McKee’s Key West Minute

Johnathan McKee says it's good to be back in town, this time on a Farr 40, and oh how he missed Key West.
Sailing World

Quantum Key West: Jonathan McKee

Sailing World racing editor, Jonathan McKee Stuart Streuli/sailing World

Thursday, January 24

One of the many great things about Key West is the live music. There must be at least 20 bands and musicians playing at any time. I have never seen anything like it. Nearly all the venues are open to the street, and there is no cover charge. So it is very easy to drift from band to band and check out several musicians in a short time. Personally I get quite inspired by watching music performed live, so I really love this aspect of the Key West experience. In fact, I am listening to a grisley old singer/guitar player right now, crooning an old Leon Russell tune in the Schooner Wharf Bar. Beats working!
The amazing thing is most of the musicians are really good. I guess if you are traveling musician, Key West in January is not a bad gig. Most of the music is sort of folk or blues oriented, with the odd rockers and jazz types. Not a lot of hip hop here in Key West. I guess this reflects the demographic, which is predominantly white and middle age. Although, maybe I’m not ferreting out the alternative venues well enough.
One thing seems clear; music is a tough way to make a living. These guys and gals are mostly working for tips and free drinks, probably living in their vans. And these are good musicians, with great voices, guitar licks, and stage presence. A lot of them are sort of Jimmy Buffett like, with a certain tropical outlaw persona. That seems appropriate given Mr. Buffett’s hometown.Remember to put a couple bucks in the tip jar! And tip your servers…
I find it highly ironic that I get paid about 10 times what these folks are making, to guide high-tech racing boats around the buoys. I am not complaining, just saying it is a strange and wonderful world we live in. And not many places remind me of that more than Key West.
Rock on.

Wednesday, January 23


It was another incredible day of racing today. The breeze of 15 to 20 knots, pretty flat water, 15-degree oscillations, beautiful emerald water: it’s why we’re here. These conditions put a real premium on knowing what phase of the shift you are on. There was a slight favoring of the left, as there often is, but mostly you have to stay in phase. Therefore you need a firm grasp of the median true wind direction. Use you warm up time before the start to establish the total range and the average wind direction, and state those numbers explicitly. I like to have a little discussion with the helm and main trimmer about these numbers, so everybody is on the same page. This can make racecourse decisions much easier.
On smaller boats without instruments you can use the compass in the same way. You have to be a little bit careful to not confuse puffs and lulls with shifts, because the compass does not know the difference. A puff will usually feel like a lift initially. Some dialogue from the driver can help the tactician sniff out the real shifts. Even on boats with full instrumentation, the compass can be more accurate than the TWD, because the TWD is only from one point, and the heading considers the whole sail plan.
So let’s say we have a well-established set of numbers, and we tack on each major shift. Easy right? There are two additional considerations. Firstly, there may be a macro trend in the wind, or there could be a geographic factor to consider. For example, today there was a little bit more wind to the left, and more lefties than righties at the top of the beat. So you were served by taking neutral shifts on starboard, to play left of center. The second point is that simply playing the oscillations will not always bring you to the mark. There may be an unequal distribution of left and right shifts, or the course may be skewed. In this case the tactician has to tack earlier in the shift for the long tack, and later on the short tack. Another good reason to have it clearly in your mind what the TWD median is.


Tuesday, January 22


It was a really great day of racing today! The north wind was 12 to 17 knots, smooth water, 15-degree shifts, perfect racing conditions.

A couple of issues are brought to the fore in these conditions. Firstly everyone is roughly the same speed, at least in the Farr 40 class, and the tack loss is quite small. Obviously it is important to get onto the lifted tack right away after the start, but normally you are locked in with the other boats, which is fine if the phase is right coming off the line. If the phase is left, it is often worth it to tack and take sterns to get in phase, especially in a small fleet where every boat is on the line. So the the question becomes, can you predict the phase of the shift as you approach the start? I think if you have good instruments and are really paying attention, you probably can predict the phase. If so, if you are going to start in right phase, get a start that allows you to go straight, and reward is fine. If the phase will be left, then start to windward or on port.

The other moment of opportunity comes at the leeward gate. In general you want to round the mark which is less crowded in front of you, unless one mark is really favored. ( You can check what the gate is square for before the start). But then you have to immediately get in phase with the shift. You should have some clue by what is happening at the bottom of the run. If you can round the gate and immediately get in phase, there is potential for big gains. In almost every race thus far, whoever has done the best job of this has won the race. We won two races by nailing the first few minutes after the gate, and in the other two races we got fifth (out of six).


Another thing to be careful of is using the boats ahead as gauges of the shift, particularly if they are another class. In general I spend quite a bit of time watching the fleet ahead, because they are the best leading indicators. However in this regatta we have the HPR boats ahead of us, which are very cool boats, but some of them do not seem to point that we’ll. So you have to take the visual input with a grain of salt! In the end, using the compass/true wind direction rarely lets you down on a day like today.

The forecast for tomorrow is 25 knots, so there should be plenty of excitement on the racecourse. But for the moment, I think the best plan is getting a rum drink, and soak in some KW atmosphere. And I still have the walk home to look forward to!

Monday, January 21


One thing that’s cool about Key West is that you walk a lot, or most people ride rented beach cruisers with big baskets bolted on to the handlebars. As a consequence, you pass so many different types of people on the sidewalk, a lot of them eating ice cream cones. Most of them are on vacation, and then, of course, you’ve got the colorful locals. I have a sense that there are more foreigners here than in years past: Italian, Spanish, Russian, Brazilian, which makes it really interesting and vaguely exotic at times.

The thing is, you tend to look at passersby a little more closely here, because some of them may be your long lost crew or sailing buddy. Back home I rarely look at faces, but here I tend to, so I see a few great characters, like the Midwest folks showing a little too much skin, the Italian ladies in their high heels, the hippie dudes, smiling but seemingly down on their luck.

For me, it is wonderful that such a multitude of backgrounds are represented on the sidewalk. It makes me think of a little story in my head for each new character, put myself in their shoes for a moment. It makes it a richer world. This is a place to not be judgmental. The same is true on the street as it is on the racecourse.
The racing was hard fought today on the Farr 40 course. I guess that goes without saying. Groovederci was the only consistent performer with a 2, 2. On Struntje Light, we had a miracle last beat to win the last race, which felt great. It was good to end the day on a good note, and maybe this is why, on the way home, I could hold my head high and look around.

**Sunday, January 20

It is so great to be back in Key West. I missed it last year and somehow my whole year was not the same. The combination of sunny warm weather, beautiful emerald water, great racing, and a unique colorful town is unmatched by any other regatta.

Key West always provides ample down time, and causes me to reflect on what a fortunate life I have. Not only do I get to race on a beautiful high-tech race boat with a well-trained crew, practicing my craft against the best sailors in the world, but there is time to catch up with old friends from previous campaigns. I always run into people I have not seen for years, sometimes decades. Memories flood back of races and good times past.

Coming as it does at the beginning of a new season, Quantum Key West is a fresh start, but also a time for reflection, a chance to give thanks for all this sport has provided to me over the years, and all the funny and wonderful people I have had the pleasure of knowing. Now onto the racing.