McKee’s Key West Minute

Jonathan McKee reporting in from the Melges 32 class from onboard Dalton Devos' Delta.
Sailing World

Jonathan McKee Headshot

Jonathan McKee is strategically positioned at the Westin Hotel’s fourth floor, where he scan the morning wind conditions. Dave Reed

Faith Restored

It was another beautiful day of sailing today. The lackluster first two days are now a distant memory. The forecast was for 10 to 15 knots, but sailing out to the start we had 20 knots of wind, so we were a little unnerved, having left our heavy jib on the dock. But by the start the breeze was down to 16 or so, which is perfect Melges 32 conditions.

Onboard the Delta, we had a great first start and arrived at the top mark neck and neck with Inga. We struggled a little to find the right mode downwind, and by the gate the Swedes had extended and Hedgehog was right on our tail. They passed us on the next upwind, and halfway down the run we had an interesting little altercation, but more on that later. At the finish it was Inga, then Delta, then Hedgehog.


We sailed a flawless second race to win by quite a lot. It was nice to not be under so much pressure the whole race! But as they have done all week, the Hedgehog team, led by Alec Cutler and Richard Clarke, dug themselves back to second place, so we only gained one point.

It was a really thrilling third race. It was a little lighter, so all the boats were a little more even in speed. We had a nice vein of breeze off the start and got off to a little lead. But I screwed up the shifts at the top of the beat and we rounded third. The first run was really tricky. We managed to find some good lanes and slipped back into the lead. But Inga and Hedgehog were right there breathing down our necks, and the wind was getting more unstable. Thus the tactician was getting a little more confused!

Rounding the last bottom mark we had a three-length lead on Alec and his team. It was a challenging condition to cover another boat, and though we stayed close, Hedgehog found some good shifts to get right back to us. Coming up to the finish, we bounced them three times towards the starboard layline, and each time they gained a little bit. By the last tack it was a tight leebow, with two minutes to the line. We just managed to keep our bow forward, and crossed the finish 5 seconds ahead.


Back to that first race downwind incident: Hedgehog was ahead but jibed away. When they came back on starboard, the boats were bow to bow. Since we could not cross on port, we headed up to cross their stern. This is a little stressful in 16 to 18 knots of wind, but the Delta team did a good job getting high enough to cross their stern without flogging the kite. But then they jibed right as we were passing astern. They did a great jibe and managed to keep their air forward initially, but we were faster. The boats were right next to each other. They slowly came up as we were rolling them, and we responded by going as high as we could without broaching and putting our mast into their rig. They thought we touched them, and we thought we didn’t, but they protested. We sailed the rest of the day thinking we had a protest on our hands, not a pleasant prospect. But when we found Alec after the race, he shook our hands and said, “Good sailing”, and that they were not going to file, they would rather win it on the water. The protest could have gone either way, but we were probably more vulnerable than they. So it was a very gentlemanly gesture not to file. My faith in humanity is redeemed!

It is such a pleasure to sail against people like Alec and Richard and their whole team, whose sense of fair play and sportsmanship is so strong, even with the regatta on the line. Now I am kind of cheering for them to win tomorrow! But only kinda…

(previous posts next page)


Smells Like Delta Spirit

Finally, an awesome day of sailing!

Today was quintessential Key West, with northerly wind at 15 knots, oscillating shifts, emerald green water. After two days of atypical, and at times unpleasant, conditions, it was a great reminder of what makes this place and this regatta so good.


It was an awesome day on the Delta, so maybe that is why I am feeling so enthusiastic right now. We seemed to hit almost every shift upwind. How often does that happen? We were also fast, which makes everyone’s job a lot easier. We struggled a little bit downwind, but in the end we hung on for a 1, 1, 2, which was probably our best day ever. Our nemesis Hedgehog with Alec Cutler and his stellar team also had a really good day. They recovered from being over at the start in Race 1 to get a second, and they had a 2,1 in the next two races, so we actually only gained one point on them. Nevertheless, we separated from the other top boats such as Groovederci and Inga today, so our job for the rest of the week is a little easier, with 4 races to go.

Normally in the Melges 32 Class we do not race with other fleets of boats, so you have to figure out the shifts on your own. But here we have four classes starting in front of us, so there are a lot of indicators up the course as to what is coming your way. This is not always a helpful thing, but today it helped a lot. We could see from the class ahead the shift we were going to get a couple minutes in the future, and integrating that information with the wind we were currently in, and the visual picture on the water, would usually lead to a pretty good decision. As tactician, I like to have the upwind trimmer talk to me about the boats up the course, and the main trimmer keep an eye on the compass, while I would watch the true wind direction display and try to put the pieces together. Luckily I have Sam Rogers on trim and Morgan Reeser on the main to help me out, so I have some pretty expert input.

Premiere Racing does a fabulous job of organizing and running this regatta. The race management is always first class, with very good quality courses and great PRO decision making. I went to the awards tent for the first time tonight, which is always a lot of fun. Ken Legler does an amazing job at energizing the trophy presentation. Being there made me realize there are a lot of people that really love their sailboat racing, and invest a lot of time and money to be here. Everyone is having a great time (especially the winners) and looking around I get the impression that our sport is not in a bad state. Of course, this is an exceptionally difficult and expensive regatta to manage, and without the support of the sponsors, especially title sponsor Quantum Sails, it would be hard to pull off. Thanks to everyone involved—it is a great tradition and the sailing world would be poorer without Quantum Key West.

I’m reading the Charles Cross book about Kurt Cobain called “Heavier than Heaven.” No matter what you might think about Kurt and Nirvana, it’s a fascinating read, and much of it takes place around Seattle, so I feel a little closer to home here in the opposite corner of the country. It’s pretty engrossing, in a train wreck sort of way, so I have to force myself to put it down when midnight comes around. Trying to rest up for tomorrow.


Comms Down**

What a day today. The forecast called for a period of squalls and showers around midday, but this turned into an ongoing series of squalls and big shifts for the whole day, at least on Division 1.

So our PRO had a hard time finding a period of “steady” wind long enough to get a sequence and first beat off. They started one sequence around 1 pm, but there was a 60-degree shift right as the Maxis were starting, so that was wisely blown off. Then there was a long period of heavy rain and huge changes in the wind. Finally around 2 p.m. there was a break in the weather and race was on.

Unfortunately, there was a 30-degree left shift during the sequence, so the later starts had basically a one tack beat. Approaching the weather mark for the Melges 32 fleet, there was a further left shift and 15-knot breeze increase. So it was a wild “run” with few able to lay the gate, and everyone capsizing at least once. Those able to keep their kites up the longest made big gains, including the race winner Groovederci and the second place Brazilian team. On Delta we were going OK, only broaching once, but then we had a bad crash and had to take the kite down for the rest of the leg.

The next beat was also nearly one tack, but the breeze slowly veered and dropped to about 17 knots. This made for a great run, ripping down the course at top speed, trying to dodge the ubiquitous crab pots. We were having a good battle with Inga and Hedgehog and we all approached the gate pretty close, with Delta holding a slight lead. We had a messy drop and briefly shrimped the chute, allowing both boats to slip past. It was a reach to the finish so we ended up fifth.

One thing I learned today was the importance of clear communication on the windy downwind legs. Everyone is pretty amped up, so there is a tendency to offer a lot of “guidance,” but the key communication is between the trimmer, who can feel the load in the kite, and the helm, who can feel when the rudder is loading up. Add to that the occasional puff call at appropriate times, and very little else needs to be said to the whole team. Nearly all other comms can be underground, quietly between individuals. But if the communication link between the helm and the trimmer is interrupted, trouble is not far away, especially in full planing conditions.

Tomorrow looks to be a pretty windy day, and we will probably have three races, so that should be a lot of fun.

(continued for previous days posts)



Light but Heavy (on the brain)

The forecast for the day was very marginal, maybe 4 to 7 knots at best. So there was a half-hour postponement on shore, and then all three courses went out. When we got to the starting area, it was only 5 knots and 30-degree shifts. Perfect conditions…if you like that sort of stuff.

Nevertheless, the race committee went for a race. It was a classic hero to zero kind of race, as you can imagine. We had a terrible first half of the beat, sailing into every hole possible. But we hit the left at the top, which was good, and rounded fourth, but at least in the same zip code. We had a good downwind leg by staying in phase and mostly avoiding the larger but slower IRC boats from the start before ours. Then we had a great second upwind leg to claw back to second, just behind the mighty Hedgehog.

The wind had not really improved, still 5 knots and shifty, so most of us assumed we were done for the day. There was some intense lobbying over the VHF to that effect, but PRO Ken Legler was not to be swayed. So we started the second race, trying to get psyched up for another mind-bending experience. We had a good start and tried to stay in phase, and in pressure, rounded the top mark just behind Groovederci and ahead of Inga. We had a great run and took the lead, but still plenty of mine fields ahead. We told ourselves on the downwind that it was going to be very hard to cover, because the wind was so localized, so we tried to sail our own race on the upwind. But all the fleet to our left hooked into a 20-degree lefty! We looked to be close to last but we got a little pressure at the end to round fourth. Again, we had a good run to the finish, and could have won the race with one more break, but ended up third. The Hoggers won again. Despite the lost opportunities, we were happy to end the day with a 2, 3.

It is interesting when you don’t really want to race because the conditions are pretty bad, but you have to do it anyway. You have to get yourself a little fired up, and try to spread a positive attitude among your team. One way to do this is to involve everyone in discussing the wind before the start, and also getting the team focused on crew weight and mechanics. This way everyone is engaged and thinking about how to make the boat go faster, and you don’t think so much about how random the conditions are. I think’s questionable whether we should have raced or not (most of the other fleets did not), but in the end we had two reasonably fair races, and perhaps the tricky conditions give other boats a chance to shine that might not otherwise. I don’t know. But I do know that if you have a negative attitude going into it, your chances of winning the race go way down.

(click below for previous posts from Jonathan)

Good to Be Back

As soon as I get off the plane in Key West, the great memories from years past come rushing back: the warm tropical air, the beautiful turquoise water, the vibrant street scenes, the crazy characters, the awesome sailboat racing. There is simply no other regatta in the world that has such a beautiful combination of these things, and it comes at such a perfect time of the year. Christmas is over, but it’s a long ways until spring, at least where I live. And, as much as I hate leaving my family back at home, I love coming to Key West.

This year I’m sailing as tactician in the Melges 32 class on my great ride, Delta skippered by 22-year old Dalton Devos. We have such a nice team, great people every one, good sailors, great support. For me, it’s a real privilege. Dalton is a really down to earth kid, in his last year of college, and getting ready to face the world. Unlike most of us, he did not grow up doing a lot of sailing, only casually in the summer or the occasional race with his family. He did not get burned out in an intense junior program, or sail in college, but he’s one of the fastest learners I’ve ever coached. He has great powers of concentration, which in the end are just as important as having lots of experience. More importantly, he is a really nice kid and a pleasure to be around, like all the Delta team.

On Sunday we finished two days of training. Saturday was great, with 15 to 22 knots from the north, so pretty smooth water and nice little oscillating shifts. Sunday was also a northerly, but only 6 to 10 knots. So it has been perfect preparation for the regatta, which looks like a good mix of conditions. Today, the first day of the regatta, looks really light, then decent breeze Tuesday, and a strong northerly on Wednesday. Bring it on…

It’s been fun the watch all the other boats practicing. There is such a wide range here, from J/70s (lots of them) to 80-foot Maxi boats, and everything in between. The TP52s are really refined and cool looking, so they are awesome to watch, but there is a nice group of 40-foot HPR boats as well. Unfortunately we have a pretty small group of Melges 32s, only seven boats, but there are a few new teams at their first regatta, which is always cool to see, and in the end the competition is always good, especially the top 4 boats.

Of course today everyone is talking about football. You could not ask for two better matchups, and I am really looking forward to cheering the Seattle Seahawks on to victory!