string operation) has taken its time to move into the mainstream of Merlin Rocket racing.

Equally, it has taken Jon and Richard a while to shake of the effects of age in order to regain a place amongst the acknowledged front runners. Still, in the years since they have been back, with each passing year, instead of just getting older, they're finishing higher up in the rankings.

But it is in the area of innovation that the talents of Jon have clearly matured the most. The thinking behind development is that the modern racing dinghy is an advanced, high technology package controlled by low technology solutions. The word that Jon keeps coming back to time after time is 'precision'! Take the issue of the attachment of fittings to an FRP hull. It is easy enough to bond in reinforcement pads, but that is only part of the solution. Jon points to the inherent weakness of screwing on fittings and instead has opted for bonding in threaded metal inserts. Fittings are then bolted to the hull with stainless steel machine screws which not only provide for a neater and more robust solution, but mean that the fitting can be replaced without affecting the original structural integrity.

Another key area for development is in spars, where Jon sees the growing trend toward high modulus masts as a 'second generation' development. There are further degrees of high modulus that are still to be explored but as Jon points out, with each step that is taken, not only is there a cost consideration, but more thought has to be put into the way that the product is put into use. Looking at the move from the first generation of thinner walled, larger diameter sections to the smaller diameter high modulus spars, Jon points out that people can see that they are quicker, but most fail to understand exactly why. There is now a great deal of choice in the technology on offer, with variation in the way that the fibres are attached and in the orientation in which they are laid up. As Jon points out, many carbon fibre spars just start out as standard tube sections, that then get turned into masts. Yet to do the job properly, you have to have as the starting point some idea of what you want the mast to do. Nor is it just the main spar tubes that need a good deal of developmental input, as Jon has identified that many of the fittings in use are little more than legacy solutions from the days of alloy masts.

It might sound like some IT techno-babble, but the way in which the spar interfaces with the boat is well overdue a rethink. From the gooseneck to the spreaders, to the way the shrouds connect, not to mention the high loading area of the kicker take-off on the boom, these have all been subjected by Jon to that intense scrutiny that in many cases has resulted in the construction of new solutions. Again I turned to Richard Parslow for some extra insight onto how Jon is able to think the problems through. Today, with the powerful computing power that is available, 3D modelling is hardly radical, yet it seems that somehow Jon has an ability to think unconventionally in all three dimensions in his head; and has done since the 1970s!

Jon's analytical approach has also manifested itself in some exciting new developments below the waterline, where that desire to do things better can be seen in further development of the 'hatchet board' concept. With the addition of an extra fitting, Jon now has a 'cam action' on his centreboard that really brings the notion of the gybing board to the forefront of thinking. At the stern of the boat, he's not just making foils but the pintles and attachments, all of which show that same degree of attention to detail; once again, the word is 'precision'. The ultimate goal for Jon would be to be in a position to offer 'everything but the sails'.

Of course there will be the die-hard followers of the one-design path who will point to the complexity of the new generation of boats and the way in which this is creating something of a financial arms race. Jon is keen to point out that whilst he can see the attractions of the SMOD philosophy, it is not for him. Instead, he loves the freedom of the development classes and the way in which they recognize the value of the individual. In Jon's world, one size can never fit all! Nevertheless, Jon can recognize that being an individual can come with a price tag, though he also points out that if you are preparing to do a campaign, even a UK one, the premium that comes with getting the best of fittings is a very small overhead onto a much larger figure. If Jon was reticent at all, it was on the inclusion of the following comment: Jon believes that there are a lot of people in the dinghy supply chain that 'talk quality' but by not recognizing the importance of the individual, are failing to deliver.

Jon believes that the one-size-suits-all bubble packed philosophy is destined to be a second-rate technical solution and instead treats both boat and owner as special individuals.

It is of little surprise then that for a man who started out talking about his lack of schooling, the Jon Turner of today is a highly intelligent and amazingly erudite disciple of ongoing development and innovation. Yet, at the same time, he is a great example of his other mantra, this time based on the single word 'hope'. Jon sees this word as the keystone of dinghy innovation; we all hope to do better. It is Jon's goal to implement, in his boats, spars, foils and fittings, the ideas that will help us get there. In a world where many new dinghies are increasingly becoming mere variations on a theme, the sport is lucky to still have innovators that can – and will – break the mould!

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