Me and Mr. McKee

Editor’s Log

There are few things more audibly arresting or morbidly engaging--or, for that matter, bloody surprising--than the spectacle of the tall carbon-fiber mast aboard a modern Open 60 raceboat self-destructing a few boatlengths away. The force is enormous, and the initial crack terrifying, yet time suddenly moves slowly; the sails seem to billow and float as the splintered spar sections fall with them to the sea.

That was just one of the lessons I learned on my summer vacation.

In August, I was invited aboard Ellen MacArthur’s Kingfisher--the boat in which the young British solo sailor placed a dramatic second in the last Vendée Globe ("Ellen Crowned Vendée Queen," Shoreline, May 2001)--for a race from Norfolk, Virginia, to Boston. Even though we had a goodly stretch with little or no breeze, we covered the 530 nautical miles in 53 hours flat. Yes, my job has its perks.

The powerful Open 60s usually race in singlehanded distance events, but the EDS Challenge was for crews of five or six and was run in five legs from Europe to the United States and back. Ellen wasn’t aboard for this leg, but she’d left the boat in capable hands. And I don’t mean mine.

For among the crew were navigator Adrienne Cahalan and her fellow Australian Whitbread Race veteran, our skipper, Nick Moloney. Also, on a break from an America’s Cup training session with the OneWorld Challenge from his Seattle hometown, was the two-time Olympic sailing medalist Jonathan McKee.

Before the trip, I’d sometimes wondered: What’s the difference between a sailor who’s won Olympic gold and me? McKee’s presence answered my query and provided Lesson Number Two: Stop asking stupid questions. The only reason I won’t say he was on another planet is that I refuse to traffic in understatement.

Tactically, he was fearless and flawless. Off the starting line, he choreographed a perfect, daring, port-tack start just across the bows of the entire starboard-tacked fleet, a maneuver I witnessed through the gaps in the fingers covering my eyes. (It was through the same gap that, minutes later, I watched the mast of a competing French boat called Sill break in three clean pieces about 100 yards to weather.)

It’s hard to describe what makes McKee so good. Of course, he was in perfect sync with the wind and current. But, at the risk of sounding inane, he was also at one with the boat. Though he had plenty of offshore sailing on his résumé, he’d made his name in dinghy racing, and this was his first time aboard a canting-keel, dual-rudder, twin-daggerboard Open 60. It was educational, and fascinating, to watch him so quickly master the vessel’s cutting-edge idiosyncrasies.

And as I watched him drive while we creamed up the rhumbline from the Chesapeake to Nantucket Shoals, making upwards of 20 knots in 22 knots of southwest breeze, something else was very clear. The man loved to sail, and he was put on this planet to do just that.

After taking over the lead when the breeze fell off to a whisper while working up the outer coast of Cape Cod, we ended up winning the leg. Even Moloney, a pro who’d done thousands of miles aboard Kingfisher, readily recognized the most talented helmsman aboard.

"I get the feeling if we stop, we may never get going again," said McKee, his hand on the tiller at a breathless dawn. Though the sea was flat calm, he had us moving well on the flimsiest of breezes high aloft.

"I get the feeling, mate, that you’re going to be driving for a while," said Moloney.

But the coolest thing about McKee was hearing about the fast new cruising boat he’s having built in New Zealand, aboard which he’s planning some Pacific ramblings after the Cup. Yup, on top of everything, the Olympian is a cruiser.

Maybe we’re not so different after all.

Herb McCormick