World Speed Sailing Record Council ratifies a new Class C record. Matthew Sheahan reports

It’s official, the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC) has confirmed that Simon McKeon’s wing sail machine is the first ‘yacht’ to officially clock over 50 knots on a 500m course.

McKeon and his team set the record in which the average top speed has now been ratified at 50.07 knots, on 26 March at Sandy Point Australia. This achievement leaves the team just short of the current outright world speed record set by kiteboard sailor Alexandre Caizergues. FRA who clocked 50.57knots over the 500m course on 4 October 2008.

The record raises the bar in the C Class record stakes, (vessels flying between 22-28 m2 of sail), smashing the previous record of 48.14 knots, which was also set by the same team last year.

Being the first to officially break into 50 knot territory will be both a serious cause for celebration and a huge relief given the stiff competition that has appeared in the last two years. Having been at the forefront of speed sailing since setting a new world record in 1993 aboard Yellow Pages, McKeon’s team has been committed to breaking into 50 knots for several years.

In the May 2005 issue of YW we published an exclusive interview with McKeon in which he talked about the campaign, the struggle to get to 50 knots, what it feels like to sail at such speeds and the future for speed sailing.


While full of admiration for the man who stole their crown, former speed king Simon McKeon and his team want their record back. In an exculsive interview, Matthew Sheahan talks to the Australian businessman who believes control is the key

The view from Simon McKeon’s glass walled office 23 floors above the ground provides spectacular and far reaching views of Melbourne and beyond, an appropriate setting for a quietly spoken, modest man with a reputation for looking beyond conventional boundaries. Few outside Australia would know what he looks like, such is his low media profile in the sailing world, but put his name alongside that of Yellow Pages, the craft he and his crew Tim Daddo broke the world record in and he becomes one of the best known sailors in the world.

In 1993 Yellow Pages set a new benchmark at 46.52 knots. She went on to hold pole position in the outright speed stakes for longer than any other modern craft, keeping McKeon and Daddo in the world record books for over 11 years. During this time McKeon and his team attempted to better their own record in a new design along similar lines, the wing sail, skimming pod craft Macquarie Innovation, but failed to better their 1993 performance.

In 2004 their reign came to an abrupt end as Frenchman Finian Maynard stuck 0.3 knot on top of their record to take the overall crown. A few weeks later, Macquarie Innovation crashed in spectacular style after the radical craft lost control and cart-wheeled into the air before hitting the beach. Fortunately both crew escaped without injury, but the Lindsay Cunningham designed craft was wrecked.

Five months later in April 2005 Maynard had proved his previous record performance was no fluke and had pushed the bar even higher. A staggering 48.70 knots set the new world record in its current position, a figure tantalisingly close to the magic 50knot marker.

Many see the half-century figure as a barrier, McKeon’s sees the issue in a different way.

“The notion of a physical limit on speed doesn’t occupy our thoughts at the moment,” he says. “We’d like to get our world record back and we may as well make it 50 knots at the same time. That’s really the only thing we think about now.

“At this point there are only two people who are up there, logging speeds consistently in the high 40s. But we haven’t set any records in a very long time and we don’t publicise what we do in our trials, so we know that in some respects we have to re-establish our credentials. We know that there is big interest from a large array of craft who’d like to get up there, but at this particular point it’s us and Finian Maynard.

“The remarkable thing about Finian is that he’s got something that many other people can get as well. So to distinguish himself from the rest of the sail boarding world is pretty remarkable.”

But while the Macquarie team might not seek to publicise their runs until a new record can be announced, there was little hiding the spectacular explosion of the wingsail in October 2005.

Early runs had boosted the team’s confidence.

“Typically our runs start low and the second half is always faster,” McKeon said recounting the event. “We went into the run 3 knots faster than we did on Yellow Pages during our record breaking run. We also had enough experience this time around to know that the controllability felt very good.”

But 30m into the 500m run and at 45.9 knots, disaster struck.

“We might have been lucky on the first run, but I think we would have done it on the second. I guess you never count your chickens.

“Having said that, the repair work is now largely done and we’re just totting up whether to go back quite quickly. In the next 2-3 months perhaps.”

So when is the speed sailing window at the Sandy Point speed sailing and surfing venue?

“Pretty much 12 months of the year,” he replied. “The weather down here runs typically in a six day cycle. All we’re looking for is a couple of days in a week when we can get a 20 knot south westerly breeze to come through with a front. We’re not looking for extreme winds or unusual directions, typically 17-23 knots in a quadrant that’s 50-60 degrees wide.”

That and the availability of the boat and the team, to say nothing of finding a window in McKeon’s busy schedule.

In contrast to many of the world’s sailing record holders McKeon, wears a suit and a tie more often than his sailing gear. As executive chairman of Macquarie Bank, one of Austraila’s largest investment banks and a company that is currently putting in a bid for the London Stock Exchange, McKeon is a well-respected figure in the banking world. He describes his role in the company now as being more part-time, but is well known for his work with various high powered committees and charities.

“I was lucky, I was one of the early birds in and although it’s been a fast ride at times, it’s been fun,” he says playing down his influential role in the business.

Among the activities that brought him to the attention o the business was his work as a director of World Vision, a company that made micro loans of $100 and less to help people break free from Third World poverty traps.

Moved by a trip to Mozambique after the civil war he was quoted in Australian newspaper The Age as saying, “I was overcome by the loss of hope that faced so many people, but I soon realised that it didn’t take much to return that hope. That’s where something like micro finance can achieve so much.

“These people might need a small amount to buy a weaving loom or two breeding pigs.”

A further example of his ability to look and see outside the box.

But back in the sailing world, where does he see the biggest challenges and just how many other projects are putting the pressure on his team?

“Controllability and steering is the issue, not speed. Speed has never been our problem, although it may have been for other groups. Our problem has been harnessing the speed that our boat can develop,” he said.

“One of the big issues is what the water molecules are doing at those speeds. On sailing boats, as opposed to power boats, we have high and low pressures on the rudders and that’s the challenge.

“A lot of the people who are working on speed machines are talking of control issues that they’ve experienced at 35 knots or 40. Aboard our boat it’s like a Sunday afternoon cruise at 45 or less, one hand on the steering, waving at spectators. It’s different as you approach 50.”

And it’s not just getting there that requires so much thought.

“We have a whole set of procedures to slow down, a landing procedure if you like.”

With Maxi cats and monohulls pushing up the speeds and with the Volvo 70s breaking distance records and talking of speeds in the high thirties, how likely is it that offshore boats will break the outright speed record?

“We have to acknowledge that huge strides have been made in the performance of large ocean going yachts. They might be able to get up in the high forties for bursts, but it has to be sustained for a period of time. Sailing our boat at 40 knots is relaxing, add another 10 knots and it isn’t.

“It’s terrific to hear of these 15 tonne yachts surfing down waves at 30-40 knots, but they’ve got to go 10 knots faster. There’s also an argument that doing it down the face of a wave is not legal anyway as you could be getting flow assistance from the water.

“My message to them is that they’re going to start experiencing things with controllability that we were dealing with several years ago. When they start testing the laws of physics on the items underneath the boat at 45 knots, they’ll start to back off.”

“Today there’s no threat from a multi-tonne ocean going yacht.”

What about the threat from board sailors? Since the eighties, boards have dominated most of the classes. Now they’re back holding the outright speed record.

“The sailboards are squeezing out the last bits of speed, we’re not,” he replies.

So just where is the ultimate limit, is 100 knots out of the question?

“Certainly not. We’re not spending any time thinking about it, but I just don’t believe in barriers. Our boat does three times the speed of the wind, our little America’s Cup boat did four times the speed of the wind. Ice boats are a good indicator that wind is not the limiting factor, the difference is that they’re running on a hard surface.

“Other factors like drag, controllability are the important issues.”

Aside from technical limitations, what holds his team back?

“Our biggest problem is lack of time on the water, waiting for the conditions. Finian would probably say the same, but the big difference between Finian and ourselves is that he’s operational for many months of the year and we’re just every now and then. We need a big team to do what we do and we can’t be on standby for 8 months of the year.

“If we get 4-5 runs in one day it’s a fantastic day. We have a tidal window of a maximum of four hours.”

When it comes to setting out the team’s plans McKeon is reluctant to go any further, keen to play his cards close to his chest. Open minded and a delight to talk to, there is nonetheless a level that McKeon won’t go beyond, even when asked about injuries.

” I’m not going to go there,” he replies. “I think Finian has hurt himself more than us, but we do have very good safety back up and anyway, waterskiers go faster than us.”

So what if McKeon is pipped at the post by another team?

“We’ve had our time in the sun, we hope we get it back again. But if some other extraordinary craft came along and blew us all away, we hope we’d be the first to congratulate them.

“At the end of the day we’re just fascinated by what mankind can do. But will our children go on and break 60 knots? That’s their challenge!