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Wed 18

AUG 2010

The Merlins' first serious outing

We've been a little busy of late, with non sailing things unfortunately (still hoping to get on with the race series soon and some more printable rigging guides), but I thought it overdue to give an update on the Merlin Rocket.

We've had Sledgehammer about 9 months now, and criminally underused it. We've had some problems publicised on here (4 ft rudder, 2 ft lake), although most of those are out of the way now (including some more I haven't mentioned yet). We have a new (reconditioned) rudder blade now, and it works perfectly. We took the boat out for it's first race in our hands back in late April. The last time we had sailed we had a soundtrack of shrieks as the boat was a little tippy, but this time, everything worked perfectly, we had a great race (still came last I think), but, we managed a race. Bec even admitted after that it was the most fun she'd had down our club for a long time. Just as well we got through a race, as the next race planned was the 5 hr race in aid of the RNLI.

Our club used to do a 24 hr race marathon, through the night, but it was stopped due to poor attendance, rocketing insurance fees and an unfriendly park/council. It was dropped to 6 hrs, and then a pirate day instead, and then this year they brought back the 5 hr race as it was the club's 40th anniversary. Bec wanted to sail her Laser, I wanted to sail the Merlin. Fortunately I found two willing volunteers as crew, one, a friendly chap by the name of Ian, who had previously briefly sailed National 12s, and Josh, one of the keen teenagers down the club, who had briefly sailed a Merlin with a friend down in Salcombe. I was quite enthused by their experience, although didn't find out until half way through their respective stints the National 12 crewing was about 30 years ago, and the sailing a Merlin in Salcombe didn't last long until they capsized. But hey ho, they were willing to give it a go.

So I went out for a pre sail with Ian a few weeks previous to the race, in very light winds, and within about 20 minutes we had the balance and communication sorted. I had half an hour with Josh the night before the race, again in light winds, but no problems working together, despite the fact I hadn't sailed with either before.

Balance and communication... for those of you who haven't sailed a Merlin Rocket before... imagine a Lark, or a Gull, about 10 times as tippy. If you've sailed skiffs, you might know what I mean - if you can keep your balance in a Merlin, you'll never have problems with balance in a boat again. Move your shoulders inwards... and the boat tips. Breathe out too fast, and you might get wet.

So let me set the scene. Our lake is tiny - about 15 acres in total, and surrounded by trees on 80% of it's banks. Our sailable area is about 8 acres. Most of the time the prevailing wind is from the South East, and runs down the lake from the deep end up towards the hall in the park. We've developed wind maps to show how the trees around the edge affect the wind, there's a few really swirly bits, but it's manageable as it's like that 80% of the time.

However, for the three weeks leading up to the race, the wind had been coming from the NW... sweeping over the top of the hall, across the lawn, but at the same time coming over the woods, and over the hill, over the side of the lake, and mixing with the other wind. Nightmare. Horrible wind shifts, at the bottom mark you can't tell what it's doing - two boats, ten feet apart, same direction, on opposite tacks (as in the hulls pointing in the same direction, but the sails on opposite sides).

I'd warned my crews that if we had a really windy day, we wouldn't sail the Merlin, we'd take the Laser 2 out instead. In light winds it sails really poorly, but in high winds its a blast, as opposed to the Merlin, which in light winds is great, and we hadn't really sailed in strong winds, and I didn't want the first time to be for five hours straight.

The morning of the race dawned. I got up, and looked out. Heavily overcast skies, and the neighbours tree (the best wind indicator I have, it's some kind of American pine), blowing about quite a bit. First thing in the morning, if we're going to have a good Force 2-3, it would be doing nothing. Blowing around as it was, that kind of said "Force 5". Ho-hum.

The kit for both boats went down the club. Again, the wind was really fickle. Strong gusts one moment, nothing the next. So, we took a vote, and decided on the Merlin. Ian was to crew for the first 2 hours (as he was on a race duty later on), and Josh for the last three. Everything was prepared, we got afloat, the rivalry between us and Becky somewhat friendly, and the race started. We didn't get off to a great start, getting to the first buoy in last place. We were being somewhat careful though - what I didn't mention, was the night before during training with Josh, I sat up on the side, and heard a "Crack!" The inwhale had split, where the joint was on the wood the glue had failed. It wasn't too bad, I thought we'd risk it.

So we raced... and didn't get very far very fast. We made up a couple of places over the next hour or so. THe wind was pretty fickle and strong, Force 3 most of the time, but it was manageable. Then, just as the first hour passed, we had a squall come through. We had eight boats racing, and three capsized at once - one, a Signet, was abandoned as their was a six year old with parent in it. At that point we just held on for dear life and sailed - survival conditions. It peaked at about Force 4-5, but we developed a 2 foot swell/wave in the middle of our lake.

For the people out there now saying "Force 5? So what!"? Remember, our lake is 15 acres, with only about 8 of that sailable (muddy creeks, shallows, fishermen, trees). Due to mainly it's size but also many elderly sailors who don't like too much wind, we rarely sail over Force 3 - it quickly gets to the point where you're whipping back and forth so quickly tacking and settling is difficult, and it's hard to make headway up a lake when you're tacking, sailing 20 metres, tacking, drifting back 5 metres during the tack... etc. So Force 5 - pretty tricky on our lake. If it was a normal race, it would have been cancelled - but we had people visiting from other clubs, so they kept it running.

Fortunately, the strong winds didn't last too long. It dropped down to about Force 3 for our changeover (5 minutes breather), then back out. My cheeky competitor, Becky, who was about three laps in front of us at this point, decided to stop, land, and sit on a bench for five minutes to eat her sandwiches (and still beat us). With Josh now crewing, we got a pretty good rhythm going again. We had a few scares (like when on a pretty deep run, with an Enterprise either side of us, one refusing to give water, I attempted to head up, got the tiller extension first caught in the string holding my hat on, and then stuck in the transom, and couldn't move), and the small crack in the inwhale gradually moving along the deck (it ended up at 6 feet long), but we didn't make up many places. The wind finally died down though, and for the last hour it was quite calm, and pleasant at about Force 2.

In the end, we came fifth out of eight. Not bad considering the five hours I spent in the boat was twice as many as I'd been in it for at that point. Positions 6, 7 and 8 were respectively, an Enterprise with novices in who had some equipment problems and were on shore for about 20 minutes of the race, a Laser which retired, and previous Signet, which retired, then was unceremoniously dumped on it's trailer off centre, punching a whole through the floor. Not a bad start for the Merlin.

Two months later, the gunwhale has been mended, a few more places reglued where it was failing, and its ready to go again. It's next outing is Bala this weekend hopefully (weather permitting) and then after that, hopefully a race series in the autumn. There may be trouble ahead...

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