The spectacular evolution of NZ sailing over the last half-century is punctuated with design visionaries who did things ‘differently’. Comparing two from either end of this 50-year spectrum – their education, design approach and tools of trade – makes for a fascinating contrast, writes Mark Seabrook.
Exhibit A is one of the country’s best known designers – Alan Wright – something of a pioneer in our yachting legacy. A major contributor to the developing marine industry in the 60s and 70s, he has more registered yachts to his name than any other Kiwi designer. Like many of his peers, he was self-taught, most of his education coming through observation and trial and error.
Half a century later, Exhibit B is represented by Dan Bernasconi – veteran of multiple America’s Cups and head of the ETNZ design team, currently teasing the finer points from the radical AC75 foiling monohulls in the Viaduct Harbour base. At the pinnacle of Kiwi yacht design, this team comprises multiple engineers with degrees in obscure, difficult-to-pronounce disciplines.
Wright and Bernasconi – same industry, similar concepts – but they may as well be living in different galaxies. One wields a pencil with grace and dexterity – the other a mouse with the finesse of a surgeon.
Wright’s career, he admits, began inauspiciously. “I was a full-time tutor in the NZ Boat building Apprenticeship scheme in the early 60s – I never thought yacht designing was for me, and you might say I came across it quite by accident.”
A cheeky student provided the trigger, challenging him with: “What do you know about the subject? How many yachts have you designed?”
“I knew right then I had to meet the challenge. My first boat was a 28ft shoal draft keel yacht that featured in Sea Spray. To my surprise, I sold three sets of plans from the article – my design career was under way!” Above all, ‘family boating’ shaped his thinking. While his contemporaries in the early 70s had a speed/racing bias, there was also a growing market for amateur boat building and family-orientated cruising and club races. Wright focused on the cruiser/racer concept.
The galley, for example, became more of a feature, with a surrounding view. They’d typically been very basic, tucked into tight corners. Comfortable cockpits offered more space for socialising, and berths were more expansive. He also introduced subtle hull tweaks. “It was the little things that, when added up, made the difference – just a sequence of small changes in the right direction.”
Overall, his design approach was for a safe yacht, easy to sail and comfortable for a family – with the crew in the comfort of the cockpit rather than perched on the rail. He brought the centre of buoyancy and keel position aft to account for the crew weight and used more beam for greater stability and cabin capacity.
“My designs did sacrifice some speed, but with the moderate displacement you could load the boat with a week or two of provisioning and speed loss was minimal. Lighter displacement racing boats were more sensitive to weight.”
Still, performance was important. “After a weekend of cruising, people often had to beat into the prevailing south-westerly to get back for work on Monday. Boats had to perform, so my boats were also very race-capable.”
Wright made it his business to belong to several Auckland yacht clubs, giving him the opportunity to talk and listen to people in the boating market. He also networked with boat builders and other designers. “This gave me a very good source of design ideas.”
Perfection, he soon decided, was unachievable because there was always room for improvement. “You’ll never succeed if you think you’ve got the best boat – because design never stands still.”
Yacht design in the 70s was an entirely manual affair. Every line, curve and calculation used a few basic tools of the trade. Each set of plans began with working sketches drawn with a simple clutch pencil on A1 paper. Once the offsets and dimensions were extracted, a sheet of tracing film was overlaid, and Wright would ink all the line work and scribe his notes into what he refers to as ‘the permanent copy’.
Varying lengths of wooden splines made of hickory and pinned down by weights were used to create an overall curvature – the designer needed a good sense and ‘feel’ for the lines he was creating. Wright says his most important tool is the planimeter – used to determine the area of each hull section taken from the calculated displacement curve for each design.
For accuracy, each section was drawn twice and their ‘average’ provided the desired area – something a digital designer today could achieve with a simple keystroke. As with design, his draughtsmanship was entirely self-taught and the artistry of his drawings is particularly impressive. Their fine detail could easily pass for ‘digital’ drawings.
“I soon realised that to sell plans, presentation was an important and necessary part of my job,” he says.
The 36th America’s Cup will showcase the new AC75 foiling monohull and, as Head of Design at ETNZ, Bernasconi is excited: “The multihulls have had their time and it’s time to take the Cup in a new direction. Traditionally, defenders stick with the class they’ve just won; but we saw it another way and we have the trust in our tools and the experience of our design team to deal with the innovation.”
Bernasconi’s design world is digital – it involves very powerful computers and rarified design/simulation software. He’s totally unfamiliar with the wooden splines of Wright’s era – and last used a design pencil doing technical drawing at school.
After an engineering degree at Cambridge in England and a spell as a structural engineer, he began working with Formula 1’s Team McLaren. “It was a great training ground and provided an opportunity to work alongside some very clever people. I enjoyed learning and working with high-end mathematical modelling – it represents the physics of a vehicle in software to predict its performance.”
Though it sounds like a dream job, Bernasconi had little interest in cars or Formula 1 and even had to swot up on the race results every Monday morning after a Grand Prix. After six years he knew furthering his career required a move and wrote to the America’s Cup teams. ETNZ turned him down with one question: “What do you know about boats?” Instead, he joined Alinghi with an agreement to complete a PhD with the team. It was a baptism of fire working on the huge multihulls of the 33rd America’s Cup as he was suddenly thrown into running the VPP (Velocity-Prediction Program – simulation software) and developing daggerboards and S-foils. After the Valencia event, he spent time developing his own VPP tools before submitting his CV again. This time ETNZ offered him a position – he’s been there ever since.
Performance yacht design today, he says, is centred on VPP tools. These tools are developed in-house and are proprietary to each team. “To be leading the game in performance, you have to be leading the game in the VPP tools you’re using and developing; they’re in a technology race of their own,” he says.
These days, he spends less time on software development and the tools used for the new AC75 are now part of a combined ETNZ effort – the IP of which belongs to Bernasconi and his partners. So advanced are these VPP tools – and the trust in them – that ETNZ no longer tests in a tank or wind tunnel. They’ve not even built a smaller test boat – it’s straight into the first full-size boat.
“Although this was well-debated, we’re at the point where the simulated approximations now are smaller than that of the testing environment, and in any event the timescales didn’t fit. This allows us to focus our limited resources on simulation and the build of our first AC75 – launch it early and get it right.”
He concedes this strategy could be vulnerable. “Other teams will learn things we won’t know until we get out on the water.” Another vulnerability is the limited ability to spot ‘opportunities’. “Because we developed the new class rule, it’s harder to spot the gaps in our work. We’re doing our best to forget what our intentions were when we wrote the rule and to look at it with fresh eyes to see what it actually says – rule interpretation is where opportunities can be discovered.
“It’s such a radical boat, and the design team’s first priority is about getting the basics right: balancing the boat, getting the foils and the rudder in the right place and the right shape – all balanced with sailability. Without a crystal ball, it’s hard to know what’ll be the differentiator. Maybe something radical in the control systems, as with the cycling last time – but it’s mainly about getting the basics right. It’s very easy to get them wrong,” he warns.
These days, designing America’s Cup yachts means including the crew in the earlier stages. Ten years ago, the sailors would turn up when the boat was launched – the design was done in complete isolation. “Right now, the sailors are spending hours every day sailing the virtual boat alongside the designers, and that exchange is very important. As designers, we can’t sail this boat in simulation nearly as well as they can, and we designers need that interaction.” Similarly, the boatbuilders were involved in the early design stages to consider any practical constraints in the build.
Designers will be monitoring the boat in real time from its launch and right through the Cup itself. “There are some highlyloaded structural components such as the forestay (up to 15 tons) and the mainsheet (6-7 tons), plus the G-forces as the boat manoeuvres will be higher with a longer boat”, says Bernasconi.
“We’ll be running high-frequency strain gauges using embedded fibre optics in the carbon fibre components to get accurate data live to engineers to analyse from the chase boat. We’ll also be streaming data and video back to the design office for analysis – that means the design team doesn’t need to be going out on the water every day.”
He can’t imagine what the America’s Cup will look like in the next design generation as it’s changed so quickly just over the last three campaigns. “Going from non-foiling to foiling was a huge jump in performance. If there was another jump in boat speed, it could be about getting past the cavitation barrier which is currently around the 45-knot mark. But we’re very much focused on March 2021, after which the world ends and there’s no consideration for life after.”
Ironically, Bernasconi’s passion for recreational sailing is anchored in the period when Wright was a leading designer – he owns a 38ft Townson. “She’s a very different world and a nice contrast from work. I don’t race her – I just love to hoist some sails and decompress. We’re so lucky to have the beautiful Hauraki Gulf on our doorstep. I never want to leave, but you never know with this job. Challengers follow the winner to the next defending country – that alone is a huge incentive to win.”