By Anna Aylward and James Wells
“It’s been 84 years… well not quite. It’s been 74 years since the Merlin Rocket fleet last had a National Championships on the Isle of Wight, which was hosted by The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, Cowes, 1949. And now we return with the Aspire Merlin Rocket National Championships hosted by Brading Haven Yacht Club from the 31st July to 4th August 2023.
The Merlin Rocket fleet is jetting off to the exotic lands of the Isle of Wight this weekend to sail in blue seas and moderate breeze. Or, almost. We will be enjoying the blue waters and relative shelter off of Bembridge, sailing out of Brading Haven Yacht Club, but with a strong wind weather forecast for the week. There is a select but quality fleet in attendance, and even with reduced numbers from last year’s Champs, the Merlins will undoubtedly all still be in a fierce competition.
It is arguably Tom Gillard and Rachael Gray’s event to lose. They are the reigning National Champs, just appeared in top form winning Salcombe Week, and Tom has spent this week practising by winning the Fireball Nationals. A seemingly unstoppable team, the pressure will be high so will they continue their winning streak?
The windy weather will hopefully bring Jon Gorringe and Matt Currell back to the conditions they like after a somewhat disappointing Salcombe for them. With a lot of muscle on the boat they should be relishing the forecast so let’s hope we can watch them putting on a Parkstone-level performance.
Another team likely looking forward to the breeze is Christian Birrell and Sam Brearey as they showed a masterclass at Salcombe when the breeze was up. They’ve proved they can win but can they do it on the Isle of Wight? Mike Calvert may also have to drop his ‘light wind specialist’ title after he and temporary crew stand-in Emma Clarke showed they weren’t slow in a breeze at Salcombe. Ones to watch!
We will be seeing the dream team of Caroline Croft and Faye Chatterton reunited and going for gold (or platinum?). Caroline has been on top form this year and will surely be excited to have her winning crew back in the front of the boat. We just have to hope they aren’t too light if the forecast holds and Faye’s killer biceps are ready for action.
Chris Gould will be sailing with Dan ‘the lever’ Martin, begging the question, how many Martins can we get in the Merlin fleet? But in all seriousness, we have seen Chris get his mojo back this season sailing with Sophie Mackley, so will he be on form this week with a new crew? We certainly hope so!
There are two teams appearing that have been somewhat elusive on the circuit this season, but always loitering near the front. Tim Saxton has partnered up with Pete Matthews-Dixon and James Goss is sailing with his longtime crew Chris White. Both boats are more than capable of pulling a series together so we look forward to hopefully watching them race to the front at Nationals.
The Gold fleet should be hotly contested between plenty of boats! There is the new pairing of William Warren and rapidly developing super-crew George Bender, party boys Alex Warren and Jonty Freeman, and the silent assassins Sarah Richards and Nigel Wakefield, who quietly go about their business moving towards the front. William has been finding great form on the circuit this year, but how will he fare with fresh meat in the front of the boat? Alex and Jonty have proven they can get to the pointy end of the fleet but their boat required some love and attention after Salcombe so are they fully prepared? They will be joined also by Rob Kennaugh and Andrew Prosser who will certainly be quick in a breeze.
And new to the fleet? The slightly unknown quantity of Gavin Willis and Chris Bishop, coming to see what the Merlin Nationals can offer and hopefully we get to see what they can do too.
In the Silver fleet, we have our money on long-term Wembley pairing Paul Dean and Hannah Burt. They’ve put the hours in on the South East circuit and have made some dents up the fleet, so here’s hoping they can pull the week together.
Moving on to the Bronze fleet, has Geoff Kimber been secretly having further training from super crew Tom Pygall? Let’s hope he has his end of the ship in order to leave returning crew (and darling wife) Helen to run the front. It’s great to see Mike Partridge and Claire Davis are back in a Merlin Rocket after a few years sabbatical from the fleet. They have spent their time sailing Europe’s and will be challenging Geoff and Helen Kimber for the Maurice Cockrill Trophy.
It should be a brilliant week, with lots of close racing throughout the fleet and nothing decided until the end of the week. Last but not least, I have to say James Wells and I (Anna Aylward) will be racing in the Gold fleet so please cheer us on! And the class will be live-streaming some of the races on the MROA Facebook page so tune in to watch us go - warning signals will be at 11:55am Sunday-Thursday.
A big thanks to our title sponsor Aspire Financial Advisers, our fleet sponsor WEST SYSTEM® and the coach to Cowes Week sponsor DinghyTec.