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CoastWaterSports 2014

Something So Right - What's the secret of (sunny) Salcombe?

by Dougal Henshall 3 Aug 12:00 BST
Merlin Rocket Week at Salcombe © Olly Turner

As the UK finally broke free of the main Covid restrictions last year the stage seemed set for a glorious revival of dinghy sailing's fortunes. As early as the mid-1970s, worried articles were appearing in Yachts & Yachting magazine that highlighted the concerns that - after more than 20 years of unbroken growth - participation numbers hadn't just plateaued, but were already starting a downward trend.

What the sport really needed was something of a reset to bring it into line with more modern ways of thinking; what it got though was that any new ideas in the form of boats (and how and where they should be sailed) ended up being shoehorned into the existing structure. The old classes stubbornly clung on, with the end result being a fragmentation of the grassroots base as the bright new ideas, be that Skiffs, SMODs or foiling, fought for market share.

And, as we have seen in a number of recent articles, the ageing demographic across much of the sailing scene is lurking just under the surface, with a number of our prime-time fleets filled with more sailors in the various 'Masters' categories that in the main body of entrants.

Then came Covid and the lockdowns, but out of these grim times came signs of a brighter future with buoyant participation rates in terms of 'general sailing'. The more organised side of the sport also looked to be set fair, as clubs reported that they were busier that in the pre-lockdown days. Moving into the middle of summer and the main events season there were encouraging numbers of sailors prepared to travel, meeting up again with old friends, which all breathed new life into the open meeting and championship scene.

Dinghy racing has had these false dawns before and as we move into the height of year two, there are some very real concerns that the bubble of new optimism might have already burst, as numbers of boats on trailers heading off onto the circuit struggle to maintain any semblance of growth. There's a multitude of reasons for this but the easy answer could well be the current cost of living crisis coming in on top of an already serious issue of supply chain problems.

One successful sailor wanted new sails before heading on to a National Championship, only to find that not only had the price been hiked up sharply, but that they wouldn't arrive until much later in the season. Even before Brexit, Covid and 'the war', price inflation in sailing had been building to levels where they are now forming a barrier to participation and as we saw in What price in taking the P... the cost of being fully competitive at the front of the fleet can now be eye-watering.

However, the signs are that there is far more to this situation than just the cost issue, with many talking of the conflicting pressures of family time, not to mention life itself, but increasingly the sentiment is being expressed that unless you're really there for the chocolates, that the 'championship experience' is not delivering.

We looked at this recently in A Fine Line, where events that take the sailor away and out of sight for the whole day do little to recognise the existence of family and friends. However charming the location might be is irrelevant, as for the sailor these events can mean an early start, a late finish, then time sorting out any problems... only to Groundhog Day the whole process the following morning.

This increasingly suggests that there's a clear divide opening up between time spent competing at an event and time spent away with family.

The answer, as we've seen before, could well lay in the ever-growing popularity of the sailing week, particularly those at prime family friendly locations. There's a reason why Abersoch Week is consistently talked off as a 'must do' event, as the seemingly endless expanse of golden sands mean that there's enough beach for everyone.

So what that the racing starts from a fixed line and takes you on a tour around the bay; the setting is glorious, the racing friendly yet competitive, and best of all you're only away for a half day (and for much of that time you can be in line of sight as well).

Although Abersoch might well tick all of the boxes (it is even north of the M4!) it is far from unique as Rock, Chichester, Pyefleet and other cracking locations will testify.

If there's a downside then it could well be that you'll have a massed start with lots of other boats. Classes with sufficient numbers can pull their own results out, but it could be that even if you've been able to attract a crowd of like-minded souls along from your own class, that you'll be racing under PY. However, with enough entries from a single class most organisers bow to the inevitable and create an extra start, but some classes have been so successful at this that they all but take the event over.

There's no better example of this process at work that the incredible, still-growing success that is Merlin Rocket Week at Salcombe: six days of fun sailing in the picturesque setting of one of the South West's loveliest harbours.

The relationship between the class and the town of Salcombe would make an interesting case study given the close interaction between the two entities, for though over time the Merlins have shaped this event in their own image, at the same time, Salcombe itself has shaped the thinking of the class and the way it has developed.

To understand this, you have to go back more than 60 years to the time not long after the shotgun marriage of the Merlin and Rockets into a single class with National status. This was right at the start of that 'golden era' with more than one new boat a week being launched, which saw the centre of activity spread out from the Thames to create a number of new power bases around the UK, from Hamble to Hollingworth, on sea and inland.

One of the attractions of the new class was that the Silver Tiller series, where crews had to count their results from a number of different locations (from restricted inland stretches of water to the open sea), had created something of a 'go anywhere' mentality. One such location was Salcombe, where the Town Regatta had already caught the attention of a number of sailors, who then got their friends to come along and join them.

This in itself was no mean feat, as getting down to the South-west in 1950s Britain entailed something of an epic journey along the A roads of the day. This was before the M4 and M5, whilst the 93 miles of the A303 were yet to be classed as a 'trunk' road.

There has always been an air on the romantic about Salcombe, with one young, London-based sailor who wanted to sail at the Town Regatta packing his boat up and sailing it around, stopping on en route at Bognor to win the famed 'Bognor Barrel'. This brings Brian Saffery-Cooper into the story, who would later go on to wider fame in the Finn and then as a success helm in offshore racing.

In a way the attractions of Salcombe fitted in with that 'sail anywhere' aspect of the rapidly expanding Merlin Rocket class.

The harbour and adjoining creeks are, geographically speaking, a ria, a flooded valley system but for the sailors, you can get every aspect of sailing in a single day. With a brisk south-westerly blowing in through the harbour entrance to meet a strong ebb, the beat down to Blackstone can be as demanding as any open water course, whilst passage through the 'Bag' on a leg up to the mark at Gerston can be as tricky as any treeline stretch of a river or inland reservoir.

To succeed at Salcombe means being master of everything that the conditions could throw at the fleet, along with swirling tides and an ever-growing number of yachts moored up in the harbour.

By 1958 so many boats wanted to sail that the decision was taken to grant the Merlins their own week, with the first winner being none other than Brian Saffery-Cooper, who was now able to tow his boat down and who had crewing for him a young Alan Warren.

Alan, who would go on to add a Silver Medal in the Tempest amongst his many other sailing achievements, shows that other, unforgiving side of Salcombe, where the sailing gives scant respect to the form book. Along with crew Barry Dunning, Alan won multiple Merlin Rocket Championships, the Silver Tiller twice, but was never able to enjoy the coveted accolade of being the winning helm at Salcombe, though he would come close on a number of occasions.

The numbers of entries for Salcombe continued to grow, as did the boats themselves, for although the length remained at 14ft, the svelte narrow boats of the 50s and 60s soon gave way to ever beamier versions, with a maximum beam finally being imposed at 7ft 2 half in. This added yet more complications to the issue of getting to Salcombe, as once away from the road that linked Exeter to Plymouth, the route down through Kingsbridge and then on to Salcombe had some very narrow sections and by now the smarter boats sported sycamore gunwales.

With the town reaching right down to the water's edge, space is at a premium, and though there is a boat park in the creek at Batson, many sailors prefer the sandy delights of Portlemouth beach, over on the far side of the harbour. This presents something of a logistical challenge, as although Portlemouth can be reached by road, it is a long diversion, back up past Kingsbridge and on around the many reaches of the harbour, with much of this on lanes that are narrow even by South Devon standards.

With the timely arrival of RIBS, boats could sail across to the beach whilst their launching trolleys followed them, and with Portlemouth being an absolute joy for families, this added to the attraction that Salcombe was a holiday for all.

By now the format of the Week was pretty much as it is today, with a race in the morning for half the fleet, then another in the afternoon for the other half. For a long time, the entry was limited to 80 boats, but so popular was the event that there was often a waiting list of as many boats again, hopeful to take the place of someone who had to drop out.

Simply getting an entry was a challenge in itself and as more and more crews were left disappointed, changes were made to increase the entry to 120. This would be made up of four flights of 30 boats, carefully seeded to ensure that there wouldn't be any 'easy' groups (though some can be seen as the fated 'group of death'). The groups would all sail against each other twice, with the Salcombe Yacht Club start line just big enough, at a squeeze, for 60 boats.

Salcombe's Harbour Master works wonders and closes passage up and down the Harbour to yachts for the starts, but this applies to the first start only. Get a general recall and by the time boats get to go again, the main harbour is open again which can create some interesting tactical situations.

It is almost an article of faith that Salcombe races start on time (1030 in the morning, 1430 in the afternoon) with the starts on a fixed club line. Boats either have to sail south towards the harbour entrance or north, on up into the harbour itself, with the tide playing a significant role. In light airs and a strong weather going tide, avoiding the eagle eye of the race team can be tricky in the extreme, with many would be winners of the week failing due to one or more OCS scores.

However, it isn't just the Race Officer and his team who can sight the line for early starters, for the non-sailing half of the fleet can congregate on the terrace of the Salcombe Yacht Club with an elevated view of the start and finish line, plus the first beat and run. The gladiators who fought for their lives in the Colosseum could hardly have faced a more partisan crowd, as every move afloat is played out for the benefit of the spectators.

Things can be even more partisan on the afternoon starts, as those who had sailed in the morning might already have started rehydrating on the excellent Doom Bar ale, which, along with the pasties, is such a staple part of a Salcombe diet.

After so many years the club have management of the week sorted to a very high standard, from the well-practised race management, to the plentiful rescue boats (the gusts that funnel their way down from the hilly slopes can catch out the most experienced of sailors) and even the spectators are considered, with a thoughtfully provided board set out on the terrace setting out the course to be sailed in that race.

Even so, on the face of it, Salcombe shouldn't be enjoying anything like the continued success it does, as for so many of the modern expectations of the sport Salcombe should be scoring 'nil points'.

For a start, it isn't an easy place to access and for most of the population it is something of a long-haul destination. Even once Salcombe-bound sailors have survived the M5, then the climb up Telegraph Hill away from Exeter, there's the dubious delights of the so-called 'Devon Expressway' which can quickly become a logjam of motorhomes, caravans and boat trailers.

Then there's the issue of accommodation, for Salcombe itself has become something of a byword for second homes and holiday lets, and with the town seen as the number one location for a 'des res', the hiking of weekly rental costs has even exceeded the inflationary pressures seen in sailing itself. Put simply, from Pimms to pints, pies to pasties, about the only silver lining is that you'll not be able to afford to eat enough to put the pounds on!

And then there's the sailing! As we saw in A Fine Line, the sailors of today head off to an event with a realistic expectation of true start lines, fair beats and runs that will benefit those on either gybe. Salcombe is none of the above!

The Merlin Rocket Week that has just concluded ended up being a classic week of sailing in the estuary with a high-pressure system sat over the southern UK. For the families on the beach Salcombe delivered days of perfect sandcastle weather and it was hot enough to make the persistently chilly waters inviting for a cooling dip. For the sailors though this would be six days of at times frustrating conditions, with the gradient breeze fighting the sea breeze.

Those who sailed an afternoon race, when the sea breeze had finally settled, knew that the chances would be that the following day it would be their turn for a morning start... which could see a massed running start and with a weather going tide, many of the hopefuls would end up with either a BFD score or a result into not just double figures, but double figures starting with a two or a three.

Just how much of a leveller the estuary can be, would be seen in one race, when an Olympic champion and a past champion in the Merlins and other classes were contesting the right to be in last place!

Yet, for all the apparent inconsistencies of sailing at Salcombe, as the week progressed the best sailors were soon found to be filling the top spots.

Another of the Salcombe surprises is that the 'four flight' system of seeding often results in near identical scoring patterns. By the mid-point of the week, when all four groups had completed three races, a full half dozen boats had two podium scores (some had three!) but others who had either caught the eye of the Race Officer on the start line or had found themselves on the wrong side of a serious Salcombe shift, were already counting scores that dictated that there was no room for any more mistakes.

Other patterns had also been clarified, not least the role of ladies in the fleet as they comprised eight out of the top ten crews. With a win in their second race Caroline Croft and Faye Chatterton had marked themselves out as serious contenders for the top spot.

Nor is the Salcombe fleet particularly ageist, as Alan Warren - the winning crew at the first Merlin week 64 years earlier - was comfortably mid-fleet, where he was rubbing shoulders with Dan Alsop, Jennie King and the venerable wooden 'Gangsta Paradise'. The combined age of helm, crew and boat results in an impressively large number, but in an example of how this thoughtful sailing rewards guile, Dan and Jennie would round their week out with two top ten finishes.

In true Salcombe fashion the drama would be played out on the penultimate day in full view of those spectating from the various lofty vantage points around the town. In a still unstable breeze, the Thursday morning race got away with a number of the fancied runners leading the charge, but with multi-class champions Tom Gillard and Rachel Gray having to fight back just to get into the top five.

More importantly, class legends Mike and Jane Calvert, who were showing the value of consistent, thoughtful sailing that had already seen then take a trio of second places, were once again front running. On the second lap the spectators were watching 'up' the harbour for the fleet to reappear, but now it would be the red boat of Gillard and Gray that picked its way back down towards the club for another win, though the Calverts were holding yet another second place.

Then, that Salcombe magic delivered the merest extra puff of wind to bring the third-placed boat of Matt and Hannah Greenfield up level... and then, right on the line, into second place by the thickness of a forestay fitting.

If that wasn't enough entertainment, come the afternoon, in a steadier and strong breeze, the front runners from the other half of the draw, Christian Birrell and Luke Patience, were holding first place as they beat up to the line, but were being pressed hard by the Black Swan team of Caroline Croft and Faye Chatterton.

The leaders had clamped on a classic cover, staying between the line and the chasing boat, but another aspect of Salcombe is that the harbour is a busy obstacle course of yachts, rented motorboats, ferries and fishing boats. Add in the swirling tide and there's a recipe for things to go wrong, which they did as Christian and Luke clipped a yacht.

The rules at Salcombe are unforgiving; touching a moored yacht is the same as boat-on-boat contact with another competitor, leaving the pair with no option but to do a 720 turn. That they completed this as slickly as anyone could - a sight to see for the now massed spectators - but it was still enough for the ladies to grab the initiative to take their second race win, a result that brought loud cheering from the terrace.

Over pints of Doom Bar enjoyed at the club, crews throughout the fleet were working out the mathematical permutations for the final day, with the clearest position being that at the head of the fleet where the winner could now only be one of three boats. Further down into the middle of the pack, a good (or equally, a bad) Friday had the potential to create a real domino effect in the final placings.

As with all great sporting occasions, although the early heats might be exciting, it is the final that has everyone up on the edge of their seats and the final Friday did not disappoint. Both the morning and afternoon races were action filled from start to finish (in the afternoon it was more a case of starts, plural, as a wind change, a strong ebb tide and a hyped up fleet caused a number of recalls) but the big difference was that the finishes took place in front of a growing crowd.

There was none of the usual waiting for people to come ashore to ask what the finishing order had been, as the spectators could work out the maths for themselves as it happened.

Although Salcombe might have that near unique 'stadium' viewpoint, this idea of bringing the final day finish back to a position where everyone can be a part - and yes, spectators do have a part to play, even in a sailboat race - is something that really adds to the moment.

I've seen this work before in other settings, such as the Ian Proctor themed event at Bosham, where the last lap took the fleet to a picturesque finish line in front of the clubhouse and the Green.

During the event for H2s and Phantoms at the highly tidal Walton and Frinton YC, the fleet had a mile long sail up the creek to get back to the clubhouse, so it really added to the interest, as well as making a lot of sense for those afloat and ashore, to make the last leg a beat home to the finish just by the club.

At Netley, the course for the last day is set with a mark right in front of the clubhouse, with the last race being finished there, a practice which has really added to the fun of sailing from the club. The purists of course will argue that this makes the sailing unfair, but actually, it is just another aspect of our sport that the good sailors happily master, just as with Tom Gillard and Rachel Gray who took it all in their stride for another Salcombe success.

Watching the week at Salcombe unfold, it was clear that the real winner has to be that long-standing relationship between the Merlin Rocket class and Salcombe Yacht Club. Of course, the media tend to focus on the winners, but the bigger message from out on the water is that Salcombe succeeds by offering something to everyone, irrespective of where they are in the overall pecking order.

It is yet another part of the magic that you can scroll down past the mid-point of the 120-boat fleet, and still find crews who got it right on the day to record not just a top ten result, but in some cases, a top five finish. On the big, open water courses at the Nationals, opportunities for results like this are limited, but the almost unique conditions at Salcombe make those wonderful moments in the sun far from exceptions, and more like the norm of sailing in this wonderful setting.

This then may well be the secret of sunny Salcombe in that whilst the competition afloat is fierce and getting hotter year on year, the event itself doesn't take itself too seriously. Sailing into a hole whilst trying to transit the infamous 'Bag' above the town is as much a part of the local folklore as are the loud cheers when someone is clearly OCS.

Yet the highly knowledgeable crowds who watch the racing will equally and loudly celebrate a crew from the middle of the fleet, who got that lucky break to finish with some of sailing's biggest names stuck behind them.

With the entry capped at 120 boats, crews are already applying for a place in the ballot for the 2023, with the expectation that once again this will be a sell out with a waiting list.

Some may mock the Merlins for a perceived elitism and an attitude of "if you have to ask how much then you can't afford it", yet the undoubted pleasure of seeing those helms sailing 30+ year old wooden boats alongside their more modern FRP relatives (and beating them) suggests that there is far more to this whole package than meets the eye!

It may come as something of a surprise to read that, in contrast to many championship weeks, the entry at Salcombe is surprisingly good value, and with it being so much more than a week of sailing, all the signs are that this will remain top of the sailing bucket list of events that just 'have to be done'.

The only downside in the end is getting one of the 120 entries, so even if you haven't got a boat today, get an entry in - getting the boat will be the easy part!

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