No Excuses

Jonathan McKee and Libby Johnson McKee won the 1996 Tasar Worlds, sailed at the Gorge in Oregon, USA. 

NO EXCUSES.  Bill Symes' interview with Jonathon McKee after the 1996 Tasar Worlds - Part 1

"We thought through the whole thing before the regatta even began and had a very clear idea how we wanted to sail the regatta."

It was an impressive performance: six bullets in 13 races; throw-outs, an 8th and a 10th. The McKees followed a careful game plan, capitalizing on good boat speed, conservative starts, and an uncanny sense of direction in the oscillating breeze to separate from the pack and stay with the leaders. They also wisely managed to avoid the carnage resulting from nuclear conditions on days 1-3 (others were not so lucky, judging from the round the clock activity in Zig's on-site boatworks and hardware store!).

In the following interview, I asked ]onathon to describe his approach to the regatta, and hopefully provide some insight into what it takes to win the Tasar World Championships. Bill Symes

How did you prepare for the Worlds?

Our preparation began by making sure our equipment was in reasonably good shape. About a year and a half ago we could see the Worlds coming up and we had an old boat that had really a lot of miles on it. It was a fine boat and plenty fast, but we just felt the potential for something going wrong was probably pretty great. So that was why we bought a new boat, to eliminate that as a variable, or at least minimize it.

It was the same thing with the sails; even though they were a little over a year old, we decided to buy new sails before the Worlds to eliminate that variable. I wouldn't say that was absolutely necessary or really made much difference, but we didn't want that to be an issue. So our goal was to take away excuses, basically.

In other areas of preparation, we tried to sail as much as we could, especially in the stronger winds, and sail as much as we could in the Gorge to get used to those particular conditions. We also did a little bit of physical training in the couple of months leading up to the worlds, again trying to eliminate excuses.

What kind of physical training did you do?

The best way to physically train is to sail of course. Otherwise we just did a little work in the gym and some aerobics stuff. Not a lot, but just enough to feel better about the situation. A lot of it's just psychological; it's same with the sails: it's not that you need to have new sails, but you don't want--if you're going slow--to think that that might be a problem. It gets back to eliminating excuses.

What was your crew weight?

We were about 305 lb.

Did you replace any other boat parts besides the sails?

We replaced our shrouds, our gudgeons, and the rudder head --all the things which we thought could potentially be a break­down issue. After coming in after every day, we'd check everything we could think of that might be a problem. So at least if there was something that looked like it was developing a problem, we would be aware of it and fix it.

Did you catch anything that you had to replace?

No. We were pretty lucky as the week went along that we really didn't have any major problems. There was a lot of mast breakage at the Worlds, which is kind of unfortunate, l think maybe there was a round of masts that must have been bad metal. It didn't really used to happen, that lower sections would break. But anyway, seeing that and being aware of it, what we did was try to use a little bit less vang than we otherwise would have, and I know less than a lot of people were using. I think that takes a lot of the load off the spar. So our vang would max out at a certain point and we just wouldn't pull it on past that, even though it might have been faster. We didn't want to take the chance of breaking anything. We were also careful never to over-rotate the mast, especially if both shrouds were all the way back. That puts a lot of extra loading on the shrouds, as the one shroud wraps around the mast and tensions it up even more.

How much shroud tension did you use?

We went with what I would call fairly hard shroud tension. With one shroud all the way back and the other all the way forward, it was just a little bit slack. Normally when we were going upwind in anything over about 13, we'd have them both back.

Anything else on preparation?

The other thing that we did was that we thought very deliberately about the regatta and how we wanted to approach it and what our strategy was in any given situation. We thought through the whole thing before the regatta even began and had a very clear idea how we wanted to sail the regatta, which is probably in my mind the biggest single thing we did. What I came to was a realization that was probably just a matching of my sailing style with the race. So I decided not to start at the ends of the line, just to try to start in middle somewhere where I could be reasonably sure that I would have a clear lane and where I could have a vision of the course and would have the freedom to go either way. What happens when you start at one of the ends is that generally you're locked into going one way or the other. If you're sure that's the right way, that's OK. But there's also a fair amount of risk associated with that. So our whole goal was to try to just get to the first mark in reasonable shape, like in the top 10.

Our speed was really only average compared with the top boats. I don't think we had a boatspeed advantage. But what we were able to do was, after the start, get on the right tack, which was usually pretty obvious. Not always, but in many of the races the wind either had a northerly or southerly component to it after the start, so you had to just get on the tack which was favored, which I think we were able to do. It turned out that only a handful of boats did that--both got decent starts and got on the right tack--so half way up the first beat there were only 10 boats that were at the front of the fleet. From then it was mostly a matter of who was able to play the last couple of shifts coming into the mark in most of the races. So in my mind it was primarily shift-driven tactics. And in some cases there were also velocity gradients where there was just more wind on one side of the course than the other, which was also usually pretty obvious.

So getting clear of the fleet and being able to tack and not being part of a big clump did a number of things: it let you sail the boat normally without having to excessively pinch or foot, and it also gave you a good clear vision of the race course and just that feeling that you could tack when you wanted to and be on the right tack.

So you were starting close to the middle of the line?

Yeah, or if one end was favored we might be a ways down toward that end, but we wouldn't be right at the end. There were only a couple of races where we started fairly close to the end that was really favored. The main reason for that was 1) to have freedom to tack, and 2) to make sure we didn't get stuck in some morass at the start.

Some of us who tried starting in middle of the line didn't find the latitude to tack. How did find more room there?

It was generally less crowded. Sometimes if you had a good line sight you could be ahead of the boats around you. We utilized the line sight pretty extensively. We'd go to one end of the line and sight down it and find some sort of a landmark on the shore on the other side. Almost always there was something good that you could use. In fact, for a number of races the line was exactly the same, so once you had your sight, you could use it over and over again. The other thing is we weren't afraid to tack and take some sterns. If we wanted to go the other way, we didn't wait until everyone else was cleared out. We'd tack and go even if it meant we had to go behind some boats. More important to go the right way and get in a nice wide clear lane and then we were off and running.

What about current?

Interestingly, current played a very small part in this regatta. In many races the tactics were exactly the opposite of what you'd do if you were thinking about the current. The current varied quite a bit from race to race. Sometimes it was almost nothing and sometimes there was some, but even when there was it seemed the wind was still predominating over the current, which was a little bit different from many of the previous regattas that we've held there.

It seemed in the westerly that the left side was so much more favored than it ever has been before...

That was a very unusual situation. I don't know why that occurred but clearly there was more wind to the left and there was much more left shift to the left. In other words the more left you went, the more lift you got on port tack--even to the point where it paid to overstand, because you got more lift and you could reach into the mark. The first beat of the first race of the first westerly we just got hammered. We went out to the right where it seemed like it was going to work, and we rounded about 40th. And there were a lot of other Northwest guys over there too. But then we learned a lesson after that and we basically stuck to the left.

You mentioned that in one race you rounded the top mark in the 40s. What was your strategy for breaking out of the pack?

That was tough. Basically in that part of the fleet you're not going to get out of the pack. It's just a fact; there's boats everywhere. So we tried to calm down and not go way out of the way. Downwind you have to try to find lanes where you have decent clear air. You're never going to have totally clear air, but you can't let that worry you too much. We just tried to keep concentrating on sailing. Our downwind speed was pretty reasonable and by working around some clumps of boats we were able to pass a few. But I think our main gains were made upwind, especially on the last beat where we went from probably 25th to 10th at the finish just by going all the way to the left. So we just kind of learned the lesson from the previous beat and were able to make it work.

With everybody going left, how did you find a clear lane?

There weren't any clear lanes, really. We ultimately had a clear lane when we went further left than anyone else. So then our final tack into the mark we were able to gain a lot.

Were you overstood?

Yes, substantially. But that was good--better than the alternative of being in that line of boats all stacked up and everyone pinching each other off. We just went past them and reached over them. But that's fairly unusual, not really in keeping with most of our tactics throughout the regatta. Most of the time we would try to be leading the other boats back in toward the mark. In a normal situation, particularly in the easterly, we would have generally tacked to leeward of all those boats. But that was one case where we could see that the further out there you went, the better it got.