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What's the formula that makes Salcombe Gin Merlin Week work so well?

by Mark Jardine 17 Jul 2019 12:00 BST
Salcombe Gin Merlin Rocket Week 2019 day 2 © Mark Jardine / YachtsandYachting.com

Salcombe Gin Merlin Week is unique in the dinghy sailing calendar and wildly successful with it. Capped at 120 boats, the event is always over-subscribed with in excess of 180 teams applying for a place. The top eight teams are guaranteed a slot, but after that it's down to the luck of the draw.

What is it about this event which makes it so popular? Why does it attract double, and sometimes treble, the entries of the class national championship? There's no doubt Salcombe is a beautiful town and popular tourist destination, but the hills make for inconsistent wind directions and the multitude of moored boats, ferries, paddleboards and motorboats are just obstacles when you're racing a dinghy.

Then there's the format; 60 boats racing in the morning and 60 in the afternoon with courses using every nook and cranny of the Kingsbridge Estuary, with names such as Blanksmill, Frogmore, Southpool, Batson and Bowcombe Creek. Sailors are going along knowing they're only going to be on the water for half of the event. This would all seem counter-intuitive to the format so many championships have adopted over the past 50 years, yet this is the event which is over-subscribed!

The big questions therefore are whether other classes and events are getting it all wrong, and could other events learn from Salcombe Gin Merlin Week?

Richard Whitworth has been taking part in the event for around twenty years, so we asked him what he thought contributed to the event's popularity:
"It's just a fantastic week. It's tricky sailing, however that's the fascination. Going down to get your croissant in the morning takes you two hours because you're talking to everybody and the whole social scene is absolutely brilliant. The race courses are part of the charm of the event, trying to pick a clear lane, watching the ways other boats are trying to get past an obstacle, that's all part of the fun."

Pippa Kilsby confirmed the popularity of the venue and its characteristics:
"The venue is a proper amphitheatre: a great place to race in and watch the races that you're not doing. It is a bit wacky, but usually there is some sense to it, but when there isn't it has the lottery appeal to it. It all adds an extra layer of craziness and yes, you do get some crazy results, but at the end of the week there seems to be some kind of logic so it's not as random as it seems! It does mean though that folk who possibly wouldn't win the Nationals can have a chance for a race win or top race result at Salcombe - that's very appealing."

For Dave Hall, a stalwart of the Fireball class, this was his first Salcombe Gin Merlin Rocket Week, but he knows the venue well from his youth:
"My parents had a house down here when we were kids, so we used to spend all our summers here, between when I was 11 years old and 18, splashing around in Mirrors, Fireballs and goodness knows what else. It's been a long time, but I do remember it! I'm sailing with Dave Wade who's not used to these kind of conditions, and there is the random element, but when you look at the results it's still the same great names at the front of the fleet."

Patrick Blake probably knows more about the week than any other sailor, having competed over 45 years at the event:
"When the event started it wasn't as big, and was less important than the Merlin Rocket championship, but over the years the main part of the class, which isn't necessarily the very front of the fleet, enjoys the camaraderie and atmosphere here, so a lot of people want to do this event now. There's a great spirit in the class and everybody gets together for this big jamboree."

The class has attracted many younger sailors into its ranks, vital for the sustainability of any boat, and Patrick put this down to the big 'family' feel within the Merlin Rockets:
"I've been sailing Merlins for around 60 years - not all the time as I've sailed many other classes as well - but I've always come back to Merlins as it feels like home. It's great to see these younger sailors embracing the same philosophy about dinghy racing that I had when I was young. It's kept me going for all these years and I'm still passionate about it. We're fighting like hell on the water to win, but back in the clubhouse we're all great mates and have a good time. With the morning and afternoon races, depending on your preference or circumstances, you can watch some of the racing, take the kids to the beach, or enjoy the attractions of Salcombe."

The event sponsor, Salcombe Gin, provides one of those attractions with the 'Salcombe Gin School', where you get to develop and distil your own bottle of gin, using a selection from a huge range of botanicals they have available. I took up the chance to produce my 'Salcombe Gin Merlin Rocket', inspired by the sea and herbs and spices I use when cooking fish, including Sea Buckthorn, Seaweed, Lemongrass and Ginger - this is a great experience and thought the gin I produced tasted great!

Howard Davies, co-founder of Salcombe Gin and a long-time sailor, was enthusiastic in his support of the class:
"On a business level, the large number of entries mean it's a great way of raising the awareness of our gin, which we're very proud of. On a personal level, the Merlin Rocket has always been a class that I've admired and loved as it's such a beautiful boat. The event itself is such a spectacle, and to have the opportunity now to bring work and pleasure together and be involved is a dream come true."

Howard is a huge fan of the family-friendly format of the week:
"People can come for a week on holiday with their family, and during the day one of the members of the family can enjoy themselves out sailing in the knowledge that there are beautiful beaches and a whole host of other fantastic attractions and activities for the rest of the family to enjoy. With the split racing the sailor in the family doesn't have to miss out totally on these activities either. I think Salcombe lends itself perfectly for this format - in my opinion it's unique."

The Merlin Rocket class itself has learned from Salcombe Week, emulating elements at events such as their championship at Pippa Kilsby explains: "As a class we've really tried to make the Nationals more appealing. We used to have a format of one race a day, and that race was a really long one, and it was horrible to be honest, really brutal and in my opinion (not everyone's opinion) a bit archaic. We ran a survey so see what people wanted from a championship, changed the format, made it a bit more family friendly, shorter races and more of them, and that really seems to have helped popularity of the event."

Richard Whitworth spoke on how other events could replicate the success:
"I think the venue has a lot to do with it, but I think the history of the Merlin Rocket class helps with some quality sailors and people tend to stick with the class. If you look round the fleet, with the Alan Warrens and the Pat Blakes of the world, we have a fantastic history and tradition. I know other fleets have their legends as well and this format could be tried at other venues. Throwing away the car keys at the beginning of the week always helps!"

Pippa Kilsby was convinced other classes need to adapt to survive:
"I think they need to change. I think it's more difficult for people to continue to sail - from youths, to those with young children, through to older people - and sailing needs to try and work for all of those people, otherwise you lose them. We've tried to make the Merlins appeal to more people and I think we have. Salcombe has always had family appeal and I think the reality is you need to make that more universal."

Here's a thought... two classes, let's say the GP14s and Enterprises, could hold a joint championship week and alternate which class has the morning or afternoon racing. There could be some sailors who want to sail both classes, but the majority would do one, and you then have joint socials and double the number of competitors at an event, in a family friendly format. Could this work?

Pippa Kilsby thought it could:
"Yeah, why not? For the real keenos it would be hard work doing the am and pm racing, but collaborating similar boats sounds smart! If they're struggling for numbers then why would you not do that?"

I put the same thought to Dave Hall, suggesting that both the Fireballs and Scorpions could adopt a combined championship week with am and pm racing and joint socials:
"It's a very good idea, I know a number of the Fireball sailors are keen to have a social week and maybe if we can't get the numbers for one fleet then mixing it with another fleet could be a very good idea!"

One such mixed class event is SMELT in Carnac for Scorpion, Merlins, Enterprises, Larks and National 12s. From all the feedback received this is hugely popular.

Food for thought!

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