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. 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 two 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. Can you compare the conditions off of Geelong to those of SFO? Which venue do you think offered a better test of each team’s skill sets?
Broader-range skills were needed in San Francisco, as you had currents, rougher water and a bigger fleet. Combined, these factors made that Worlds really challenging. In Geelong, there was more focus on downwind moding. Also, Geelong was a longer series, and that added duration meant that you had to keep up your mental toughness for a longer period of time. In your mind, what were the biggest factors that determined the Top Three podium places in Geelong?
I’d say good starts, good upwind speed, which everyone had, and good downwind speed. I’d say that there was more of an emphasis on good boatspeed downwind than upwind. Also, it was really important to avoid the major mistakes. Basically, the same factors that are always necessary for success. 'Blu Moon' was a good example of consistency.
Having sailed Melges 24s for a long time at a very high level, can you talk to me about the class’ evolution and progression?
Sailing: Gill Melges 24 World Championships 2014, Royal Geelong Yacht Club, Geelong (Aus), 31/01/2014. Photo; Teri Dodds. Day 3 Racing - Race 7 start - Teri Dodds
The Melges 24 class has been a really strong class for a long time. The number of boats that compete at the Worlds go up or down, depending on the location. Australia was expensive and it was difficult to ship boats there from the States. The first Melges 24 Worlds that I did was at Key Largo, and there were 100 boats. This was also true in Tallinn, Estonia. When the Worlds are held at the right place, the class can still get a good-size fleet. The next Worlds will be in Denmark, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see 100 boats there.
The numbers may be down a bit, but the level of competition at a Melges 24 Worlds is still really high.
As I said before, the class’ heart and soul is with the Corinthian sailors, and they are making up more of the numbers. Few teams can really afford the price of a fully professional program.
It’s the same for the class here in the States. The numbers are starting to come back on the strength of new amateur teams. The boat itself is a great challenge, especially for the helmsman, but it’s the chance to sail against the pros that attract a lot of Corinthian sailors. It’s a great opportunity that not many other classes offer. Do you think that a boat like the J/70 is stealing numbers from the Melges 24 fleet?
I think that the numbers have more to do with the wider trends in sailing than with the J/70. There’s always momentum with newer classes that are well done, but if you look at the J/70 ranks, few sailors came from the Melges 24 class. The J/70 is more like a keelboat-it’s not as technical as the Melges 24, it doesn’t plane as much downwind and it rewards different skills, making it more accessible to the average person. Melges boats are more of a leap, more technical, but these are the same reasons that people like them. I think that there’s a place for both boats.
I think that the bigger reason for the drop in numbers at Melges 24 events has to do with some of the less attractive venues for the [previous Melges 24] Worlds, for example Annapolis and Corpus Christie, which were not places that the sailors wanted to go. Selecting these venues as the Worlds’ locations is probably still affecting the numbers of boats at Melges 24 events, but the 2013 Worlds in San Francisco was a good boost for the class. I believe that the next U.S. Worlds venue will be Key West, which will be awesome! How does the feel of competition at the Melges 24 Worlds compare to the levels of competition and preparation that you have encountered at the Olympics?
It’s not quite at that level. The Olympics are something that people dedicate years of their lives to, as well as serious resources for coaching and technical developments. I wouldn’t say that the Melges 24 Worlds are the same thing as the Olympics, but the top Melges 24 teams are all former Olympic sailors.
As a One Design keelboat, the Melges 24 is on a very high level, but going to the Olympics is on another level.
Realistically, can someone be competitive in the Melges 24 class with Kevlar sails and a crew of capable Corinthian friends, or do all competitive WC-level teams use carbon sails and pros?
Sailing: Gill Melges 24 World Championships 2014, Royal Geelong Yacht Club, Geelong (Aus), 31/01/2014. Photo; Teri Dodds. Day 3 Racing - West Marine Rigging / New England Ropes (Bora Gulari) Teri Dodds
First off the sails aren’t carbon they’re just black. In fact, they are just off-the-shelf sails from North. The boats are also all stock. Ours is five years old, and there’s nothing special about it. That’s what’s great about the class-lots of off-the-shelf equipment. The Top Five boats in Australia all had the exact same gear, making the class a true test of sailing skill, like the Laser. Because of this, if a top team puts in the time, they can get good.
As for a top Corinthian team winning the Melges 24 Worlds, you could do it, but there’s a reason that the pros win a lot of World Championships. But, [a top Corinthian team] can beat them in individual races. I’d say that to win the Worlds, at the minimum, your helmsman and your tactician will likely be professionals, but there are exceptions. Brian Porter [N.B., 'Full Throttle' skipper and the 2013 Melges 24 World Champion] is an amateur, albeit a very good one, but there are several pros on his boat. Anything else that you’d like to add?
For me-and I suspect that Bora would say the same thing-one of the best things about sailing on the 'West Marine Rigging/New England Ropes' team is the opportunity to forge a really good and positive relationship with Bora, and to really trust each other. We have pretty different personalities and temperaments, but we’re both learning a lot from each other. Compared to other teams where I’m the pro or the guy kind of running the program, there’s a lot more learning going on and we both get better as a result of our collaboration. Did you guys meet sailing Moths?
Actually, we met sailing 49ers, back when Charlie [McKee] and I were campaigning in that class. Back then, Bora was looking up to us, but he has carried on with high-performance sailing and has become the master of the Moth. Charlie and I both sail Moths, but not at that level!
Bora and I only started sailing together last September for the Melges 24 Worlds. Both Bora and Bear are great sailors, and they both do a lot to make the program happen. They are best friends and they co-own the boat. Also, both of those guys do this program because they both really love sailing and good competition. They’re like me in that respect-they’re pure sailors, and they’re not just out there to win a few regattas. Many thanks to Jonathan McKee for his help with this interview.