The 2011 Australain of the Year, 56 year old Simon McKeon has been sailing performance multihulls since the 1980s.
McKeon was helmsman of the successful Australian syndicate between 1985 and 1996, sailing for the International Catamaran Challenge Trophy, more commonly known as the 'Little Americas Cup’.
McKeon and his crew Tim Daddo made history in 1993 with the Lindsay Cunningham designed Yellow Pages, which powered down the Sandy Point speed course near Wilsons Promontory in Victoria (Australia) setting a 500-metre world record of 46.52 knots, that lasted of 11 years.
In March 2009 McKeon and Daddo were at it again in Macquarie Innovation, with an average speed of 50.43 knots, having flashed into the mid 50’s in that run.
Sail-World.com first talked to Simon about his speed sailing at the F18 Worlds at Keppel Bay, Queensland back in 2007. At the recent A Class Nationals on Lake Macquarie, NSW we caught up with him for another chat.
While McKeon was a speed sailor for decades, in his day job he has been a very prominent and successful investment banker but it has been his efforts to support multiple Australian and International charities that has earned him enormous admiration.
McKeon became the Australian of the Year in January 2011. As we write this article he has just 10 days to go in that role, as the 2012 Australian of the Year will be announced on January 25, the eve of Australia Day.
Back in history in 1994, in between sailing, he had moved from a full time investment banking role to become the Executive Chairman of Macquarie Group’s Melbourne office, giving him more time to support an amazing range of causes and organisations.
Simon is Chairman of the CSIRO, the national government body for scientific research in Australia. He was founding chairman of MS Research Australia and founding president of the Federal Government’s Takeover Panel. He is Chairman of Business for Millennium Development, which encourages business to engage with the developing world.
His work with World Vision International continues and he is involved with the Global Poverty Project and Red Dust Role Models, with remote indigenous communities.
Last week he took a break from his Australian of the Year duties to join the A-Cat fleet sailing out of Lake Macquarie’s Wangi Amateur Sailing Club and showed flashes of his old speed. On the first day he scored a fourth and a fifth in a fleet full of World Champions, America’s Cup sailors and Olympic medallists.
Mid-week before racing, we talked at length to McKeon overlooking the A Class Catamaran boat park.
Simon went back in history. ‘I started sailing at about nine or ten, not competitively though. My father had an old second hand Sabot with cotton sails and it just sat in one of those beach boxes that surround Port Philip. I was at him all the time … ‘Dad let’s take it out. Let’s see if the mast still stands up. Let’s see if the sail has enough condition in it.’ It was a bit like that.
‘For the next two or three years he let me sail round in that and then from the goodness of his heart he bought me a second hand Heron when I was about twelve. I went to a school that was a traditional Melbourne private school, which focused on footy, cricket and rowing and that sort of thing. I didn’t have the time to be a more passionate sailor until my University days.
‘Our speed sailing efforts came out of the C Class – we were in the middle of preparing for the defence in 1991 against Gino Morelli and Pete Melbourne’s challenge.
Yellow Pages -
'We were probably about a month away from the Series and I remember having morning tea with the group one morning and one of our team members, Graham Frazer, said to Lindsay Cunningham (he was probably looking at the wing at the time) ‘Sport (Lindsay Cunningham’s nickname) wouldn’t it be great if we could actually make the world’s fastest sailboat.’
‘’Lindsay thought about is for a minute or two and then for the next weekend. Talk about amateurs - we were training from weekend to weekend and Lindsay came back with this scrappy bit of paper, he always reused everything several times, and on the back of it was the drawing for this boat.
‘This was in 1991-92 and I didn’t even know which way was forward or which end was up. He said ‘I think that will do it. ‘
‘A lot of the components in the original Yellow Pages Endeavour were actually recycled bits and pieces off old C Class cats, including the wing itself. That was just a modified wing that we had used on a previous C Class. It was never really intended we break the world sailing speed record with that boat because it was supposed to just be a bit of a trail horse, a test to see if the concept worked.
‘After a year or so it was actually working very well and Lindsay said ‘let’s see if we can set the record’ and it did.
'Then some years later we began campaigning Macquarie Innovations and we set new records with that.
‘We have watched Paul Larsen’s (Sailrocket) efforts for a long time and we are always interested in a different concept. We were aware of the concept well before he came up with it but Larsen is the one that is executing it, with this leeward foil. It’s interesting.
‘To Larsen’s great credit he has thrown a lot at it and the fact that he campaigns actively in Namibia, which is a long way away from wherever he is based today, shows the extent of his commitment. For a long time he was in the forties (knots) and not really threatening us and then all of a sudden he’s right up there and it is interesting at the moment because Hydroptere, is the fastest real boat.
‘Paul, in the last few months, has really done some exceptionally quick times. Full credit to him, it’s a different concept.
‘I love the challenge of high-end speed sailing. I would love to get back into that next year, when there will be more time.’
‘During this year of being Australian of the Year, I have tried during the last few months to get out on a Saturday afternoon, which has been very good although we haven’t had great weather in Melbourne. It has been a pretty quiet year for sailing but it has been wonderful to get up here to Lake Macquarie and I feel, just in my body, a 100 percent better than I did when I arrived.
‘While this last year has been short on sailing and long on functions where I've made a speech as Australian or the Year, with hundreds of interactions, across Australia, I have learnt many things but probably the most profound thing, not so much that I have learnt but had confirmed, is all about an index many people in Australia don’t know much about.
‘There is a thing called the World Giving Index and we are often prone to put ourselves down in this country for all sorts of reasons but Australians is equal number one on the World Giving Index with New Zealand.
‘The question is ‘What is the World Giving Index all about?’
‘It asks three questions of 150 different nations. Firstly does the typical citizen in the last thirty days, given something to a charitable organisation? In the last thirty days have they volunteered their time? In the last thirty days, and this is the question I like best, have they said hello to a stranger?
‘We are number one in the world and that surprises a lot of people.
‘I think we actually take it for granted that deep down the average Aussie is a really, really decent person. I have seen this year, criss-crossing the country from Perth to Gladstone but in particular having been invited by so many community organisations to talk at various functions, why this is the case.
‘This country is full of down to earth Aussies that are doing their bit. Often in the newspapers we see the more sensationalist or ugly side or celebrity side of life. Let me tell you that the average Aussie is really actually a decent person, for example like the volunteers at Wangi Sailing Club where are here today, people who just get up on a Saturday morning and say ‘well today’s the day I am going to just make something happen’.
‘Australians are good at volunteering and the average Aussie is pretty good at giving money too, if you talk to Tim Costello at World Vision. It’s a very large charity and they have a good understanding of who is giving what in this country. He says the average Aussie, compared to his/her counterparts around the world, are actually quite generous but it is the high end that we have got to encourage. It’s important that the high end gives as well because it is showing, if you like, leadership.
‘When it gets to the more privileged members of the community and giving of money, that's the area we miserably fall down on. We have 35 billionaires and there are many billionaires, starting with Bill Gates in the US, who are just downright generous. They have made it and in Gates case he is committed to give 90% of his wealth away before he dies. We need to see the same think happening here.
‘But back to sailing.
‘I have (almost) been an almost a lifelong member of McCrae Yacht Club in Victoria so I’ve certainly had more than forty years observing what a local sporting club can do for families, for kids and for adults like me.
‘In particular, I have seen probably dozens and dozens of teenagers come through that club. It doesn’t happen all the time and I may be a bit judgmental here, but I reckon there have been quite a few that had come through that might have gone either way in life and actually could have ended up leading somewhat negative lives for whatever reasons.
'But sailing was a reason; they saw purpose, they saw issues and learned about taking responsibility for themselves, decision making, getting along with people etc.
‘This year I have had this amazing year of travelling the country and just talking and talking but I have been invited on two or three occasions to talk to sporting clubs. I’ve always made this point - a sporting club is bigger than just providing excellence in a sporting competition. It is actually often doing an incredibly important task for the local community.
‘It’s better to learn a tough lesson as a 16 year old with adults around you, rather than either by yourself or with a whole bunch of other immature 16 year olds, and that's the good thing about sporting clubs in that you have many different age groups all working together. ‘
In part 2 of this interview Simon McKeon talks about the America’s Cup and A-Cats.
In part 3 of this interview its kids sailing, Olympics and the media.