In a world where plenty of top-level sailors are not shy about touting the merits of their resumes, Jonathan McKee's low-key approach is a refreshing reminder that sailing is about having fun. Yet for his laid-back attitude, the 51-year old Seattle-based sailor has won plenty of sailboat races, including two Olympic Medals—a Gold in the Flying Dutchman class in 1984 and a Bronze in the 49er class in 2000 with his brother, Charlie—and seven world championships.
Recently, he's been sailing in the Moth class, and he's actively involved in the Melges 24 and Melges 32 classes where he typically works as a tactician. In 2010, he won the Melges 24 Worlds aboard Uka Uka Racing and placed second in the Melges 32 Worlds aboard Full Throttle. His success aboard Uka Uka Racing, an Italian-flagged boat where McKee is the only English-speaker, is a credit to his leadership and teamwork skills?—traits that often set him apart. McKee has also sailed in two America's Cups, first as the backup mainsail trimmer with OneWorld Challenge in 2003, and then as the primary mainsail trimmer aboard Luna Rossa Challenge in 2007.
While McKee made his name as a one-design sailor, he grew up cruising with his family on Puget Sound and first ventured offshore with his father, braving the west coast of Vancouver Island before he turned 10. This interest intensified over the years, and his resume now includes a San Francisco to Hawaii race on his own boat, as well as a Classe Mini campaign. A second-place finish in the first leg of the 2003 Mini Transat highlighted this later experience; he was leading leg two when his rig broke 700 miles off the coast of Brazil. In Grand Prix circles, McKee has also been active in the Volvo Ocean Race and the IMOCA 60 class.
While McKee's plans for the foreseeable future involve less offshore sailing, look for him at high-level one-design events. Whether he's riding foils alone, racing in his home waters of Puget Sound on his 44-foot water-ballasted "cruiser", or calling tactics for someone else, McKee's smarts and strong leadership skills will place him in the front of the pack. Just don't expect a lot of big talk or fanfare, as McKee can be counted on to save his energy for planning his next event or figuring out how his team can sail faster tomorrow.
Leadership and Teamwork
How important are leadership and teamwork at the upper levels of the sport?
I think it's important at every level. Leadership is something you need, regardless of your campaign. As you get into bigger boats and bigger teams, it obviously gets more complicated. Someone has to set the team's direction and tone and be the final arbiter of the strategic decisions.
Teams that don't work well don't have someone they can go to; people on the team don't understand what the goals are or how things are done.
The biggest job of the leadership happens at the very beginning of the campaign where you try to determine—with the owner and the other leaders—what the characteristics of the team will be. What are the ground rules that you're going to operate under?
It's being clear and maybe stating things that might [seem] obvious. I think it's important to actually have a document that people can look at and say, 'yes, buying into this document is part of my involvement in this team.' Maybe it's something as simple as how you deal with expenses that you incur during a regatta, or maybe it's how you communicate with other people on the racecourse. How do you position yourself relative to the other teams? It's the basic stuff—honesty, communication, commitment, preparation and efficiency—that makes any enterprises succeed or not.
What are the key components of a successful one-design team?
Skill is obviously a big one. A lot depends on what level you're trying to achieve. If you're trying to get to the highest level, you eventually need to have the highest skills, even if you don't start out there. In most One Design classes, it's possible to develop the skills. If you're a good learner, it's possible to do this rapidly, which is why people can sometimes come into a new class and do well right away. It's because they have campaign skills, they know how to sail a boat, and they know how to get fast; they can take the variables and get them figured out.
Starting with a two-person boat, there are some teamwork issues involved, and the relationship between the skipper and crew is critical. They have to have enough talent and skill to compete at the top level, but they also need to be able to create some sort of synergy between them. That allows the whole team to advance beyond what it could be if you just had two talented guys who don't work well together. Much of that is communication and trust and clearly laying out who is responsible for what, and then letting the other person do their job.
There's not one right system. In general, the more you're able to share the jobs of the boat—both the direct jobs and all the other things that have to happen before you even get to the racecourse—the more likely you are to be successful.
The third important element is to create a training regime or protocol that efficiently allows you to get better. Whether it's having one other training partner and having structured sessions, or whether it's going to a lot of regattas and using the time to sail against a lot of other boats, including boats from other countries, there are a lot of ways to do it. Doing a good job with training time is a prerequisite for success.
When you're sailing as skipper, what are the best ways to foster a great onboard dynamic?
As skipper, one of your main jobs is to create an environment where everyone can do their best work; it's the same thing in business. First of all, make sure people know what's expected of them. Then, make sure they have the right tools to succeed.
Assuming that you're self-coaching, one of your jobs is to audit people's performance. Crewmembers should also coach each other, which creates a mutually self-coaching environment. This can be really successful, but in the end, the skipper is the one who is responsible for this dynamic working.
A skipper needs to give feedback in the right way for it to be most effective. Being specific with feedback is important; giving it at the right time is also important. The way that you handle that whole feedback loop is traditionally the skipper's job.
And should a situation arise during a race, I'm a big fan of saying, 'look, let's talk about this later, let's get on with the race right now'—and then actually having the conversation later on. It's important to have the talk in the positive spirit of improvement and cooperation. Try to be a partner with the other person in coming up with an agreed-upon solution for moving forward.
It's also important that the skipper really takes control at crucial times, for example at the start, near marks and near other boats. He needs to take control, be strong and be at his best, because that's when he needs to instantly do the right thing.
What about when you're serving as tactician?
Well, it's the same thing as being skipper in many ways. On many boats, the tactician is really the team leader. In that case, everything that I just said about the skipper's feedback loop applies to the tactician.
Let's assume that you have a pretty good helmsman and that you don't need to coach the crew on straight-line sailing. In that case, the most important thing is that the helm needs to get comfortable enough in your decision-making to trust you. That's always job one, and it isn't always easy.
Next, you need to warn the helmsman and the whole boat about what you're doing in situations where other people need to react based on your call. When you make your calls, make sure to give everyone enough time to do their job.
Then, I think, it's good to have some dialog about what you're thinking and let others chime in. Other tacticians like to totally keep it within themselves. That's a complicated one and an individual style issue that depends on a lot of factors. Some helmsmen like ongoing dialog because it makes them feel more comfortable, even though it doesn't help them do their job any better.
And you need to make strong decisions, take responsibility and be open to review later. It's tricky because you take responsibility, but there is a certain random nature to the game too. You don't want to over-analyze a situation. Instead, I'll ask a question like, 'did we have the right information? Should someone have been looking for those boats to port? If so, who would that be? What's the right communication process if that happens again?'
So much of what I talk about is about the process. It's not about being smart or super talented, it's about having a repeatable, predictable process so that everyone knows what to do and everyone can succeed.
Is there ever a place for yelling or raised voices onboard a One-Design boat?
Maybe if there's a safety issue where someone really needs to be aware of something, like 'watch out for the boom!' or a man-overboard call.
But I don't see how raising your voice at another crewmember helps. If a crewmember can hear you, then why would you use a louder voice than necessary? My experience is that he or she already heard you, they know what they did wrong and what they need to do to correct it, so saying anything at all is usually superfluous. Saying it louder won't accomplish anything except to raise everyone's anxiety, which doesn't tend to improve performance. [Laughs.]
Does good teambuilding always happen onboard, or are there decisions that a skipper can make ashore that will help further his team's goals?
I'd say that it's half and half, depending on the structure of the regatta. A team is more than just your performance on the water; it's how you interact with each other and the whole group feeling that creates. In my mind, the dinner afterwards is just as important as the race as far as defining the team and furthering its goals. You're trying to build competency and trust and a good communication style, which can be done on many levels.
Think about it—the best debriefings and feedback you've had after a day of sailing usually happen over a beer later on, when you're more relaxed and can think clearly and discuss ideas.
For me, your total regatta experience is your total time there, not just your time on the water. You can have a great regatta without sailing well. [Laughs.] That's one of the great things about the sport!
Are there any golden rules to building a strong team?
Get the right crewmembers! [Laughs.] Selecting your team is a question of personality versus skill. There's no right answer. On a midsize boat, key positions are not that onerous. It's more about your attitude, how well you can work with other people and your willingness to commit to the team and to improve yourself. Don't just pick the most talented guys and expect a great performance, at least not right away. Even at the highest level, you see the decision makers looking to see how a sailor performs in a group environment and what kind of a team player are they. Will they blame you or will they have your back? Do they have a positive attitude? Are they fun to be with?
The sailing part can always be learned and is pretty secondary to having a nice person who will work well with the team and have the potential to improve. But it turns out that there are some darn good sailors who are also nice people to sail with, so it's not an exclusive either-or choice.
If there's one thing I'd say to owners and people putting together a team, it's to really pay attention and think carefully about the people you choose; not only that they're your friends, but also that the crew will get along internally. Sometimes it's good to have an affinity group—people of the same age or co-workers, that kind of fraternity. But generally, I find that a mix of sexes, ages, and experience levels is better. Having that diversity over the long run makes the team work better and is more interesting.
Are there any "never-do's"?
Doing or saying something that is intentionally disrespectful of another person is a big no in my opinion. To me, the most important thing is to treat people with respect. I think this can be applied on a lot of levels, both within your team and towards the rest of the competition. You want to operate from a position of self-confidence, while being respectful of other people.
The thing to realize is that people sail because it's fun, because it's their passion—whether you're a professional or an amateur, everyone is there because they love the sport and because they want to get better. You have to start from that basic recognition.
You've sailed offshore in a wide variety of boats and races that test sailors to the core. What have you learned about great onboard dynamics and teambuilding through these experiences?
Offshore magnifies and exaggerates the inter-personal relationships onboard because you're there for longer periods of time. You don't get a break; you can't go to your hotel room. It's great if you have a good experience—you feel powerful, self-contained. Of course, the opposite holds true if you have difficult team chemistry. Hopefully you won't get into that situation!
You can form these incredible bonds through offshore sailing because you go through these intense experiences—more so than in a small boat—because [the sailing itself is] more threatening. The friendships that come from offshore sailing are pretty strong.
What have these experiences taught you about what not to do? Are there any mistakes to avoid?
I've pretty much made them all! [Laughs.] You try not to make the same one too many times!
It's important to think a lot more about safety and security. Most of it comes down to planning ahead and making reasonable decisions, which isn't always easy, don't get me wrong! But first and foremost, you need to live to see another day, so keeping the ship's safety in mind at all times is critical.
How about with One-Design sailing? What have you learned about great teambuilding on the various teams that you've sailed on?
I've learned from every partnership that I've ever been involved with. I sailed for many years with Libby, my wife. We have a positive skipper/crew relationship—she's crew, I'm skipper—so I learned a lot from that. Some people can't sail with their spouse or their partner but for us, it's an empowering experience when we sail well together. It's a nice extension of our relationship.
It's really good to sail with different people; I learn things from each person I sail with, I swear. So one of my goals is to sail with other good guys and to continue to expand my knowledge and make new friends. For me, this is why big boats are so great—you can sail with your friends and new friends come and go. It's an opportunity to have a high-level social interaction. Ultimately, sailboat racing is a competition, and unless you're singlehanding, it's an exercise in teamwork.
Is there a difference between the kinds of teambuilding needed to create a great One-Design team versus the team building that happens on bigger boats? Can you give me some examples?
Yes—Definitely. The more people who are involved, the more complicated it becomes and more hierarchy is needed. Everyone can't be at the same level on a bigger boat, so you need to make it clear who reports to who, who has responsibility for what, and so on.
In general, the same principals apply—No [jerks aboard] and you're fine! And communicate! The important thing to remember is that communication gets harder with a bigger team, and it becomes more important to keep everyone moving in the same direction. It's important on smaller boats, too, don't get me wrong, but it's a little easier to accomplish with fewer sailors.
More teams have issues because of poor communication, because of people not being honest and direct. This applies to everything from 'we're gybing in 30 seconds' to the direction the team is going, including the bigger-picture analysis of performance. All of that stuff should be out in the open. People need to buy into all of the major decisions. It's a bit political as you have to get people onboard—with good reason—and you have to convince them that what you're doing is for the good of the program.
At the end of the day, you have to try to sail with people who have good spirit. If you do that, none of the rest matters.
Who has impressed you the most as being a great one-design team leader?
The closest thing for me growing up was Paul Elvstrom—he was my role model. But he was much more of the solo operator, the one driven and smart guy. He wasn't a big team guy, although he did sail in the  Olympics in Los Angeles with his daughter—the same Olympics that I was in—and they came in fourth. They nearly got a medal. He was able to build a team with his daughter, when he was old and she was young, and they were able to compete in the Olympics in the Tornado at a world-class level. It was amazing.
What was the most rewarding One-Design team experience that you were a part of and why?
That's hard to say because I've been sailing one-designs for forty years, and I've had several super-rewarding experiences. The times that are rewarding are when you're able to build a team that you can take to a major championship and win. Those peak times are—from a competitive standpoint—when you're at your best. I achieved that several times in the Flying Dutchman; there was a time in college when I was pretty well in top form, and then later in the 49er, we got to a good level at times, and in the Melges 24, too.
Peak performance is that feeling when you're sailing the boat so well—the whole package, from the preparation, starting, boatspeed, boat handling—you've got it, you're on your game and it's working. When you have that feeling, it's usually the product of excellent preparation and all the other things that we've been talking about—the right partners, and making the right moves beforehand that got you to that point. But when you get to the regatta, you still have to perform; you've got to get the job done. Which is what's cool.
Is leadership and teamwork improved with practice, or is it an intrinsic quality that some sailors have and others don't?
It's primarily something that you have.
On the flip side, you can improve your style—everyone can—especially your use of language. I think everyone can find better words to express things. The way you ask someone to do something has a lot to do with how it comes across [to them]. Don't get me wrong—'pull in the jib an inch' is pretty straightforward! [Laughs.]
It comes back to treating people with respect. If you do that, people are likely to give you a better performance in return.