Jul 10, 2011, 2:54 PM
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Sail Racing Magazine Interview: Jonathan McKee
Sail Racing Magazine Interview: Jonathan McKee
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Sail Racing Magazine is the first monthly electronic magazine for racing sailors everywhere. You can read SRM on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch by downloading our custom App. Just search for Sail Racing Magazine from within the Apple App Store. Laptop and PC users can view our online versions in their browser. The following interview was originally posted in their June 2011 edition.
With a pair of Olympic Medals, two Americaís Cup campaigns, a near Mini Transat win, as well as multiple world championship victories to his name, Seattleís Jonathan McKee has had a more varied sailing career than most. Sail Racing Magazine tracked him down after he had won his third Melges 24 World Championship title last May to find out more about his career so far and what the future might hold for him now.
SRM: How did your sailing career start? What are your earliest sailing memories?
JM: Well I didnít really do the traditional junior sailing thing. My parents were sailors and had a cruising boat. I guess the biggest sailing influence at that time was that my parents always had a lot of sailing books and magazines around the house. I would read the books and look at the pictures and I was immediately captivated by them when I was pretty young. So I actually I had a lot of book knowledge before I had any practical experience at all. I sailed with my parents and then started racing on some local boats. Our house was close to a lake and I started sailing a little eight foot pram dinghy by myself in the summers. I started racing Lasers when I was about twelve I think, and then shortly after that my dad bought me and my two brothers an old Soling. I was the one who was most interested and took it the most seriously, so the boat became mine. I would ride my bike or take the bus down to the marina to work on it and race it.
SRM: How and when did you get into professional sailing?
JM: Well that is a more complicated question than you might think. I was only 23 when I won a Gold Medal at the 1984 Olympics in the Flying Dutchman and following that I decided I really didnít want sailing to become my job, because I loved it so much that I didnít want it to become Ďworkí. I guess I was afraid that I might stop enjoying it. So at that point I was intentionally not really working in sailing. I had studied as an architect and I worked in that field for some time and that was very much my career, rather than sailing. I did have some professional sailing opportunities after the Olympics and I raced on bigger boats, but I never saw it as a full time job. It was only much later in 2000 when my brother Charlie and I won Bronze at the Olympics in Sydney that we got the opportunity to join the One World Americaís Cup squad. That was the first time that it was really full time paid sailing work for me. That was eleven years ago when I was forty years old.
SRM: What was your role in the AC campaigns?
JM: I was the back up mainsheet trimmer for One World and then the next time around with Luna Rosa I was the primary main sheet trimmer.
SRM: How did it feel to win an Olympic Gold at such a young age?
JM: Well yes I guess I was pretty young and perhaps I was a little bit surprised by it. We had sailed in the class for three years prior to the Games. We were part time as I was at university then, so we werenít able to train that much up until the few weeks before our Olympic Trials. We did some international regattas - we won the FD Worlds in 1983 in Italy. That kind of took everyone by surprise as nobody really knew who we were at that point.
SRM: Did you enjoy the technical aspect of the FD? Do you consider yourself to be a technical sailor?
JM: I really enjoyed the FD - at that point they were the closest thing to a Skiff that there was. The rig setup and tuning was pretty tricky and you had to make big decisions about masts and sails and all that stuff. I donít really think of myself as a technical sailor to be honest. I think I have a a good intuitive feel about how to balance the boat and create the right amount of power in the rig. I think in some ways that part of the advantage of not having done a traditional junior programme was that I had sailed more hight performance technical boats as a kid - 505ís and stuff like that. I think that helped me to be comfortable with that degree of complexity in the boats that I subsequently raced.
SRM: How did you get involved in the Mini Transat?
JM: Well after the first Americaís Cup I was looking for something different and interesting to do, so I went to France and got into that scene for the spring and summer of 2003. What I really liked was that it was totally different to what I had been doing so far. I had done a bit of offshore sailing and enjoyed it and I have always been drawn to high performance, sort of over powered boats and the Mini Transat had always been something I thought was a really interesting element of sailing. But certainly it was not a natural progression for someone coming directly from competing in the Americaís Cup. I really enjoyed the experience. I won a couple of the races leading up to the Mini Transat and I was leading Mini Transat itself when I broke my mast 700 miles from the finish. I had a really great experience and learned a lot sailing in that fleet. I didnít achieve my ultimate goal but still, no regrets.
SRM: Looking back at your two AC campaigns, what were the most significant things you learned?
JM: Well that sort of sailing is highly technical, so learned a lot about the more scientific side of sailing - just being with the designers and the more technical guys. I also learned a lot about how to interact in a big team environment, how to deal with the politics and the interpersonal side of it. I also got my head around how to stay motivated every day when you sport has become more like work.
SRM: Does your sailing now ever feel like work?
JM: Yes, sometimes it does. But somehow I have never gotten burned out. I have never lost my love of the pure sailing part of it. Even in the Americaís Cup it was never really just work for me, the way it was for some people. Even in the middle of all of it and was sailing every day, I was still looking for more sailing challenges and I still always look forward to going sailing. [Laughs] But then I think I am a little bit of an oddball in that respect.
SRM: Given your AC experience, what are your thoughts about the new format for the Americaís Cup? Is it something you would ever want to get involved with again?
JM: Well you know, itís complicated to answer that. It depends which side of it you are on. I think itís great that the boats are more modernised as I have always been a big fan of high-performance, leading edge boats. I think the downside is that there are going to be very few teams. I was involved in two really great Americaís Cups in that there were lots of teams and the racing was really close. Even though the boats were relative clunkers, in the end the racing was really good. Now we have great boats and I am sure for the few teams that make it there, it will be good racing. The perception is just that it will be so expensive to be competitive and thatís going to limit the involvement. I guess itís the same as itís always been - a few really rich guys involved with a very specialised thing. In terms of me ever wanting to get involved again, you can never say never, but certainly right now, it does not fit with my personal programme of trying to stay home more and do a greater variety of sailing.
SRM: So how do you pick your campaigns now? What does the ideal campaign look like for you?
JM: Thatís a good question. Right now I am trying to avoid having to travel too much. My kids are getting a little bit older now - they are 7 and 10, and my wife has started working again, so itís a little bit more difficult to be away from home. I am not in a situation where I want to be gone for a hundred days a year. I am trying to have high quality fun and competitive racing but still have the timeframe totally constrained. So my current campaigns are with Uka Uka Racing in the Melges 24 - I have been with them for the last three years and won a couple of World Championships with them - and I also sail as part of the Full Throttle Melges 32 programme. They are both teams made up of great sailors led by great owners. In both cases we are lucky to be able to sail at a high level without too much time taken up with training. Beyond that, just for my own amusement I have a foiling Moth and occasionally will do a regatta in that. I also have a racer cruiser up here in Seattle, which we sometimes race and also go cruising on each summer up in Canada. Oh, and I have also have some model boats that I also sometimes sail.
SRM: What sailing goals do you have for yourself now?
JM: Well Iím not particularly goal driven, so I donít generally set out and say I am going to achieve this or win that. I have just always never been that strong on the long term goals. Thatís just me I guess. These days I am just looking to be involved in good sailing situations, high quality, good experience, competitive sailing. I donít feel like I have anything to prove - my career has always been about being involved in a wide variety of sailing and I think I have taken part in virtually all aspects of sailing at some point or other. I really enjoy ocean racing and would like to do some more of that. I enjoyed learning how to sail the Moth and will carry on with that. I like to stay on or near the cutting edge and I hope I will be able to keep having fun and good experiences with my sailing.
Sail Racing Magazine is the first monthly electronic magazine for racing sailors everywhere. You can read SRM on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch by downloading our custom App. Just search for Sail Racing Magazine from within the Apple App Store. Laptop and PC users can view our online versions in their browser. Additional information: http://www.sailracingmagazine.com/