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Salcombe Gin Merlin Rocket Week - Runners and Riders

by Tim Fells 28 Jun 08:55 PDT 3-8 July 2022
Salcombe Gin Merlin Rocket Week 2019 day 2 © Mark Jardine / YachtsandYachting.com

Sunday 3 July will see the first start gun of the ever-popular Salcombe Merlin Week. Again, the week is generously sponsored by Salcombe Gin, a local success story, rapidly expanding globally. Salcombe Gin will be providing prizes not just for the top boats but also for the newly introduced Silver and Bronze fleets. With 120 boats entered, the G/S/B prizes will reward teams winning their personal battles throughout each daily race.

As usual the fleet is divided into four flights who sail each other twice over the six days of racing with each team having three morning and three afternoon starts. The programme is as follows:

Day10:30 Start14:30 StartHigh WaterLow Water
SUNRED ‑ GREENBLUE ‑ BLACK09:1915:21
MONRED ‑ BLUEGREEN ‑ BLACK09:5415:55
TUESGREEN ‑ BLUERED ‑ BLACK10:3316:32
WEDSBLUE ‑ BLACKRED ‑ GREEN11:1817:15
THURSGREEN ‑ BLACKRED ‑ BLUE12:1018:09
FRIRED ‑ BLACKGREEN ‑ BLUE13:1119:18

The fleet is, as one would expect, awash with talent and a case can be made for over 20 teams as potential winners of the week. Racing in Salcombe provides one of the toughest exam papers on the UK sailing scene, with so many opportunities to get it wrong, or simply be the victim of misfortune.

Last year was a case in point. Christian Birrell and Ali Potts looked nailed on to win their last race and take the title when they fell into a hole just before the last mark, losing key places. Tom Gillard and Aaron Holman, watching helplessly from the shore, went from depressed to elated in the space of 10 crucial seconds, taking the title for the first time.

First up on Sunday morning, and enjoying a relatively high tide will be RED v GREEN. RED flight has a mix of grizzled past winners and young hot shots. David Winder, William Warren and Tim Fells have all put their names on the trophy, know all the quirks of the race track and will be looking to regain their winning psyche. Leading the young hot shots is Chris Gould who has been close to the title in recent years.

He has teamed up with Rob Allen and won the Salcombe Silver Tiller in April in impressive style to make them one to beat. Ian Dobson has all the pedigree to win and has been getting closer to a big Merlin title every year. Meanwhile, Chris's fiancée Caroline Croft has been given the keys to his super quick boat and will be expecting to put down a marker for married life!

GREEN flight has two of the class's most successful sailors. Stu Bithell needs no introduction, having won Gold in Tokyo last year, quickly followed by taking the Merlin Nationals title. Debate continues over which was the most celebrated! Currently trimming the wing sail on the new Swiss Sail GP challenger, Stu will no doubt be straight back to the front of the Merlin fleet.

Taking it to Stu will be the most polished performers over recent years. Andy Davis and Pippa Kilsby rarely put a foot wrong and, when they do, they have an unerring ability to recover back to the front. You can be sure that they will still be in the mix at the end of the week.

Neither of these two will have it their own way as Simon Potts and Holly McArthur look right back at the top of their game, finishing second at the April Silver Tiller. Also, the new kids on the block, James Goss and Chris White, having dominated the Lark class in recent years, are now pushing hard at the top of the Merlin fleet.

Sunday afternoon will see BLUE v BLACK on a low water course. This is always fun for spectators if a strong SW is pumping down the harbour. BLUE flight looks like a battle between Christian Birrell, reunited with gun crew Sam Brearey, multiple winner Richard Whitworth and consistent front runner Tim Saxton.

Christian and Sam laid down a big marker by dominating a high-quality fleet at Whitstable in May. In previous years they have been notable for accumulating more letters than numbers on their scorecard, so if they can keep their noses clean, will be sure to be in the hunt.

Richard meanwhile has a tendency to either totally destroy the fleet, starting like a demon and sailing off into the distance as if it is the easiest thing in the world or making life hard for himself. He does though have great scrambling skills so always seems to find a way back into the mix.

Tim is sailing with Mary Henderson, Endeavour winning crew and another talent off the Henderson production line, genetically programmed to win and trained in the vagaries of Salcombe harbour from birth. Together they are a formidable team.

Also in BLUE is the mercurial Matt Biggs, someone who gives the impression of being out for a sundowner cruise while consistently working his way through to the top end of the fleet. Teamed up again with regular crew Bekka Jones, this could be the year when stars align for the big win they have the capability to deliver.

BLACK flight looks a bit tasty. Returning champion Tom Gillard has his top crew Rachael Rhodes in the front end. So far this year, they have been ripping it up on the Silver Tiller circuit, so they would justifiably be considered as top seeds for the event.

The wild cards in BLACK are returning past champions Si Blake and Alex Jackson. At the end of the noughties, this was the team to beat. They have recently teamed up again in Alex's boat, which is a known fast ship. They have a unique ability to wriggle out of tight positions and are likely to be right on the pace.

If you are looking for a team who can take these two down, look no further than Mike and Jane Calvert. Consistently quick, optimised for Salcombe which they know like the back of their hands, and the hardest working team out there, they have one of the most impressive Merlin Week records, always in the running on the last day.

BLACK is also home to the other members of the Henderson clan. Father Will, the Yoda of Salcombe Harbour, has too much know-how not to be finding his way to the front. He will be battling with son Arthur, who has already demonstrated he is a force to be reckoned with. Back at the April Silver Tiller, he lit the after-burners for two race wins, with fearless starting and perfect boat positioning.

So, an awful lot of talent, well-practised teams and local knowledge. It is very open and there is every possibility that come the final Friday there will be many teams in with a shot at the title. With every place effectively counting double, those who can scramble best and secure those key recovery places will be fighting for the title. Can't wait!

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