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North Sails Golf Day in aid of John Merricks Sailing Trust (JMST)

by Rory Heron 15 Nov 2022 19:00 GMT
Ian Walker, James Stagg, Rory Heron and Dan Primrose © Ian Walker

This Golf Day was originally set up in memory of the much loved former North Sails employee and 1996 Olympic Silver Medallist, John Merricks.

The JMST has been in operation for twenty four years, having been set up to help young sailors and youth sailing organisations achieve their goals. In the time since it was launched by his friends and family, it has raised nearly £1m. Notable sailors who were financially supported by JMST include current Olympic Champions, Stuart Bithell and Dylan Fletcher as well as Islay Watson, Lorenzo Chiavarini and Sophie Weguelin.

The Trustees of this wonderful sailing charity decided that 2022 was a good year and the right time to wind up the charity that has given so much to so many young sailors. And what better way to finish than a gathering of so many of his old friends and competitors at the North Sails Golf day?

80 golfers played in a 'Texas Scramble' and it was great to see so many notable sailors pulling out their (t)rusty clubs for one final attempt at glory! Louise Morton, Kate Palfrey, Stuart Branson and Anthony Spillebeen took home the trophy as the winning team. Other notable winners were Dr Tommo, who won the 'Bandit Trophy', thus ensuring the return of his favourite tie and Stu Bithell who unleashed a huge drive to win 'Longest Drive'.

Eddie Warden-Owen also managed to win closest to the pin! Ian Macdonald-Smith, Olympic Champion with Rodney Pattison in 1968 put in one of the most competitive rounds. We should also give a mention to Chris Mason who has now attended over 20 of these golf days whilst still managing to claim a 28 handicap and we should applaud Ian Walker for his tireless (some would say incessant) coaching of his less than talented team.

These events are a success due to the hard work of those behind the scenes. Neil Mackley has played in and organised every single of these golf days and obviously Ian Walker has been a hugely positive driving force behind JMST whilst supporting all of the young sailors along the way. Huge thanks from the sailing community to these guys. We think that the Golf Day has raised not far off £300,000 for JMST. Interestingly, it has been said that James Stagg, Simon Fry and Dan Primrose have lost the equivalent number of balls over the years.

This year it was very special to see all of the Trustees of JMST bar one attending the Golf Day, including Jim Saltonstall who was responsible for the development of so many of the very talented 'ferrets' of John's generation. Rod Carr, ex CEO of RYA also gave a wonderful and emotional speech regarding JMST and in memory of John.

For those of you who don't know so much about John, here is a little reminder of a very special, very nice person who also happened to be one of the greatest sailing talents of his generation.

John Merricks was born on 16th February 1971 in Leicester, England and went on to become one of the world's top international sailors. "There are plenty of good sailors in the world" said Ian Walker, "but there are very few good people. John was a thoroughly good person".

John Merricks' close friend and sailing partner succinctly summed up the man who had been so tragically killed in a motor accident in Punta Ala, Italy, where they had been competing in the Melges 24 European Championship, less than a week earlier. Walker's comments were echoed throughout the sailing world. John was someone very special to everyone who knew him and no one ever had a bad word to say about him. He was supremely talented, yet he was totally and blissfully unaware that he was any different from the rest. He knew he could win races, indeed as Walker remembered, "He expected to win, not in an arrogant way but in a "get on with it" way".

Win or lose, there was always a smile on the face of John Merricks. It was a smile that disarmed his opponents and attracted them to seek his help. It was a smile that hid both confidence and the natural modesty that was the hallmark of this extremely talented sailor. It was also a smile that attracted today's young sailors to sit up and take notice when he gave generously of his time to help them in the sport he dearly loved. When that smile was all too prematurely and permanently erased, John Merricks was on his way to winning another championship with his long-term sailing partner, Ian Walker. The two were originally rivals; two quite different characters that combined into a fiercely competitive duo that was able to win almost at will. John was a seat-of-the-pants sailor whose natural ability to produce speed from a boat had become legendary in the classes he sailed. He had an innate sense of what made a boat go faster and his particular talent lay in his ability to use waves down wind - he treated all boats as if they were surf boards and made huge gains because of it.

He learned to sail with his father, Dennis, on Rutland Water, in a Mirror dinghy, and before very long was at the front of the National Championship fleet, where one of his rivals was Walker. His rise was rapid and he became a member of the UK Youth Squad under Jim Saltonstall. He was National Youth Champion in 1988 and again the following year and all too obviously destined for success in senior racing. Saltonstall recognised the talent at his disposal and soon had Merricks rapidly moving up the ladder, pointing him in the right direction towards the goal of Olympic champion that he would have undoubtedly have become.

Walker remembered those early days, when he and John were rivals. "He won a pursuit race or something at Rutland, for which the prize was the use of a 420, Rutland Challenge, for a year. I used to drive there every other week to race against him, but John had been out in that boat for five hours a day, every day in between. To him, everything about sailing the boat became instinctive." John had learned in his own way that practice was essential for success, but it was never to stand in the way of his enjoyment of the sport. The more fulfilling it was, the more he enjoyed it.

The 470 class was a natural choice for the small, wiry Merricks. His physicality was perfectly suited to be the helmsman and the taller Walker made the ideal crew. In addition, being on the trapeze afforded Ian the perfect platform to view the racecourse and inform John what was going on so that they could decide their tactics. It allowed John more time to concentrate on the more pragmatic problems of driving the boat as fast as possible through the water. The combination was dynamic. In 1994, Merricks and Walker began their assault on the world's major regattas in their 470 and their early success was rewarded with a sponsorship from Mars. It was hardly signed and sealed before the pair were dubbed "The Martians" and like men from a distant planet they began to cause havoc among their competitors. The partnership was "there or thereabouts" at every world regatta they attended - Merricks breaking off to sail the smaller 420 in the world championship with the lighter and more suitable Ian Lovering and winning it comfortably - runners-up in the European and fifth in the World Championship.

Victories at Miami, Kiel and Medemblik in that first season were followed the next by a second win at Miami and Medemblik and the European Championship was theirs. They were on course for the Olympics when they won the British trials in September 1995 without too much trouble and began another year round of the major regattas in their class.

It was a year of dedication and was rewarded with the silver medal at Savannah. It was typical of Merricks' determination and resilience that he was able to fight back from an indifferent first half of the Olympic regatta, and on the final day, hold off the Portuguese pair to take the silver medal. Throughout the regatta, John was singularly cheerful and confident that he and Ian could produce the sort of result expected of them.

Once that matter had been settled, he looked for fresh challenges as a professional yachtsman, and found one immediately in the Melges 24 class where, again with Walker as tactician, he was second in the European championship soon after returning from Savannah. It brought another smile to his face as he proved that he could make the change to a keelboat, but the challenge became bigger when he was approached by Tim Barrett to sail his Mumm 36, Bradamante, and campaign it for Britain's team in the Admiral's Cup.

For Merricks and Walker (by now a totally inseparable partnership), it was a challenge they couldn't refuse, it could be their passport to a new world of sailing. With help from a small group of more experienced bigger boat sailors, they improved throughout the year and were the top Mumm 36 in the Admiral's Cup. It was the equivalent of winning the World Championship. Grant Spanhake, a Whitbread veteran, had this to say of Merricks, "I had the pleasure of working with him on the Admiral's Cup project. He was one of the best yachtsmen I know and a friend to us all." Ian thought about that campaign and added, "It was pretty astounding what we did in six months - it was being a team that was most important." John always played his sailing as a team game. "No crew received the recognition I have," said Ian, "and that's because John was prepared to share it with me." He went on, "We shared everything - money, thoughts - that's why it worked. Everything was in the open." They shared their media duties, the heavier they became, the more they split them up. For John, "All television interviews were a laugh," according to Ian, "He always put his foot in it, but it never seemed to matter." Those of us privileged to know John remember just how he cut through the unnecessary and went out to win and enjoy his racing.

He was a keen competitor in everything he did. On the golf course, he played off a handicap of "as many as you care to give me". I think that he might have had quite a laugh watching his old friends playing in his memory (some less well than others) and I am sure that he would have been hugely proud to see what an impact JMST has had on so many sailors. Thank you North Sails, Ian Walker and Neil Mackley - it was a really fantastic day.

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