As Storm Pablo sets in and I can see readings in the harbour in excess of 50 knots, I have had a chance to look back fondly on our first full year in the Merlin Rocket. Firstly, we have thoroughly enjoyed it, great events, great people and great socials, and secondly, we have learnt loads.
The Merlin is an amazing piece of kit that is able to be adjusted to sail fast and smooth in all conditions, and the quality of the fleet (both competitively and socially) is very high. The events are varied, even though it is a National class, with racing varying between rivers in London to Open waters in Cornwall. Whilst we have had a very busy summer with 5 weddings, including our own when we have managed to start our way up the curve.
Learning the boat
As I mentioned in my previous post
I was able to pick up a good second-hand boat, with the longevity of a Merlin really underpinning why they have such a strong second-hand market, the boats hold their value and are still very competitive after 5-10 years.
On first view, the inner workings of a Merlin is a bit overwhelming, but slowly we started to work it all out. The idea being that there is a reason everything is adjustable, and whilst the option is there a lot of the time you are able to set them up pre-race. The first key thing was to label them to allow either of us to make adjustments without going through the “no, pull the other one!” process. Settling and marking up our “fast” settings allows us to concentrate on the race rather than faffing, which we are still trying to get out of the habit of.
The best decision I made was getting some tips from the top, and from the man who designed the fit-out, in Simon Potts who kindly took a day out with his wife Ally to come down and put us through our paces. We then spent the early season doing some club races and local winter series.
There were some big differences to get used for both of us.
- Gybing: With a symmetric kite and twin poles gybing it meant that there was a lot more for the crew to do, which in turn means that where possible the helm needs to assist by presetting a jib, controlling the new sheet and balancing the boat out the gybe all whilst keeping the steering consistent. We spent a lot of time being open-minded, trying new techniques and practising. Remember “Practice makes permanent, not perfect!”.
- Footwork: The layout and width of the Merlin was dramatically different to the 200 & Fireflies we had been sailing and this meant that we had to spend a lot of time thinking where we stepped to make sure we could time our tacks properly, especially in the lighter wind, to take in to account the vastly wider hull. It is not something we usually think of when sailing but is so key in other sports. The best way to do this, especially when applying to skiffs, is to do a dry land practice slowing it right down and talking it through as you go.
- Strength: It was a step up into a bigger boat and naturally this meant bigger loads, and with the pole system meaning that I was hoisting the kite whilst Soph managed the many ropes at the front of the boat. We have taken it to an extreme and utilised a PT, but even then there is no substitute from getting out on the water and getting used to it. Sailing is a dynamic and often underestimated (in terms of fitness) sport where the movements cannot be easily replicated in a gym, and it is more fun to do it on the water.
- Routines: One of the most difficult things we have learnt was settling after the manoeuvres, where to sit, where to set the board, getting the weight forward out the gybe and then the always challenging reach-to-reach gybes! A good routine is key to all of this, knowing your roles and communicating regularly, even if it is counting down into a manoeuvre. Luckily for me, Soph isn’t short of words, so it is actually just upskilling myself in to talking more, or being able to get a word in ;D
Check out a video of us out practising
The great thing about all this is that it just needs time in the boat and not caring about the results, easier said than done! But as we came through the season we started to see everything coming together.
Getting up to speed
Getting on the pace in a new class is always one of the toughest things. You can have all the boat handling practices in the world, but if you are down in the pack it can be difficult to dig your way through.
This is where you need to get out on to a big open racecourse to prove yourself against other boats and try out different settings. We did this out in Hayling Bay at the open, and then a bit more at the Nationals where we could try things and see what worked. We started often finding ourselves in half-decent lanes but I would pinch too much in the gusts and the fleet would squirt forwards on us, so we went through a process of trial & error and feedback, a key lesson is to never be afraid to ask for help (the trouble is deciphering the differing opinions!).
Smoothly changing gears is always the toughest challenge and not knowing “what it feels like” when the boat is going well, so through this process I made an effort to mark up the sheets and key control lines. This allows easy points of reference to “when it feels right” and also when in high-pressure points, it is easy to replicate.
One of the magic bits of the Merlin is the “one-string” raking system by which the rig tension, lowers and shrouds are all adjusted in column, and this is a big change from the one-design racing I was used to. It allows you to react to a range of conditions around the racecourse, but of course actually adjusting it whilst not disrupting your steering and losing your lane is tough, communication between the helm and crew again has become even more important as the two need to manage energy, roles and risk vs reward of changing continuously. It makes it a brilliant and challenging game where knowing your boat really pays dividends.
Then once you are feeling happy and half-confident on what you are doing you head to the circuit.
This is hands down the most amazing dinghy event I have been to! The culmination of tricky river racing, sun, sandy beaches, clear water and great socials make it the ultimate family race week. You only need to see the videos
to see why this event, which is limited to a mere 120 boats, draws 150+ entries year on year.
You sail one long race a day either in the morning or in the afternoon, depending on the fleet allocation, allowing you to plan your day and over the 6 races you race everyone twice. We started reasonably well and throughout the week improved finishing on a high with a 2nd
in the final race. This was apparently a good first showing with all the niche knowledge culminating in the top of the fleet having sailed more Merlin Weeks than years I have sailed.
Silver Tiller Series
There is a substantial open meeting calendar in the Merlin fleet, which includes Open water, closed and River events to really give a flavour for everyone’s fancy! There are 3 “fleets” within the event to make sure that, even though everyone is on the same racecourse, there are mini-series going on between the Gold, Silver and Bronze fleets, and the pride for winning each of these is very high! The fleet you are in depends on how you have performed in the fleet, and you are promoted (or demoted) on an annual basis which is a fun addition to the importance of each event. The events are well attended all around the country and there is a national ranking pulled from the results of the series and an end of season dinner where there are prizes to all fleet winners, which this year included new sails from HD sails.
This is pretty much a who’s who of the UK dinghy racing circuit. Whilst it is not as well attended as Salcombe Week (strangely), the quality is very high with it being easy to find yourself down the pan and difficult to dig back out, a humbling experience to say the least. As it turns out, having turned from crewing to helming I may be the only person to win the Nationals, and then win Silver fleet AFTERWARDS! (I’m not bitter I promise). We again showed good improvement through the week, with tactics on a run in symmetric boats slowly coming back to me, but given the length of the races with 2/3 a day and the long-distance Ranelagh Trophy race the lack of skill needed to be made up by fitness (note to self, need to get fitter). This enables there to be a really level playing field between the younger, possibly fitter but less experienced sailors and the technique tuned experienced sailors, making the racing even closer. I really valuable learning experience and an enjoyable week, Looe were a great host with a world-class venue…..bring on Tenby.
All in all, it has been a great year and work is underway on our winter program! In the words of the legendary Jurgen Klopp (and Stevie G) “We go again!”