The Accidental Pro: An Interview with Jonathan McKee
For most dinghy sailors, co-skippering an Open 60 in the Barcelona World Race, a non-stop double-handed circumnavigation race via the three capes, would be a suicide mission. Luckily, Seattle based Jonathan Mckee, 45, isn’t your typical dinghy sailor: His resume includes three years on the All American College Team during his time at Yale, a Gold medal in Flying Dutchman in the 1984 Olympics, a Bronze medal in 49er’s in the 2000 Olympics with his brother Charlie, a near victory in the 2003 Mini Transat Race (he dismasted 700 miles from the finishing line after dominating the first leg), two America’s Cup stints as mainsail trimmer (2003 with OneWorld Challenge; 2007 with Luna Rossa), and victory in the 2005 Melges 24 Worlds. Plus, McKee has also raced on top-level Open 60 programs including Ellen McArthur’s Kingfisher (he was aboard for Kingfisher’s win in the 2001 EDS Atlantic Challenge) and Johnny Malbon’s Artemis.
Usurping these heady achievements is the fact that McKee is a humble, down-to-earth father of two. He is also the only American participating in the 2007/2008 Barcelona World Race. While McKee’s teammate, Spaniard Guillermo Altadill, 45, has completed six circumnavigations, this will be McKee’s first. Further spicing the sauce, McKee and Altadill have barely sailed together, and they will be competing on a latest-generation Farr-designed Open 60. I caught up with McKee via telephone while he was in Seattle, 10 weeks before the race’s start.
How old were you when you started sailing?
I started sailing pretty early – probably around the time I was 8 years old.
What about offshore sailing?
I did an offshore cruise with my grandfather on his boat from the Virgin Islands to Maryland when I was around 15. This experience opened my eyes to the fact that I enjoyed being on the ocean. You’ve got to love your chosen environment and be comfortable there if you’re going to spend your life pursuing something like sailing.
How old were you when you made your first Olympic bid?
I was 20 years old when I campaigned in the Flying Dutchman class in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Then, from the time I was 25 until I was 45, I pretty much stayed away from professional sailing. I worked for an architect for a while; as a real-estate appraiser, and also fixing up real estate properties. In 1999 I took what became a permanent leave of absence and campaigned a 49er with my brother, Charlie, in the Sydney Olympic Games.
How did you find your way into America’s Cup circles?
Actually, it was sort of accidental. After the 2000 Games my brother and I had the opportunity to sail with the OneWorld Challenge. This was a really cool opportunity to jump into the Cup at a fairly high level. I learned a lot, and I also learned that you can make a good living in sailing.
My family has had to move to the different venues where the Cup has been held, Aukland and Valencia, which has been a great opportunity for our kids to experience different cultures. In a strange way, my career has provided this.
Moving from buoy racing to offshore campaigns is a big step, but you have taken this to an even greater level by entering a non-stop, shorthanded around-the-world race. What are your thoughts on this change?
In the end, it’s still just sailing, and a race is just a race – if you can sail, you can sail any boat. Saying that, Guillermo and I only started sailing together two weeks ago. We’ve still got a lot of learning to do about these boats, and not much time to do it!
What aspects of the sailing game are the most interesting to you?
I like the diversity of sailing’s problem solving, and not just focusing on one thing. That is what is appealing about shorthanded sailing. If any of these areas – sail trim, navigation, preparation, driving, etc. – are weak, you’re out of luck. You can’t be too specialized if you want to do well in this aspect of sailing. In the America’s Cup it’s different, as you are highly specialized. But ocean racing is a diverse problem that goes on and on, for hours/days/weeks/months at a time.
I’ve heard that your mates give you a hard time because you sail on your own time and not just when you’re getting paid – is this true? Don’t you ever get burned-out on sailing?
Yes, it’s true, I like to be on boats, and I haven’t gotten burned-out on it yet! Maybe after the Barcelona World Race I’ll be ready to take a little time off. Basically, I just love sailing – it gives me a lot of satisfaction; it’s what I do best, and it’s what I’m about. And I love all aspects of it, from racing to cruising with my family. I am very lucky in this respect.
Do you earn your living through race campaigns, or do you also have a “regular gig”?
For the next five months my “regular gig” is the Barcelona World Race – it’s an all-consuming job and will require 100% focus.
What are the biggest preparatory steps remaining before the start of the race on November 11, 2007?
All of our systems need to be optimized. We need to focus on reliability, safety equipment, our spares, and time spent sailing the boat. We’ve sailed on the new boat for only fifteen days. There is a huge amount of work for us and for our whole preparation team to do in the next 2 months. I hope we can get there.
What are your thoughts on your new Farr-designed IMOCA Open 60, Estralla Damm?
I like her a lot. She has a very sea-kindly character, and she is a lot of fun to sail. But she is a big, powerful boat with large sails and high loads. It’s a lot of work for two guys, and not very forgiving of errors.
You and teammate Guillermo Altadill had trouble with the electronics that control the keel rams in the Fastnet Race — has this been solved? Are you comfortable heading around the world on this gear?
Yes, we have sorted out the issue with the keel controls. It is part of the normal process with a new boat. It takes a while to get everything working properly on a boat as complex as an Open 60. But hopefully by the start of the race we will be comfortable with our gear and our preparation.
You are the only American in the race. Why do you think that solo and shorthanded sailing is so much more popular in Europe than in the States? Do you think it will always be this way? If not, what do you see as a realistic catalyst for change?
Actually, I think that solo and shorthanded sailing is becoming A LOT more popular in America. Awareness and participation have increased. It’s not like in Europe, but things are slowly moving in this direction. Although I am the only American in the race, I feel a part of a longer tradition of shorthanded American ocean racers, from Brad van Liew to Bruce Schwab, to others before them I think the American sailing public will find this race pretty interesting, and I suppose my involvement may fuel that interest a bit.
You will be spending a considerable amount of time in the Southern Ocean in the next few months – how does your family feel about this?
My family has always been very supportive of me. We choose our projects together, so they are on board as far as support goes. Still, three months is a long time to be away from your family, but this is the price that we have to pay to do this race. For sure it will be really hard. Luckily, communication has improved dramatically, so in fact I can be in daily communication, which makes it easier.
How do you know Guillermo Altadill? Have you sailed with him a lot? How did this partnership begin?
Actually, I met Guillermo sort of by accident. We were both interested in doing the race, but he originally had another guy who was going to co-skipper the boat, but at the last minute he had to drop out so I got the call. We only sailed together for the first time two weeks ago, but we seem to get along well. We have a different temperament, but we share a strong commitment to succeed.
Do you see this race as being your biggest sailing challenge to date?
For sure it will be my biggest challenge so far!
What do you see as your biggest challenge, personally, in the race? What aspects of the race are you the most excited about?
Finishing (laughs)! the part that will be the most challenging will be to continue sailing fast and smart, day after day, month after month. You need to pace yourself, but you also need to know when to go hard.
Who do you see as your biggest competition in the race?
The whole field is stiff – the skippers and co-skippers competing in this race are the gods of ocean racing. These are sailors of the highest caliber. It is an honor just to be in the race. It will be a big challenge to beat anyone, but going into the race Vincent Riou and Seb Josse on PRB are probably the favorites to win, but until we get out there, all bets are off. Anything can happen in ocean racing, but the gods tend to favor the experienced and well-prepared teams.