When it comes to big-picture sailing skills, Jonathan McKee is easily one of the most accomplished American sailors afloat. A Seattle native, McKee won a Gold medal in the Los Angeles Olympics 1984 in the Flying Dutchman class with Carl Buchan, and a Bronze medal in the 49er class in the Sydney Olympics 2000 with his brother Charlie McKee, and 'JM' has also sailed in numerous America’s Cups and other Grand Prix events, including the Volvo Ocean Race and the Barcelona World Race.
Gill Melges 24 World Championships 2014, Royal Geelong Yacht Club, Geelong (Aus), Race 3 start
In between, McKee has amassed a fine collection of trophies, including World Championships in several top-notch One Design classes. Recently, McKee has been spending a lot of time racing the different Melges designs, with a keen emphasis on the Melges 24.
McKee started sailing aboard Bora Gulari’s 'West Marine Rigging/New England Ropes' as tactician during the 2013 season, and he played this same role during the class’ 2014 Worlds, which recently concluded in Geelong, Australia.
The American-flagged team finished the event in third place out of a strong fleet of 36 boats. But unlike the majority of their competition, the 'West Marine Rigging/New England Ropes' crew first had to closeout Key West Race Week, where they were racing aboard separate boats, before immediately hopping flights for the long commute DownUnder.
I recently caught up with McKee at my kitchen table for part one of this two-part interview to talk about his experiences at the 2014 Gill Melges 24 Worlds, and to get his pulse on the state of competition and evolution within the Melges 24 class.
What was it like going directly from Key West Race Week (KWRW) to the M24 Worlds?
It was quite a trip! The whole thing required that our logistics went 100-percent smoothly, as we had tight connections at several airports and more than 24 hours of travel. But, fortunately, everything went smoothly, and we went sailing the afternoon that we arrived. We knew that all this travel would be our weakness, and it took us a couple of days to get up to good form. If we had had a few more practice days in Australia, it might have put us a few places higher up at the end of the regatta.
Did a lot of other top teams also sail at both KWRW and the M24 Worlds, or were most contenders more focused on the Worlds?
No one else did KWRW-everyone else was sailing in the Australian Open Nationals. Our practice days were limited by KWRW, and we had trouble finding other boats to go sailing against when we got to Geelong as everyone else had been sailing hard for five straight days.
Was jet lag a big factor for your team?
The jetlag actually went really well on this trip. I think it was the timing of the international flight, as we were able to get some sleep on the plane. Ultimately, jetlag really wasn’t a factor.
Can you tell me about 'West Marine Rigging/New England Ropes' team? What’s it like to sail with Bora, Bear and the crew?
It’s a really great team. We have Norm Berge on the bow. He’s a young guy who works really hard and brings a lot of enthusiasm to the team. Next, we have Jonny Goldsberry, from San Francisco. He’s our high-energy guy, a really experienced sailor, and someone who hikes really hard. Then we have George 'Bear' Peet, who is an experienced and super solid sailor and someone who is great at boat preparation. Then we have Bora Gulari, who is our skipper. Bora and I have a great dynamic, with lots of mutual respect for each other. I feel like we’re learning all the time and that we feed off of each other.
Our team goal is always to have fun, to sail well and to see where we end up. There’s a really good feeling aboard the boat. I’ve sailed on a lot of international teams, but it’s great to sail on an American boat. I think it helps us relate to each other, both on and off the water.
How would you describe your team’s onboard communications? Can you walk me through the kind of dialog that you and Bora might have going during a typical race?
The Melges 24 is an interesting boat because of the way that you hike. You’re facing outwards, so you don’t have great vision. As tactician, you need to pick your times to look around the course or at the compass, so I need to rely on Bora to tell me what’s going on.
The compass is our most tactical tool, and we use it to talk about lifts or headers, but you don’t want to too much dialog, as the driver is also trimming the main and controlling most of the speed stuff. That said, I need information about what the other boats are doing from the driver, and I can get information about what’s happening ahead of the boat from the forward hands.
As for our dialog, upwind, we talk a lot about where we are, for example our distance to a layline, and we’re always looking open paths back on the other tack. I try hard to paint the picture of what’s happening around us, and to hike hard. Approaching a mark, we talk a lot about our downwind game plan, and on the offset leg we talk about the spacing of the boats and where we want to go, for example high or low. Downwind, there’s more discussion on our mode-planing or soaking low. Determining the right downwind modes was one of the trickiest aspects of the 2014 Melges 24 Worlds.
Do you feel that it was a big disadvantage for your team to have missed the Australian Open Nationals?
It was definitely a disadvantage, but I think it affected us more downwind than upwind, where the mode is more straightforward and obvious. Downwind is tricky when the windspeed is between planning and soaking modes. We had a new spinnaker for this regatta and we struggled to make it go fast. So, for the last two days, we switched back to our old kite.
We dug a big hole for ourselves on day one of the regatta. If we had had a better first day, we would have been more threatening. The rest of our races were good and at the end of the regatta we were faster upwind and we were getting faster downwind. We knew that [missing the Australian Open Nationals] would be a disadvantage going into the regatta. We made some mistakes and we had a big deficient to make up. After the first day we were in seventh place, but at the end of the regatta we were in third-and almost second-place.
What was the level of competition like at the 2014 M24 Worlds? Were all of the top teams in attendance?
Most of the Top Ten teams from the 2013 Melges 24 Worlds were in Geelong, with the exception of Brian Porter, but most of his crew sailed with Harry Melges’ 'Star' team, so that boat was the proxy for Porter’s 'Full Throttle' team, which won the 2013 Melges 24 Worlds.
Also, we knew that 'Blu Moon' was going to be tough as they are the team that has put in the most consistent effort over the years. The wild card was Chris Larson’s 'Cavallino/McLube' team. We knew these teams would be hard to beat, and there were also some other top Italian and Australian teams that were well prepared. The total number of boats sailing wasn’t that big, but the depth of talent at the top was there.
I think that the heart and soul of the class has switched to the Corinthian teams. This is a good development and a cool thing about the class, as professionals and amateurs can all sail on the same racecourse, so everyone benefits.
Can you compare the 2014 Worlds with the 2013 Worlds? Which offered more competitive racing?
Surprisingly, conditions were not that much different between the two venues. In both cases, we had 10-18 knots, but the water was rougher and had more currents in San Francisco. Also, the two regattas were so close together that no one had time to make any equipment developments, so most people went right from one regatta into the next.
There were more boats in San Francisco, which meant harder starts and it increased the chance for more random things to happen. In Geelong, it was more like hand-to-hand combat, where you were fighting for individual points, not groups of points like in San Francisco. But I thought that both regattas were high-level, meaningful events.
Our team has been on a building trend since the San Francisco Worlds. We got our teething pains out of the way during the first days of the 2014 Worlds, and we continued to gain momentum and were sailing at a high level by the end of the event.
Both Worlds were really tough to win, and the boats that won had hot hands, lucky breaks and sailed downwind really well. Both teams that won [in 2013 and 2014] have been in the class for at least 15 years. I think that you need a little luck and you need to avoid the bad breaks to win, but I think it was easier to be in the Top Ten in Australia because there were fewer boats, although I think that it was equally tough to get onto the podium at both regattas.
Please stay tuned for part-two of this two-part interview, later this week.