Sam Merrick came to Washington in the late 1930's, expecting, like many of his contemporaries, to stay a few years. He's still here, a long and varied career in government behind him, and a new challenge immediately at hand: to win some precious metal in the sailing Olympics.
Merrick, a robust and ready figure in faded red sailing trousers, is a familiar figure around Severn Sailing Association in Annapolis, where his 27-foot Olympic class Soling, named "Simplicity," has dry slip No. 1.
He'll need both the sailing and the political experience for the 1980 shootout at Tallinn, Estonia. Merrick is the director of the U.S. Olympic Yachting Committee, and this time the sailboat Olympics are on Russian turf.
Merrick already is concerned that the Russians are loading the deck in their own favor, though he admits he isn't sure. International sailboat racing can be a nightmare of logistics, and he wonders if the hosts are dreaming up problems on purpose.
For example, it's considered very important to get the U.S. sailors acclaimed to the Baltic site, and gain experience with the weather and the chilly waters where the contest will be held. The best opportunity for this is the Baltic Regatta, held at Tallinn every year.
"Last year, there was a big uproar over who was invited," Merrick said. "The Russians waited until the last minute, and then invited 25 U.S. teams. It was a miracle that 19 of them made it, what with the complications of passports and accomodations."
It's obvious to both sides that the more experience Americans have at Tallinn, the less edge the host country will have.
"The schedules are all wrong," Merrick said. "This year the Baltic race is August 20 to 30, even though the actual Olympics next year will begin on July 21. Furthermore, those dates conflict with a big regatta in Canada, which means many contestants will go there instead of Tallinn."
Merrick finds these conflicts more than coincidental. "The excuse is that the Baltic Regatta was set so as not to conflict with the Russians' big Spartakiade Festival, which is held mostly in Moscow."
Merrick himself is seeking a berth in Tallinn, and he placed 10th in the Olympic practice series at Newport over Memorial Day. After 50 years of small-boat racing, he knows how much the little things count in world-class events.
"Tallinn is pretty much an unfamiliar site for us. Even in August the nights are very short. What's that do to the wind? Who knows? The water temperature won't be more than 50 degrees, and what effect will that have? The course is on an arm of the Baltic where there's no tide, but the wind causes lots of mysterious currents to contend with. The only way to find out is to sail there as much as possible."
Asked what makes a winning competitor in Olympic racing, Merrick can only shake his head.
"It's one hell of a lot of work, that's for sure. A lot of campaigning the boat, a lot of European experience. A lot of preparation, sailing that boat alone testing for boat speed, crew training, racing clinics, hitting the most of them probably started sailing every day."
Merrick's job, stated simply, is: get the best the United States has to Tallinn next year, and bring home a medal in every class. The method of selecting the best, Merrick feels, ought to take into account a number of regatta results, and a number of more human factors. On this, his advice was not heeded.
Next May, on the waters off Newport, R.I., one seven-race selection series will be run. The winner in each class will be our man for Tallinn, along with one alternate.
"I see the point," Merrick said."This is high-pressure stuff. If you can win under that kind of pressure here, then you ought to be able to there." CAPTION: Picture, Sam Merrick will guide U.S. sailing hopefuls as director of Olympic Yaching Committee. By Ken Feil - The Washington Post