Charlie McKee Interview

Moth Madness: A Q&A with Ace American Moth Sailor Charlie McKee

The Moth class has a storied tradition dating back decades, but what’s kept it thriving is that it’s a development class, freeing designers to experiment with sailplans, rigs, hull shapes, and, recently foils. You’ve likely seen the amazing images of these tiny craft zooming around at astonishing speeds, with a wetted surface area that’s smaller than a Laser’s rudder. This August, American Bora Gulari raised eyebrows by winning the Moth World Championships, held at Cascade Locks on Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, a venue renowned for its flat waters and ripping winds. What’s interesting about this win is that a mere two years ago American Moth sailing was fledgling at best. According to Gulari, fellow American and Olympian and AC sailor Charlie McKee has been the quiet, friendly driving force behind American Moth sailing. McKee himself is a top-flight Moth sailor who finished a respectable 11th (despite racing the last 3 races with a broken hand). I recently caught up with McKee to find out what it’s like to sail one of these speedsters, and what’s been happening in American Moth-sailing circles.

Is it hard to get the boats up on the foils?

In moderate wind—say 8–15 knots and flat waters—it’s easy, provided that you’re willing to go for a few swims while you learn[laughs]. Most sailors can get up on the foils in a day or 2, and can be gybing on their foils in a week or so—then you’re hooked!

What kind of speeds are you seeing?

You’re fully powered up in 10–11 knots of air, doing 11 knots upwind and 17 knots downwind; in 15 knots of wind you do about 15 knots upwind and over 20 downwind. Wind angles and speeds downwind are similar to high-performance boats like Volvo Open 70’s; the boats are incredibly efficient.

Tell me about the class today.

In the past few years we’ve hit a point where the boats work. These are out-of-the-box boats, not the work of basement tinkerers, as it used to be. The Moth’s are in a huge growth phase right now, partly because the boats are just so fun to sail.

I’ve heard Gulari mention that American Moth sailors, thanks to your leadership, have taken a communal approach to advancing Moth sailing in the U.S. Tell me about this.

Bora was kind to give me credit, but the truth is that there have been several driving factors. We first got together as a group in San Diego 18 months ago, and decided the best way to improve was to work together and share everything. Gulari and George (“Bear”) Peet were the most experienced. They got the rest of us up to speed so that we could have great racing here in the US, and we also got invaluable support from McLube and Harken to start a regatta circuit. We have a great mix of tinkerers, weekend warriors, and kids sailing, and our regattas are super-fun.

Was the competition at the Worlds harder than you’d expected?

No—I knew that it would be hard. Most American Moth sailors hadn’t put in the time compared to the Aussie’s. I wasn’t surprised that Bora won. He’s been working hard and he’s been fast for a while. I like to think that the rest of us pushing him hard [prior to the Worlds] had some positive impact on his program. Bora’s win might have been surprising to some of the international sailors, but not to us.

What advice can you give someone looking to get into the Moth class? What is the best path towards success?

Success has many definitions. For most people it is really fun to be on the steep part of the learning curve, and to see yourself improve each day. Then when you get together with the group at regattas everyone learns so much and just feeds off of each other. For me that has been the success; improving together and seeing our top sailors have success at the international level (not just Bora but also Dalton Bergan finishing 4th at the Worlds, and 4 American’s in the top 10).

Finally, what might surprise people about Moth’s?

1. They are not just for small people. The current range of competitive weights is about 130-200 pounds; a much wider range than other small boats.

2. The racing is very tactical. Downwind you often make 5-6 jibes/run, and working the shifts and puffs are far more important than in fleets where you point lower and go slower. This makes for very exciting racing, with boatspeed, boathandling, and tactics all crucial to success.

See the April 2007 issue of SAIL for a look at the mechanics behind a foiler Moth

For more information about joining the US Class or sponsorship opportunities contact US Class president Nigel Oswald .

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