Obituary: John Merricks

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The Independent Online
John Merricks, yachtsman; born Leicester 16 February 1971; died Punta Ala, Italy 8 October 1997.

From the moment he appeared on the national yachting scene as one of the youth coach Jim Saltonstall's "up-and-coming, cocky fast ferrets", John Merricks was marked out as something special, someone everyone else could see would go a long way.

He was fourth in the world youth championships on two successive years, 1988 in Spain, 1989 in Canada, and when he went on to the Olympic class, the 470 two-man dinghy, the crucial additional factor was the knowledge that he had not reached the limit of his potential, there was more to come.

Merricks had been taken in his early years by his father Dennis to learn the business of sailing in a Mirror dinghy at what was always his home club, Rutland Sailing Club. When he linked up with Ian Walker, himself a contender for the Olympic place which Merricks had set his sights on, the chemistry produced a team of two different people reacting almost as one, instinctively knowing what the other would do and agreeing with it.

It also produced a team of deep fighting strength. This was never more apparent than at the Olympic Games in 1996 when they turned early setbacks into a silver medal. And when they were under pressure, just as Merricks had earlier been given extra incentive to do well because of being fourth in the world, so he and Walker were always able to dig in hard and fight back. They often referred to themselves as the "comeback kids" and, when answering questions, one would begin the thought, the other end it. Entirely unrehearsed, entirely synchronised.

Pranks and jokes were also part of the act, not least choosing to strip down to shorts and swim from one end of a swimming pool to the podium at the other to receive their 1996 silver medals in the World 470 Championship in Brazil.

That they should have made the transition from small dinghies to bigger boats, winning their class for Britain in this year's Admiral's Cup in the Mumm 36 Bradamante, was testament both to Merricks' talent, an uncannily natural feel for how to make a boat go fast, and the application to learning and applying new skills, not least team management. He was also spreading his business career wings impressively with North Sails. When not sailing, he enjoyed sailing and would go racing with his partner Camilla Mynors. He also enjoyed a competitive round of golf.

Among all the plaudits for his skills and talents as a yachtsman who could compete at the highest levels there was also an underlying wish to pay tribute to his easy-going character, humour and honesty. Standing on pontoons and slipways around the world he was always an approachable competitor, whether things had gone well or badly, and many chose to approach him, including those who had been only minutes before his deadliest rivals.

That his path to increasing success should have been cut off so prematurely in a car crash is a cause for considerable anguish. That there should be the double blow of one of the most powerful partnerships of the last 20 years also broken makes matters worse.

Next week they were due in Fort Lauderdale to sail in the Corel 45 World Championship. It would have been another step up to what should have been 20 years at the top of world sailing.