FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS IN NEW ZEALAND A QUARTER CENTURY AGO, SOUTHERN SPARS HAS BECOME A RESPECTED WORLD LEADER IN THE DESIGN AND MANUFACTURE OF COMPOSITE RIGGING SOLUTIONS FOR RACING AND SUPER CRUISING YACHTS ALIKE. ONE STEP AHEAD OF THEIR TIME AND COMPETITORS, THE COMPANY HAS EXCELLED IN PROVIDING THE MOST ELITE STRATA OF SAILING WITH SPAR AND RIGGING TECHNOLOGIES THAT CONTINUE TO GET LIGHTER. STRONGER AND FASTER. IVOR WILKINS LOOKS INTO THE STORY BEHIND THEIR GLOBAL SUCCESS.
Although much maligned for its protracted court battles, the 1988 America's Cup mismatch between the New Zealand big boat and Dennis Conner's fleet-footed catamaran was a watershed, not just for the event but for grand prix sailing technology.
KZ1, the massive Farr-designed monohull, embraced newly-emerging carbon fibre technology, including the towering mast, while Stars & Stripes stepped even further into the future with a hard wing sail.
Twenty-two years later, in the 2010 America's Cup, another ill-tempered Deed of Gift match revisited the wing concept when the BMW Oracle Racing trimaran powered away from Alinghi's soft-sail catamaran. In both cases, the Deed of Gift contests served as a circuit breaker, ending one Cup era and ushering in another.
Tracking parallel with this story of innovation and development has been Southern Spars, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
The company's beginnings go back to the transition from aluminium to carbon fibre around the time of the 1988 Cup. And, in last year's America's Cup iteration in San Francisco, Southern Spars was prominent again, supplying Luna Rossa Challenge with a complete wing package and delivering all the main components for the Emirates Team New Zealand wings.
Southern Spars originally spun out of the Southern Pacific boatyard in New Zealand, which under Tim Gurr was building Peter Blake's maxi-ketch Steinlager 2 for the 1989-90 Whitbread Race. Steve Wilson headed the team building the aluminium masts.
That operation subsequently went into receivership and Mark Hauser, Terry Gillespie, Chris Packer and Geoff Hurley took over the spar making side of the business, establishing Southern Spars Ltd in 1990.
The timing was perfect. These were forward-looking pioneers at a time when spar making was going through a quantum change.
The 1988 America's Cup led to the International America's Cup Class, which first competed in San Diego in 1991 as a prelude to the Cup series the following year. Carbon fibre rigs were still a new frontier and nobody was certain how the new technology would cope.
During that 1991 trial regatta, those fears appeared to be confirmed on a day of carnage. In moderate conditions of not more than 15 knots, halyards broke, steering systems failed, sails shredded, spinnaker poles shattered, a winch exploded in a French trimmer's face and a mast came crashing down. A shaken Bill Koch, making his debut in the Cup arena, damned the IACC class as dangerous and designed by idiots.
But there was no going back. The class thrived and, as it has done throughout its history, the America's Cup served as a high-level test bed for new technology. Carbon fibre had arrived and Southern Spars was in the thick of it, producing rigs for the Japanese Nippon Challenge campaign and the New Zealand Challenge.
Inevitably, technology tested and perfected in the crucible of grand prix racing, transferred to the cruising market. It is one thing to be bold with big-budget on-the-edge America's Cup yachts that compete inshore and are hauled and maintained daily by professional shore crew. Quite another to commit to similar technology with an offshore cruising superyacht, but Neville Crichton's nerves were up to it and his 32.6m Esprit was launched in 1991 sporting the world's first all carbon fibre superyacht rig.
Against dire predictions, the Southern Spars rig served the owners faithfully for more than 200,000 sea miles. It was still going strong when it took a direct lightning strike in Tahiti, ending the mast's two-decade career, by which time carbon fibre had achieved universal acceptance. This willingness to ride the leading edge of technology at the grand prix level and apply the lessons learned to increasingly sophisticated production and custom cruising yachts has seen Southern Spars expand into a highly respected international operation.
In 2003 the company was acquired by the North Sails Group, owned by American industrialist Terry Kohler. This year the group changed hands again when it was purchased by Oakley Capital and became North Technology Group. Southern Spars operates as an independent entity within the group.
From its ultra modern headquarters in New Zealand, Southern Spars employs 550 people with manufacturing or service facilities in New Zealand (grand prix and superyacht rigs), South Africa (masts for yachts less than 110 ft), USA (C Rigging with ECsix), Denmark (service and warranty), Sri Lanka (One Design rigs) and Spain (service and maintenance).
New Zealand's purpose-built 10,000[m.sup.2] facility handles TP52 race masts and bigger, including maxis such as Ran, Perpetual Loyal (Speedboat), Wild Oats XI, Ichi Ban, Alfa Romeo (Shockwave) the new Volvo Ocean Race 65s, America's Cup rigs, including the latest hard wings, as well as custom superyacht rigs and booms, which continue to grow in size and complexity.
Like the quest for ever-taller buildings, the constant growth of superyachts is now seeing owners contemplating 125m masts. "The booms are getting to nearly 40m," says designer Martin McElwee, who has been with the company since its inception. "That's longer than most superyachts used to be. The mainsheet loads are getting up to 70 tonnes. The compression loads at the base of the mast can be more than 400 tonnes."
These mega rigs represent massive undertakings of design, engineering and construction. Not only must they support the weight and loads of huge sail areas, they need to exactly align with the sail shapes, withstand huge multi-directional rigging loads and provide the internal motors and hydraulic systems to furl sails, control sail shapes, lock halyards and so on.
In addition, they must accommodate navigation and communication electronics, satellite domes, antennae, radars, lighting systems, all of which can demand up to two tonnes of internal cabling. Some also include internal venting systems for grey and black water tanks, freshwater washdowns, plus a degree of redundancy and future proofing.
The hidden design work, detailing, and engineering that goes into providing all this infrastructure is considerable and it is no surprise that these rigs represent multi-million dollar investments and can take a couple of years to produce.
Even before the commission is secured, considerable time and effort goes into creating detailed marketing presentations, complete with load studies, animated graphics, showing how the mast systems will operate, three-dimensional views inside and outside the rig down to the fine detail of halyard and reefing locks, hydraulic boom outhaul systems, furling and reefing operations.
Coming out of the grand prix circuit, square-top mainsails have become popular. These present new challenges in superyacht applications, requiring systems to control the top batten, moving it from its 45[degrees] deployed position to a horizontal furling position.
Virtually every aspect of the rigs is handled in-house, beginning on the design floor, where 27 designers and engineers work on specific areas of the project. Part of the arsenal is a propriety suite of software called Rigcalc and Membrain, which fully integrates the rig and sail design, so that the mast and sailplan work to maximum efficiency as a single propulsion system. Great attention is paid to aerodynamics and Finite Element Analysis in the drive to achieve the greatest performance for the least weight.
Walking through the design area, we stop at Spar Division Research and development manager Carrick Hill's workstation, which includes a 3D printer. He has just printed a fully operational half-scale plastic version of a 12 tonne headsail lock. These plastic versions are used as prototypes before committing to final manufacture in titanium, or stainless steel.
"The big advantage is that we can print out a complex part in about three hours, instead of three weeks in a machine shop. They are very accurate," says Hill, using his micrometer to demonstrate tolerances of hundredths of a millimeter.
This level of precision carries over into the production area, starting with the floor itself. When the factory was built, the concrete floor had to be absolutely flat to provide an accurate reference base. "The floor is accurate to plus or minus 1.5mm over an area of nearly 8,000[m.sup.2]," says sales manager Mark Hauser. This is literally part of a ground-up philosophy of eliminating variables to ensure precision throughout the manufacturing process.
The production area is basically divided into four zones: a clean area for cutting the pre-preg composite fabrics into fully indexed kits which are manually laminated into female moulds before being cured under heat and pressure in autoclaves; a dirty area, where drilling, grinding and fairing takes place, some of it using a six-axis robotic milling machine; a clean, fully-enclosed paint shop; and a final fit-out area, where the rigs are fully assembled and every element measured and checked before being dismantled and prepared for delivery.
Strict temperature and humidity controls are applied throughout the process and every mast goes through a thorough ultrasound check to ensure the integrity of the laminates.
In a held where all the top competitors are producing good products, everybody strives for a competitive edge. Thin Ply Technology (TPT) is a key feature for Southern Spars. This ultra-thin unidirectional pre-preg carbon fibre was developed initially for sailmaking, but Southern Spars have adopted it for spar making.
Most marine off-the-shelf carbon fabric comes in weights between 150-600gsm. TPT can laydown individual plies of just 25gsm, so fragile and lightweight that they have to be applied through a plotter; any hand contact distorts it and renders it useless.
This ability to lay down super-thin plies precisely aligned with angles of load allows for a much more refined laminate architecture. Designers can utilise conventional carbon fibre for the base structure and then apply TPT to extremely fine tolerances where additional strength or stiffness properties are required.
"Lamination accuracy is the fundamental thing that has to be right," says Hauser. "That is why we put so much effort in with TPT, clean areas, temperature control and so on. At the end of the day, the quality of the tube and the accuracy of the manufacturing system give us the edge.
"This is particularly the case with grand prix rigs, which have to be designed down to a specific weight. It means that if a mast needs, say 25.4kg of off-axis fibre in a particular area, we will achieve exactly that number. Using conventional lay-ups, it may be that the closest you could get would be something like 26.5kg. When you are designing to a finite weight, that level of precision results in a stiffer mast.
"When two yachts are sailing side by side, their masts may outwardly look very similar, but one is pointing higher than the other. That could be where even a five per cent difference in stiffness is coming into play."
According to Southern Spars, conservative weight savings achieved utilising TPT over conventional materials and processes are 6-10 per cent in a standard mast, 8-12 per cent in a standard boom and 10-25 per cent in a standard spreader.
Gains of this magnitude are gold in high performance applications. And, across the board, the emergence of composite rigging adds further advantages. "The weight saving benefits are massive," says Martin McElwee. "We recently converted a 52ft race yacht to our ECSix carbon standing rigging and saved 100kg. When you apply that to superyachts, you are looking at savings in the order of tonnes."
ECSix is celebrating its own anniversary, having been on the market for a decade. "In just 10 years, ECsix has sailed over 1,000,000 nautical miles in all conditions and has not had a single failure due to age, wear, waves, weather or water," says Scott Vogel, president of Composite Rigging, who notes the product has been installed on more than 500 yachts and undergone millions of loading and unloading cycles with zero degradation.
Contemplating the Southern Spars global operation, managing director Richard Lott is in a quietly confident frame of mind. "We are in a good space," he says. "We remain busy through all our facilities.
"The superyacht sector carries on with projects increasing in size and complexity. The racing market is coming back with the global economy showing signs of strengthening. There are more TP52s coming on stream, with mini maxis and maxis also showing signs of life. The Volvo 65s have been a good project for us and the Open 60s are doing well.
"In the One-Design area, the J70s have been a phenomenal success, with Sri Lanka producing 125 masts in a single month. Across the board, our portfolio of products is strengthening and Cape Town alone will double its production this year."
"The new ownership, under Peter Dubens, is bringing new energy and enthusiasm into the company. They are keen to develop the business and we are being pushed and challenged in positive ways.
"This is a hard game, but they are bringing new investment and talking in terms of 10-years or more, so we feel very positive." www.southemspars.com