A Brief History

Dilly by Beken, Cowes

The Class was launched in January 1946 after an eight man syndicate from Ranelagh Sailing Club, on the Thames in London, had the previous year commissioned Jack Holt to design a lightweight 14ft., clinker hull with a 100sq.ft., sail plan and a moderate sized spinnaker.

The prototype was called 'Kate' after the last few letters in 'syndicate' and with the lessons learnt from her construction 'Merlin' was built - the first of the new Class.

The Class Association was formed in 1947, the first of its kind, which has been used as a pattern by many other classes.   The rules were devised to allow for the development of hull and rig rather than be of a 'one-design' nature.

The 'Rocket' class was formed in 1949 when a group of Tynemouth sailors commissioned Wyche & Coppock of Nottingham to design a half deck 14ft., dinghy. This boat had more sail area, narrower decks and was lighter.   After much debate the Classes merged in April, 1951 to form the 'Merlin Rocket Class'.

Wyche & Coppock introduced glued plywood construction in 1953 which replaced the solid planked, ash ribbed, nailed clinker hulls which up until then were the only means of construction.   Terylene sails were adopted in 1959 replacing cotton sails, at the same time aluminium masts were being experimented with which produced a far more powerful rig.   This coupled with the development of transom flaps lead to the development of wider and wider hulls - flaring out to over well over 7ft 6ins. to increase sitting out power.

circa 1949. photo Beken Cowes.


wideIn 1969 a maximum beam of 7ft 2ins. was introduced to allow the boats to be towed and not break the maximum width rules!!

The next most significant development was the spinnaker chute which allowed the spinnaker to be raised and lowered very much more easily than the conventional launching 'out of the bag'.   In 1972 an experimental four plank boat was built with the objective of reducing costs however it was not well received by the Class and was not pursued.
   4ft-7ins Sealgh and 6ft-8ins Krakawot.


Rowsell Bros WorkshopIn 1980, following research, foam sandwich hulls were allowed linked with a change in the construction rules to lower the front buoyancy tank and improve the structural bulkheads around the shrouds.   The development of materials and designs has resulted in light strong and durable hulls.

A feature of the Class has been the high standard of craftsmanship and finish that the various builders have maintained over the years.   To give an idea of how designs have changed the class, in 1966 the championships were won by a Proctor Mark IX with a beam of 5ft., whereas two years later the winning boat was a 6ft. 8in., wide 'Wotnot' design.

A number of prominent designers have associations with the Class e.g. Phil Morrison, Ian Proctor, David Thomas, Keith Callaghan, Ian Holt and so on.   Whilst the Morrison designs dominated the seventies and eighties, the nineties have been dominated by the Holt designed 'Canterbury Tales' - or derivatives thereof.

The spinnaker size and pole length was increased in 1979 and in 1996 the pole length was increased to 2300mm to allow spinnakers to be made to their maximum size within the existing rules.   Carbon fibre is being used more frequently in the construction of mast, boom and spinnaker poles.

Class Championships have been held on the sea every year since 1946, with over 15 venues used over the years.   Traditionally the Championship was sailed over a week with six races sailed and five to count.   In 1999 the same six race series is to be sailed over a long weekend at Weymouth in August.

The Silver Tiller Series was devised in 1950 and sought to find the helmsman who could win consistently sailing on a whole range of waters.   To that end the series runs over a whole season with competitors having to count their best five results having sailed on restricted water, open water and the sea.   Consequently competitors get to sail on rivers, lakes, reservoirs, estuaries and the sea.   Additional to this national event there are 'local' circuits such as the Midland Circuit and the recently established 'Thames Circuit'.

As the nineties draw to a close the Class and its builders are examining ways to maintain the character of the class yet at the same time take advantage of new materials and techniques.Merlins in build at Rowsell Bros. Spud inspects a new GRP hull.



Early Years

The rules of the original Merlin Class were developed by a syndicate of eight dinghy helmsmen from Ranelagh Sailing Club to produce a reasonably priced racing dinghy which would be exciting to sail, safer than existing classes, and capable of being built by any builder. They visualised a light, 14 ft. clinker built hull, with rolled side decks providing additional comfort for the crew, and allow the boat to capsize without filling and giving stiffness in construction. The hull was to be driven by a small but efficient sail plan (100 sq ft) with a 25 ft. mast and boom set well above the deck, and with a small spinnaker of moderate dimensions which could be handled by small lighter crews, especially women who, having realised their capabilities in wartime were determined to sail racing boats rather than make tea for others. The lightness would make for easier loading on to a trailer and this was further simplified by the inclusion of four lifting handles. Much more buoyancy was to be included than in many dinghies of that time. With these factors in mind, Jack Holt was commissioned to design and build an experimental boat, to be called Kate, an adaptation of the last four letters of the word ‘syndicate’. Kate’s lines showed some very advanced ideas for the time with a reverse sheer, a flatter floor and less freeboard  than subsequent rules allowed but was permitted to race in the class. From the experience gained with Kate a modified boat named Merlin after the renowned wizard was designed and built by Mr Holt.

In January 1946 with the assistance of the Yachting World Magazine, the class was launched. During that year its affairs were guided by a caretaker committee consisting of the original founders and Charles Leafe, the first registered owner, who had crewed Britain’s Gold-medal winning 6-metre at the 1936 Olympic Games. In the following year a Committee was elected from among the owners and the owners association was formed. This was the first in Britain and has since been used as a pattern for many other classes. In 1949, after three years, experience had shown that the boats capsized too readily with their high sail plan and mast height of 25ft. It was demonstrated that boats with lower aspect ratio rigs only required a small increase in sail area to give an equivalent performance and an amended rule was adopted. Accommodating these variables lead to the luff length/ sail area formula that remains in the class rules today.

The Rocket Class came into being in 1948 when a group of Tynemouth dinghy sailors commissioned Wyche & Coppock Limited of Nottingham who had built many of their National 12s to design a 14 ft version more suitable for sea sailing than the Merlin’s then available which had been designed for river sailing. The Merlin’s semi-rolled deck which had worked so well to prevent taking in water after heeling in a sudden gust, also made it more difficult to bail out water which had got in as was more likely when sailing in waves at sea. To keep the power lower down for the stronger North Sea winds, it would have a shorter mast, but basically comply with the limit tolerances of the Merlin class. By chance Wyche & Coppock were at the time repairing the fastest dinghy of the day; Stewart Morris’ International 14 “Martlet”, designed and built by Uffa Fox. This was the starting point for the ideas, but it must have a smaller sail plan so that it could be crewed by women, an article of faith for the Merlin which must be suitable for the “well-built gentleman and his lady friend”, without having to reef up wind but without losing the ability to plane. To compensate for the loss of sail area, the boom was extended to the transom to give better control of the transom sheeting then in common use and give the mainsail a longer foot. As a result of this the mainsail came out slightly larger than the Merlin’s; but the major innovation, enabling it to sail fast with a smaller area than the Int. 14, was to save weight by having a 7lb wooden centreboard rather than a 60lb metal centreplate. This ideas was opposed by many classed at the time as a threat to stability, but gradually became the norm. To  aid righting moment, the beam was extended to 4 ft 11 in, compared with 4 ft  8 in - one third of the overall length – which the 14 & Merlin had taken from Uffa Fox’s theory of the “golden proportion”. The Rocket also had much narrower side decks, to aid bailing. Jack Liddle of Tynemouth was the owner of the first Rocket. In 1950 Messrs. Wyche and Coppock altered a Rocket, Rocketoo, to comply with the Merlin rules. She sailed at an open meeting in June at Hayling Island, noticeably faster than the Merlin in heavy weather but not quite so fast in light airs. With such a similarity of rules between the now well established and numerous Merlin Class and more recent but numerically fewer Rockets, a merger was the obvious and sensible step. The Merlin Committee approached the Yacht Racing Association, (now Royal Yachting Association) for national recognition, the merger was effected, and the National 14 ft Merlin Rocket Class came into being on 1st April 1951.


Just as the original members of the syndicate used their experience in Int. 14 and Nat. 12s to aid them in devising the class rules at the start of the Merlin Class, so the new Committee carefully examined the rules of the Merlin and Rocket Classes to retain the best of both. The satisfactory Merlin rule relating sail areas to height of mast remained, and the maximum height was fixed at 22 ft 6 in. The Rockets narrow side decks became permissible as a minimum but rolled side decks to the Merlin’s pattern were still allowed if desired. The Merlin price limit rule, designed to ensure that new boats remained affordable was retained and was an important feature of the Class for many years. The benefit of the merger was soon apparent and the new Merlin Rocket Class rapidly became popular. Wyche & Coppock introduced glued plywood hull construction in 1953 and this, their second contribution (after the wooden centreboard) to modern building methods which would substantially increase the quality of sailing in clinker-built boats was marked by allotting to the first Merlin Rocket built with glued ply the sail number 500. The first Chippendale and the first Holt boats to be built in this way were Nos. 503 and 507. After considerable research and long notice, Terylene sails were adopted on 1st April 1959, and became the norm until the acceptance of mylar/laminate sails in 1987. By the end of the year boat numbers had passed the one thousand mark. The seemingly innocuous rule change to allow transom draining flaps in 1965 had significant consequences for the class. These had proved successful immediately, allowing boats to be driven harder, because even if a capsize occurred, the boat could be quickly emptied. This led to wider hulls being designed (to give more sitting-out power) than would have been practical before draining flaps were allowed with the result that in 1969 a maximum beam of 7 ft 2 ½ in. had to be introduced before the boats became too wide to be trailed on English roads. This extreme beam is another defining characteristic of the Merlin Rocket.

As boats got rapidly wider, (in 1966 the National Championships was won by a Proctor Mark IX design with a 5 ft beam but only two years later the runner-up was a Watts Wotnot design with a beam of 6 ft 8 in) owners with narrow boats felt that while they remained competitive on rivers and small reservoirs, they were becoming outclassed on open waters and the sea. In response to requests that older boats should be widened to make  them more competitive, four owners were allowed to widen their side decks. The trials were soon abandoned when it was found that the extra weight and uncomfortable sitting-out position outweighed any benefit. Another suggestion that boats below a certain width be allowed to have trapezes was also rejected.

Rules evolution

In 1967, a sub-committee was set up under the chairmanship of Robert Harris and later Tom Booth, to review the Class Rules. They concluded that although the rules had served very well for over twenty years, it was advisable for them to become less restrictive if the Merlin Rocket was to continue to attract the keenest helmsmen and fill its important role as one of the few R.Y.A development classes. They commenced a careful redrafting of all the construction rules which was completed in September 1969. After a few minor modifications, new rules were approved by the R.Y.A and became effective in 1970. These rules implemented the decision of the AGM in June 1969 that restrictions on decking arrangements should be abandoned, corrected some anomalies and rationalised several measurement procedures. In the process, the Merlin Rocket went ‘metric’. Perhaps the most far reaching of the changes permitted a spinnaker chute; hardly any boat has been built since 1970 without one and this together with the twin pole system gradually adopted over the decade, has made spinnaker handling much easier for all crews.

Further changes were made in 1973. Firstly, the price rule was abandoned due to its impracticality at a time of rapid inflation. The price escalation that followed had far reaching consequences, and was contributory to the stagnation which threatened the class in the early 1990’s. In addition, the old top batten rule was removed, permitting for the first time the characteristic full length top batten of the Merlin Rocket, and the ¾ height measurement rule was introduced for mainsails.

Hull matters

With a view to keeping down the rising cost of new boats and to encourage home boat-building from plans  of new competitive designs that Phil Morrison and Keith Callaghan were then offering the committee in 1972 authorised the building of an experimental four planked hull, No. 2658. However the experiment was not well received as it was feared that this would be a first step towards smooth-skinned hulls which would outdate clinker hulls at a time when the past three years had seen the largest increase of new boats built in the Class history. The 1973 AGM decided not to permit departures from the traditional clinker shape of hull which allows the smallest alterations to be made to a design without the cost of building a new mould, and has enabled the class to keep pace with new ideas on hull shapes.

This debate has re-surfaced periodically over the years, and despite much pressure to follow the trend in the 1990’s when the class was nearly stagnant and there was an explosion of manufacturer’s classes, all smooth skinned and many competing for a share of the Merlin Rocket population, the class has kept faith with the clinker profile and this is now one of the principal defining characteristics of the class.

The GRP specification, first drafted to allow GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) construction in 1969 (although these early experiments in the medium were either fragile or overweight) was rewritten at this time under the guidance of Vincent Blake to allow foam sandwich construction, and after materials testing by Robert Inglis; a Merlin-owning Naval Architect, at London University two boats, numbers 3213 and 3216, were built by Rowsell Bros, with a wooden space frame and decks, using foam sandwich planking and a Nomex honeycomb core instead of the balsa wood used by other classes. The foam sandwich hulls were supplied by Omega Boats Ltd. and as minor rule changes were needed to accommodate them within the class rules, both boats were given temporary certificates and raced at the 1980 Championships, finishing 5th and 38th respectively. The rule changes were duly made and as well as allowing a longer bow tank, they stopped the building of hulls in single skin GRP. The take up of frp was mixed; of the 360 boats built between 1980 and 2000, 80 were foam sandwich from a variety of builders, mainly to NSM & NSM2 designs, with a few sought after composite Canterbury Tales. However the medium really gained acceptance when Winder Boats began producing all FRP boats in 1999, and of the 125 boats built from Jan 2000 to Jan 2008, all but 6 have been foam sandwich, either from Winders or from the ‘Wrecked’em/ Full Force stable.

In 2003 as new frp boats were weighing in lighter, and carrying larger correctors the class became very concerned that these boats should not have any performance advantage over boats of other construction as a result of their correctors being concentrated in such a way as to give better weight distribution. In order to assess any advantage and to inform any potential rule changes Lamboley swing testing of a selection of boats was carried out for the association by the RYA. The results were inconclusive, even contradictory, and the matter was satisfactorily resolved without any action being taken.

Rig matters

By the mid seventies a strong body of opinion had formed that the spinnaker should be brought up to date. The original spinnaker and 5 ft pole, designed for the 25 ft high mast of a Merlin was limited by outdated measurement rules. In 1976 extensive trials conducted by Chris Ellis were begun on new spinnaker designs.  As a result of the trials, it was proposed, at the 1978 AGM, that the spinnaker rules should be altered to allow larger and more efficient spinnakers to be developed to suit different crews, boats, rigs and sailing waters. It was also proposed to increase the maximum length of the spinnaker pole. Some wanted the spinnaker pole length  to be increased to two metres (6 ft 7 in) since all other measurements were now metric, but in the North there was pressure for a 6 ft pole, the same as other 14 ft classes. The ultimate choice of a 6 ft pole was probably influenced by strong winds and icy waters in the trials; conducted at Queen Mary Reservoir in London and trialist’s preference at Hollingworth Lake for stowing a 6ft, rather than 6 ft 7 in. pole under the foredeck - twin poles stowed along the boom not then being in general use. The proposals were passed at the AGM and ratified by a referendum of all Members voting being 81% for and 19% against. This situation remained until the 1996 AGM when the length of the pole increased to 2.3m, which considerably improved performance and highlighted the deficiencies of the existing ‘prescriptive dimensions’ spinnaker rule. A proposal to move to a 10sqm Area Rule for the spinnaker in order to be consistent with the other sails and to encourage spinnaker development was agreed at the 2002 AGM.

A return to deck stepped masts and the development of raking rigs in the late 1980’s saw the optimum weight of helm and crew reduce so that lighter weight teams could now keep up with the class’s heavy-weights in most conditions – the naming of number 3431 Charge of the Light Brigade reflected this shift admirably. This also encouraged the return of female competitors for whom the class was originally intended.

In 1993/4, in response to the emerging fashion for fully-battened mainsails and asymmetric spinnakers a series of trials of these were carried out to enable members to evaluate proposed changes. Neither carried favour and were quickly dropped. However the emergence at the same time of carbon spars did meet with favour and after the 1994 AGM voted to allow them on the basis that their cost would eventually reduce, a carbon boom was used by the 1995 National Champion and all carbon spars by the 1996 Champion and every one since.


The class Championships have been held every year since 1946 and is one of the principal events of the dinghy season. It has so far been held at 18 different venues, with Whitstable the most frequent. In 1970, for the class’s 25th Championships at Pwllheli there was a record fleet of 227 boats. The early 1970’s – following the record fleet at Pwllheli – was a time of high enthusiasm in the class and a record number of new boats were being built. With so many boats entering for Salcombe Week, at the suggestion of retiring longstanding fixtures secretary, Alan Chaplin, Salcombe Yacht Club proposed that for 1972 the Merlin Rocket class should have a week of their own. The estuary was considered too narrow to have more than 40 boats on the starting line, so the entry was initially limited to 80 boats and divided into 4 flights which raced each other flight twice over 6 days. There was an experiment to increase this limit to 120, but this was not popular, and was reduced again to 88 but later settled at 100. Salcombe Merlin Rocket Week remains extremely popular and in 2008 was voted top in a poll of ‘Regattas to sail before you die’.

The Silver Tiller competition was another innovation that defines the Merlin Rocket Class. The Silver Tiller Trophy was presented in 1950 by Mr J Duncan-Ferguson to encourage keener competitive racing at Open Meetings. It singles out the helmsmen with the best record in certain specified events during the season. The rules have been devised to find the best all-round helmsman, crew and boat in a variety of inland and sea conditions. With its emphasis upon all-round performance, the Silver Tiller has made a notable contribution to the development of designs and rig. It now provides a unique and fiercely contested competition, and was the pattern for travellers’ trophies in a great many classes.

In 1973, Graham Pike, a leading Hamble River SC sailor in the Class, suggested that with an increasing proportion of the class now sailing on the recently opened large reservoirs, there should be an Inland Championship of 6 races held over a long weekend. The first was held that year at Queen Mary’s reservoir, Staines; it attracted a fleet of 96 boats and became an annual fixture with the venue changing each year with the winner receiving the Golden Touch Trophy.

The Topmast Trophy, the class’s National Team-racing Championship, was presented in early 1964 by Brian Saffery Cooper in memory of his father Geoffrey who had done so much for the Class in its early days. It was made from the top section of Geoffrey’s first Merlin Joy, No.68.

In order to reflect the still strong competition between older boats and their frequent advantages over newer, wider boats when raced in confined waters the National River Championships were instituted in 1995 at the already well established Bourne End Week and the week’s Merlin Rockets Series was converted into the class River Championships.

Vintage & Classic racing

The Vintage and Classic wing of the association was started by Adrian and Michael Lawrence in 1987 and held its own series of open meetings. After a strong start the wing fell dormant for a few years in the late 90’s before resurging strongly under the influence of Mervyn Allen as the new century began. This coincided with the launch of the Thames Series, an area circuit set up to mirror the successful Midlands Circuit which has run since 1968, and racing for the River Thames Trophy which was presented by Graham Donald, the class’ longest serving member to celebrate his 90th birthday. The series has a large following and is taken seriously enough for some competitors to have bought vintage boats and to have completely refitted them with carbon masts and foils especially for this racing.

The vintage and classic wing has forged links with the Classic & Vintage Racing Dinghy Association (CVRDA) and many of their open meetings coincide. A trophy for the vintage and classic wing open circuit, the De May Trophy was presented by Bill de May in 2006. Racing for this trophy is on a handicap basis using the class’ recommended handicap numbers which are developed from the Portsmouth Yardstick number published by the RYA each year. These numbers were first produced in 1995 to enable new and old boats to race competitively and are widely used by clubs for handicap racing.


The administration of the class has followed the lines laid down in 1946/7. The original members’ subscriptions of 10/- survived for 25 years but had to rise in the inflation years from 1972 and in 1974 membership of the Association became compulsory for all boats racing. 1972 saw the introduction of  a  quarterly  magazine which became the full colour publication it is today under the editorship of Peter Scott in 1997; Peter also masterminded the launch of the first Merlin Rocket website in 1999. Magnus Smith took control of the website in 2003 and it has since become a very significant element, not only of the exchange of information between members, but also of the recruitment of the new members that have seen the class re-established as an enduring presence in British dinghy sailing.

The 25th Anniversary of the class was celebrated in 1971, and to mark the occasion the Association raffled boat no. 2500 at the Annual Dinner. The Silver Tiller also came of age celebrating its 21st birthday with a cake cutting ceremony at Welsh Harp. To commemorate the fortieth anniversary a hard back book recalling the history and development of the class was written by Jim Park and Ian Holt and published by Jim Lowden. A splendid Regatta took place at Upper Thames SC for which Dick Batt and Stuart Gurney found a large number of championship-winning boats. After a parade of former champions, there followed an informal race in which they sailed the boats in which they had won their championships. This proved such a success that it was repeated at Upper Thames SC for the class’s 50th anniversary in 1996.

For the 60th anniversary, a dinner was held at Hayling Island SC to which all previous champions were invited, and presented with plaques to mark the occasion. A celebratory Tideway race was also held, sailing from Ranelagh to the Houses of Parliament at which the full age range of Merlin Rockets was represented from number 1 Kate to the newest boat afloat.

In 1972, the Class invited Graham Donald to accept the first Honorary Life Membership in recognition of his outstanding service to the affairs of the Association. In 1977 the Committee extended this honour to Jack Holt, Ian Proctor and Dick Wyche who had done so much in respect of the building and design of the class. In 2006, as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations, this honour was also extended to John & Margaret Stokes and to Peter Flanagan, members whose involvement with the management of the class through the 1970’s had been very significant, and who had retained interest in the class to the present day.


After a difficult period in the 1990’s when the cost and availability of new boats stifled progress and the wholesale impact of the S.M.O.D (Single Manufacturers One Design) classes was being felt, the Merlin Rocket Class has since regained a strong position. While the class has stabilised around a proven theme, new designs appeared in 2009,2010 and 2012 and experimentation and development continues.

The modern Merlin Rocket is widely recognised as a sophisticated, refined and challenging dinghy to sail. Boats of all ages race regularly and competitively at a wide range of venues across England, Scotland and Wales, and continue to attract top helmsmen and top competition.

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