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Southern Spars - North Technology

America's Cup - Southern Spars AC50 build for Emirates Team NZ + Video

by Richard Gladwell on 1 May 2017
27 years after Steinlager 2 won the Whitbread Round the World Race with Southern Spars, Emirates Team New Zealand’’s AC50, also built by Southern Spars gets an early work out in Bermuda Hamish Hooper/Emirates Team NZ
The Peter Blake skippered Steinlager 2 put Southern Spars on the map with her unequaled clean sweep of the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race.

Composite spars weren't new at that stage, but the engineering was not well understood. Blake's second Round the World race was aboard Heath's Condor the first racing yacht to use a composite spar - which broke on the first leg of four in the race.

Southern Spars, at that stage working from premises on Auckland's waterfront, built an alloy spar package for the race-winning Farr designed ketch but recognised that composite spars were the future and persisted with the development of the new technology alongside alloy rigs.

Despite winning the 1995 America's Cup using Southern Spars, it was not until the 2000 America's Cup that Southern proved that top quality spar design and construction made a significant racing performance improvement. The Millennium Rig developed for Emirates Team New Zealand to become the first team outside the USA to Defend the America's Cup, had many special features, several of which found their way into rigs designed and built by the company today.

For the past 27 years, the now North Technology owned composite engineering and spar making company has carved itself a reputation for building top end racing and superyacht composite spars which combine light weight with strength and reliability.

In yacht racing, those three factors translate directly into on the water performance.

Porting that expertise into the wider field of composite engineering is an obvious development for a company at the top of its game, and particularly one which has made a substantial investment in high-quality facilities and processes.

Getting acceptance in the architectural and engineering community, along with serious projects has not been easy, but two innovative sports projects have certainly given Southern Spars' capabilities real profile, including primetime television news coverage.

The first was the design and development of carbon wheels for the New Zealand Olympic cycling team, which like the Steinlager 2 project of 30 years ago links engineering excellence and innovation with sporting success.

The Wheels Project won an Olympic Silver medal in Rio and last week, the 2017 World Championship for the Kiwi team.

Olympic edge
A lot of the impetus in the Olympic sporting area comes from Rob Waddell, former world champion rower, Olympic Gold medallist and America’s Cup sailor. Waddell was Chef de Mission for the 2016 NZ Olympic team and has driven many of the new initiatives initiating the discussion between the sport and the composite builder.

“I have a good relationship with Rob, he knows what we do, and in his Chef de Mission role, he is always looking for that edge. He sees us as part of that. There are a number of things we can do in several sports,' says Mark Hauser, one of the founders of Southern Spars.

Hauser says that Southern Spars are not in the Olympic projects for the financial rewards.

Initially, they are not likely to produce a significant return. “They are no different from what we normally do. The Wheels has been a development thing for us, and we have put a lot of time and effort and money into that. But if you get Olympic and World Championship Medals, what better way is there of getting in front of a 100million audience? We get our brand in front of a massive audience – so the paybacks will come, we’re sure of that.”

The Wheels project began late - in mid-2016 and was done completely from within the Southern Spars design office. It revolutionised track cycling wheels for the New Zealand Olympic Track Cycling Team.

“On the Wheels project we got a lot of cool information from the cycling guys, but the design and development has been done by Southern Spars. When starting one of these projects it depends on what information and expertise the various parties can bring, what they want to achieve, and we see how we can work together to achieve their goals.”

Southern’s R&D and production teams produced a set of 32 wheels, which helped the NZ team set the fastest opening lap of a velodrome ever recorded at sea level and take home a silver medal from Rio.

Top team for AC50 build

Then came the call from Emirates Team New Zealand enquiring as to whether Southern Spars could build the hulls of the team's America's Cup Challenger?

Southern Spars was already building the two wingsails for the AC50, as they had done for both the New Zealand and Italian teams in the previous America's Cup.

“I absolutely knew we could do the job,” says Hauser. “We are perfectly well set up here, we have got one of the best carbon fibre manufacturing plants anywhere in the world, and some of the best guys to do the job.”

“Our relationship with Southern goes back a long way,” says Emirates Team New Zealand CEO Dalton, previously skipper of Steinlager 2's rival Fisher and Paykel.

“This is our sixth campaign together, so we knew that we could trust Southern Spars to deliver on the AC50 build. Their skills in carbon manufacturing - be it masts or anything else - are of the absolute highest standard. Producing the rest of the yacht at Southern Spars became a natural choice because of the experience and skills they have on offer.”

“For us, the AC50 was another fantastic opportunity to demonstrate our strength as a composite manufacturer,” says Hauser. “Our staff and facilities are as good as or better than any other composite manufacturer anywhere in the world, and we have built a yacht that is capable of winning the America’s Cup.”

Hauser’s sentiments are echoed by Emirates Team New Zealand management.

“Southern Spars is always reliable at getting a top quality job done on time, which is hugely important for us,” says Kevin Shoebridge, a crew member aboard Steinlager 2.

“Spar building is a very precise and controlled process, components are built to very tight specifications and weights, etc., so we were completely confident that what was designed and specified would be delivered.”

“The AC50 wingsail is a lot more complicated,” Hauser explains. “The way the wingsail is built and with the thin plys used, make it trickier. The hulls are one-design and very straight forward. The wing is a more complicated piece of kit.”

Building in an oven
Emirates Team New Zealand's AC50 is arguably the most technologically advanced yacht that the sailing world has seen - a wingsailed foiling catamaran capable of sailing at three times the speed of the wind, without winches - and just six crew four of whom provided the hydraulic pressure for sail and foil control using pedal power.

Building two wing sails took Southern Spars production teams 15,000 man-hours. Adding the hulls, dagger-board cases, aerodynamic fairings, and detachable bow sections to that accounted for another 14,000 hours. This made the total job equal to one person working a normal 40-hour week for more than 15 years.

The Protocol for the 2017 America’s Cup dictates that each team has identical hulls, built from a set of moulds provided by the defender. The port and starboard hulls are mirror images of the other with two hulls being “popped off” the single set moulds.

To maximise efficiency and ensure the accuracy of the build, Southern Spars set the moulds up inside one of their massive ovens at their 10,000 square metre factory in Auckland. The inside of the oven is three metres wide, four metres tall and 25 metres long. It is usually used for curing superyacht booms and wing-sails for America’s Cup yachts but was perfect for building the 15-metre long multihull.

A large temporary clean-room was erected and connected to the oven so that that material preparation could occur close by with staff were working inside the oven, laying fibre and core into the moulds.

“Having the clean room right there and the moulds set up and locked in place inside the oven made for a much better build,” says Steve Birdsall, build manager for this project. “It meant that all the materials were close by in an environment that we could control in terms of temperature, humidity and contaminants – which is how we like to work and is how we operate all our mast builds.”

Accuracy key
Aligning and fixing the moulds in place in the location that the hulls would be cured guaranteed maximum accuracy of the finished product. It removed any risk of movement or misalignment in the laminate that might occur while shifting the moulds between lamination and curing locations.

As with the size and shape of the hulls, their fibre content is also defined by the America’s Cup Class rule. Predominantly 150 and 300 gsm weight fibre with aluminum honeycomb core was specified by the challenger. Aluminum honeycomb is higher spec than traditional nomex, exhibiting better stiffness and strength properties.

The cost, and the fact that when left in salt water for extended periods, aluminum honeycomb will react with carbon fibre, resulting in corrosion of the core, means it is not normally used in building boats. For the ACC yachts, this is not an issue. They are hauled out after sailing each day and will not spend significant amounts of time in the water.

Because there were tight restrictions on the type of fibre used in the build, it meant that Southern Spars was unable to use their most advanced carbon fibre technology. Deep inside the Southern Spars factory is a carbon fibre plotter, which allows Southern Spars to place the thinnest layers of carbon at any orientation they desire with extreme accuracy and speed.

While the Emirates Team New Zealand ACC yacht met the weight tolerances of the rules - between 2,232kg and 2,432kg - the use of thin ply carbon could have made the yacht even lighter. The use of many thin layers at different orientations gives panels which exhibit strength in many directions while maintaining a lower overall weight and better resistance to impact and crack propagation.

Once cured inside the oven, each hull was brought out into a special fit-out area for assembly, where bulkheads, floors and cockpits are completed, and the top and bottom halves of each hull are joined.

Both hulls were painted on site by Southern Spars paint team. They were lined up end-to-end inside Southern Spars’ huge paint booth, which is temperature, pressure and humidity controlled to create the optimum painting environment. The booth stretches 62 metres long, making it the longest paint booth in the southern hemisphere.

Well accustomed to working within weight guidelines, the paint team measured every millilitre of paint that went into each coat, ensuring the hulls did not deviate from their specified weight targets as they progressed through the final stages of production.

“The AC50 project has been a great one for us, says Mark Hauser. 'We’ve had a long relationship with Team New Zealand, and it has all worked well. It’s a win/win for both of us.”

Next project is the Volvo Ocean Race, where Southern Spars have supplied the spar package for the eight boat fleet racing around the world on a 45,000nm course.

Another repeat customer.

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