Fast track to the front

Published on June 30th, 2021

When the 2021 J/70 World Championship is held in the USA, it will be a victory for the sport. While there remain international teams with travel challenges, the entry list has 77 teams from 16 countries for the August event in Los Angeles, CA. That’s a win in this pandemic.

The escalation of effort in the J/70 Class has filled the parking lot at host California Yacht Club for months, with Cal Race Week (June 5-6) and California Cup Regatta (June 25-27) offering a taste of the conditions expected at the 2021 Worlds.

While past champions are pushing the fleet, it was newish skippers Ryan McKillen and Maggie McKillen which claimed first and fourth, respectively, at the California Cup. This report by Doyle Sails explains how this couple are now players:

Ryan McKillen’s entry into yachting was slightly less traditional than that of his fellow sailors – four years ago, he was based out of San Francisco as a software engineer and had never sailed before.

Fast forward to present, where Ryan and his wife, Maggie, now run one of the most competitive two-boat J/70 programs in North America and race frequently on their M32 out of Miami and Newport.

In 2017, Ryan was sitting at his desk with a view out across San Francisco Bay, with the yachts sailing past drew his interest, day after day – he grew up in Ohio and had no previous exposure to yachting.

Ryan enrolled in an introductory sailing course, enjoyed it, and began to research daysailer and cruising yachts. He stumbled across a boat called an E33, and reached out to the man behind the project, Robbie Doyle. With no knowledge of who Robbie Doyle was, and only a few days on the water sailing, Ryan gave Robbie a call and asked, “I want to go sailing; how do I do it?”

Not long after, Ryan was onboard Maxi 72 Proteus with Robbie Doyle and taking part in the famed Caribbean 600 on one of the most high-performance race yachts. From there, Ryan’s focus turned to race competitively while cruising fell by the wayside.

During the Caribbean 600, Ryan met Proteus’ tactician Mark Mendelblatt who offered some well-respected advice to Ryan about how he could get into some serious sailing if that were of interest, which ended with Mark suggesting a J/70. One design fleets were something Ryan knew nothing about but was by no means a deterrent.

It was an excellent opportunity for Ryan, and his plans for securing a J/70 became a priority when Mark commented, “If you get a J/70, you will love it – it’s a great fleet with a great bunch of people. I will sail with you for the first while, give me two years, and you will be on the podium” – which is exactly where Ryan and the Surge team find themselves today. With some enthusiasm and encouragement from Mark, Ryan purchased the J/70 179 from Judd Smith (Doyle Sails One Design expert and J/70 legend).

It is an immense commitment to have a husband-and-wife team running a two-boat program in the same fleet, but for Ryan and Maggie, this is part of the magic that comes with the one-design fleet that is the J/70.

Naturally competitive by nature, Maggie spent a great deal of time on coach boats with Tony Rey (professional sailor and director of Doyle Sails Newport) during the early stages of Ryan’s sailing and loved every aspect of it. When asked why Maggie began sailing, she said, “I asked so many questions in those early days. I was so intrigued by what Ryan was doing, and Tony was nice enough to answer them all.

“He sparked my interest in sailing and helped me understand what goes into sailing from the technical side. After a year or two of Tony watching me watch Ryan, he suggested that I start sailing myself. At the time, I didn’t take him seriously and didn’t give it too much more thought”.

In 2020, Maggie and Ryan had relocated to Miami, where Ryan asked her if she wanted to go sailing seriously and suggested purchasing another J/70. “I wasn’t sure,” continued Maggie, “but I know that I am a naturally competitive person and Ryan and Tony convinced me that it would be something that I would enjoy, and they were right.”

Maggie explained what it was like to come into a completely new sport with no prior experience, “As an adult, I didn’t have any sports that I was committed to wholeheartedly. We’re active people, and I do a lot of spinning and cardio, but there was no definite sport, so immediately it gave me the childlike thrill of being part of a team and committed to something exciting.”

Ryan’s team has a couple of years’ experience on Maggie’s, and the compilation of the team is what she enjoyed most initially. Watching Ryan form a successful crew and run his campaign at the highest level was a great example to follow – Maggie’s focus was now replicating that for her team. Maggie’s crew currently consists of what she refers to as “a group of brilliant sailors, who have also become our friends.”

In a male-dominated sport, Maggie initially found her entry into sailing a little daunting. To have a female skipper is one thing, but to have a female skipper that is entirely new to the sport is another – but Maggie made no secret of the fact that when she is out on the water, she means business.

“When my boat Magatron and Ryan’s boat Surge are out on the water, we are competitive, but there is a mutual respect that we share. Ryan is happy when he sees me doing well, and vice versa, but my natural competitiveness sometimes gets the better of me. I want to win,” she laughs. Ryan continues, “if someone is going to beat me, I would want it to be my wife and no one else and more often than not, I can at least rely on her for not always tacking on me.”

The two-boat program has taken both the Magatron and Surge campaigns to the next level as the pair spends all of their time before a regatta as each other’s tuning partners with their shared coach Tony Rey on the water alongside them. It is a perfect match and a campaign that has seen both teams improve considerably.

It is clear that both Maggie and Ryan share the opinion that people are the most crucial part of their campaigns. For Ryan, having the right people on his team was a non-negotiable “I was never going to compromise on the people. My whole life, both personally and in business, I’ve made sure that I have been surrounded by amazingly talent, who are also people I love as friends. No compromises. That is what I have with my crew,” comments Ryan.

With a fleet of J/70s as large as it is, you will always have differences in how people run their programs. However, Ryan has ensured that the Surge program is the best it can be. He continues, “If I make sure that the boat, the sails, the set-up is at its best, then everyone knows we can only blame ourselves. If we are getting beaten on the water, the responsibility sits with us as the sailors, and we have to figure it out, so I do what I can, when I can to make sure the boat is looked after well.”

For Maggie, her constant inquisition and interest in Ryan’s sailing has developed a sincere passion for the sport, and she encourages other women not to be intimidated at any point.

“Have fun regardless of the weather or the people and just embrace it. For me, it was very daunting initially, but it is a sport for anyone at any age. The people I have met are hands down the best people I have met in my adult life. It is a huge family, with very welcoming people. It is a great sport to be part of”.

Where to from here for Maggie and Ryan? Ryan confirms that his interest in yacht racing isn’t waning, and he plans on being part of whatever the premiere one-design fleet is in North America and for a long time, and currently, that is the J/70. He also plans to race offshore. For Maggie, the goal is to eventually compete against Ryan on an M32, but the immediate focus for the couple will be the transition into their new roles as parents, with a baby due in the winter.

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