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The latest ideas in the Merlin Rocket fleet

by Gareth Griffiths 21 Apr 2020 15:24 BST
Concours d'Elegance judging at the RYA Dinghy Show 2020 © Mark Jardine

In our series of boat bimbling articles we hear from a very keen member of the Merlin Rocket fleet, Gareth Griffiths, who is anxious to make sure his boat is keeping up with the latest advancements. These are his views on what the next steps are.

I bought a very tired Winder Mk 4 in 2017. This Merlin design was launched by Winder Boats around 2003-4 and is currently campaigned successfully by top sailors such as Andy Davis, Mike and Jane Calvert, Caroline Croft, Oli Turner and many others. Though still a competitive design there have been many advances since it was launched: masts, foils, and systems. Andy Davis' boat 3684 "Keyser Soze" was on display at the RYA Dinghy Show in 2019 next to Simon Potts' brand new Winder 3802 "Khaleesi".

I spent two years racing my Mk4 - after I had restored her to a race worthy condition - all the time discussing with my crew what we would like to do to improve her when the time was right.

System-wise the newer boats have the ability to move the jib clew further outboard with full X/Y control of the clew, rather than the longitudinal jib tracks that come as standard on older boats.

X/Y Control of the jib clew, and therefore the slot, has a massive influence on how any two sail dinghy performs upwind. Friends that have this control were constantly telling me that they were setting their clew further outboard than they expected in most conditions.

Sheet position on all new boats has moved inboard, forward and lower than the Winder Mk1-4s and early Mk5s.

Newer boats, not just in the Merlin class, have been replacing the interior floor gelcoat non-skid with neoprene products like SeaDek or Pro-Grip. This not only gives excellent footing but is a lot comfier on your knees in light wind conditions. It is a bit heavier, but we are carrying 15kg of correctors in most Merlins so not a huge concern.

Pretty much the whole top end of the fleet have fitted a 4:1 spinnaker foreguy tweaker called a "lazy guy", to keep the spinnaker pole off the forestay on close reaches. At Silver Tiller sea events and the Nationals, the fleet generally sail a Sausage-Triangle-Sausage course. Getting a fast hoist at the windward mark, especially on to a reach, makes huge gains.

Pump Action Kite hoists are becoming popular and some teams have a pump for the drop too. As mentioned above the faster the hoist the more gains you can make. The issue with a pump system has always been eradicating issues at the drop but most of the top boats have mastered a fool-proof system.

Traveller hoop systems have had a number of people working on them. A Merlin has a square top hoop six inches short of the boom height (without rake). After tacking the traveller is pulled to windward to centralise the boom. This system needs to be bullet-proof in all conditions and many sailors have issues with getting the right rope for the job, the right cleats/lock, and getting it to un-cleat when the new side is pulled on. The stiffness of the welded hoop is an issue; on many boats these have cracked after years of very hard abuse.

Jon Turner has a new design where there are no cleats, just a locking system like a door latch on the traveller itself which looks very reliable. The traveller hoop is a square section and therefore much stronger. Ian Sharps and John Fildes are incorporating adjustable height into their system so as you rake you can lower the traveller. John Fildes has used a post rather than a hoop.

In 2017 I borrowed a Jon Turner centreboard from Chris Martin for Salcombe Merlin Rocket Week. It was both a different shape, a higher ratio foil, (long and narrow) and a lot stiffer, being made of carbon, than my standard Winder glass board. I absolutely loved the carbon board; the boat felt so fast upwind in breeze. Jon Turner also builds a new, much stiffer, stronger rudder pintle system and a very light lifting rudder.

Moving the centreboard has been talked about regularly as a modification to make a Merlin go faster. On the magnificent new Rockatross that was on display at this year's RYA Dinghy Show - designed by Jo Richards, owned by John and Charlotte Fildes - you can move the pivot point fore/aft in the centreboard case. This is also possible on Richard Whitworth's Winder Mk5 3703 "Faithless" fitted by Dave Winder when she was built. Discussions with a number of top sailors in the fleet past and present really feel like this can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, it would be very complicated, time-consuming and expensive to retrofit this to my boat.

The sail plan is the largest development in the fleet, with at least half of the top end of the fleet opting to move their forestay forwards to the stem to accommodate a larger jib, and use a smaller main than standard. I felt that my boat had great downwind speed but upwind she didn't "lock-in" as well as the newer boats I had tried. I tried sailing Dave and Vicky Lenz's Winder Mk5 Merlin 3778 "Peer Pressure" who have a North Sails 3sqm Jib as opposed to my 2.78sqm North Sails Jib. Their boat felt much easier to keep fast in a 15 knot plus breeze than my conventional set up which felt very on/off in the same conditions.

Some sailors have kept the same size jib but moved the forestay forwards. Jon Turner and 2019 National Champion Christian Birrell are looking at using an even bigger 3.10 sqm jib built by Exe Sails believing that low down power and drive from this has a big performance edge. Discussion with European Head of Sail Design at North Sails UK, Dave Lenz, as mentioned a fellow Merlin sailor, shows he is not so convinced that this is correct and considers that the ability to increase the slot between main and jib is a greater factor.

Most boats have now adopted the twin spinnaker pole Spiro system where one line will not only pull the pole out but pull the Spinnaker guy to the end of the pole too. I fitted this almost immediately to my boat but found a few temperamental issues with the Spiro. Often the pole got stuck out and wouldn't retract easily enough for a confident gybe or drop. John Turner and John Fildes have redesigned the Spiro rotating the blocks so that they are vertical rather than angled (which those with this updated modification swear to be a great development).

It looks like Gareth has got a lot of work ahead of him, but he's probably going to enjoy all that tinkering!

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