Ocean Deep Technology

McConaghy Boats

Everyone knows that ocean-going yachts, especially those built for racing, have to be built tough. But to see America’s Cup boats, or the sleek craft competing for the Sydney-Hobart, being thrashed by the waves is, for most people, to underestimate just how much of a battering the hull and all the rest of the vessel has to withstand.

Like a Formula 1 grand prix car, a top racing yacht is made mostly from composite materials that are much stronger than steel, easier to mould into complex or free-form shapes and usually lighter than alternatives. An F1 car has to undergo a 200km/h ‘crash test’ into a concrete barrier as part of its certification; the criteria for a racing yacht are hardly less stringent. So, as world-leading boat-builder McConaghy Boats is discovering, a rare expertise in the field of composites is a useful skill out of the water as well as in it – or under it.

McConaghy Boats’ General Manager Richard Stanning told us that the company cut its teeth and built its reputation on its ability to produce award-winning – and race-winning – sailing craft. Everyone knows Wild Oats XI (please see sidebar for further details), which will, between Christmas and New Year’s, aim for its sixth victory in the Sydney-Hobart classic. But this champion craft is one of a clutch of Maxi yachts that took shape in McConaghy Boats’ yards in Sydney; in 2009, for example, all of the top three finishers in that race were built there (Alfa Romeo II beating Wild Oats and ICAP Leopard III in third spot).

In 1967 John McConaghy founded the company, initially building 12, 16, and 18 foot skiffs, Tornado and A-class catamarans, Moths and other high performance dinghies out of plywood. But John soon began engineering and perfecting the vacuum formed foam sandwich, fibreglass/Kevlar construction method, which proved an immediate success. This reception prompted research and development into pre-preg composite construction techniques which proved ideal for constructing light, strong and stiff laminated structures. “The advantage of composites is that you can align the fibres to deal with the load parts. They are good in corrosive environments and have the ability to deal with magnetic or non-magnetic situations – for insulative properties in electrical installations, for instance,” Richard explains. Carbon-fibre can deliver the same strength as steel but at a fifth of the weight, while load distribution and complex-shape formation qualities are innately superior.

Moving to Mona Vale, Sydney in 1989, the company started making large yachts, masts, steering systems and foils for yachts in the America’s Cup series, Kenwood Cup, Maxi Worlds, Admirals Cup, Whitbread/Volvo and round-the-world record breaking multihull races. Current joint Managing Directors Jono Morris and Mark Evans took over from John in 2000 and embarked on a strategy to diversify, rightly assuming that such expertise as the company had now acquired in high-tech carbon and Kevlar formation had applications in other disciplines. McConaghy now develops and supplies light-weight composite solutions to the architectural, medical and automotive industries as well as continuing to produce a largely made-to-order and custom series of racing and luxury yachts and a range of ‘off-the-peg’ club racing craft such as the M38 One and Ker 40 (penned by UK designer Jason Ker and intended not only for higher performance around the racetrack but but also to win races on IRC and ORCi handicap systems), the Ker 46, and the multi-hulled MC Squared.

Quality and innovation have always been hallmarks of the company, says Richard Stanning, and its custom composite solutions are now applied to the rail industry, as one example. McConaghy produces for train-builder UGL an emergency evacuation ramp that can extend to 4m in length, carry one tonne in weight, and when stored be small and light enough to fit in a suitcase and be easily lifted and moved. “The ability to problem-solve and prototype, and to provide a composite solution, is something we have real capability in and we have done it now in numerous situations.” The racing yachts act as a kind of advertisement hoarding for the company’s abilities. “Years ago, those yachts could not have been built to take those loads or travel at those speeds without these technologically advanced materials.”

There’s a large input to the Deepsea Challenger submersible used in filmmaker James Cameron’s recent successful record-breaking descent to the deepest part of the world’s oceans. McConaghy Boats developed a solution for bonding more than 250 sections of the submersible’s core-buoyancy material – an extremely hard and high-strength composite foam structure innovated by Cameron’s team called Isofloat and forming the 5.8m main structure of the submersible. The craft had to withstand pressures in the 11km deep Mariana Trench of some 1,140 Bar (114MPa, 16,500psi) and at that depth was 60mm shorter than at the surface, such was the compression exerted. Cameron was quoted as saying: “It’s safe to say we couldn’t have done this without the McConaghy team.”

“All kinds of high-end composites, carbon-fibre, using temperature and pressure to cook the parts, are very much our everyday line of work,” says Richard. Much of the time, potential customers are seeking to push the boundaries of their sector and McConaghy has become adept at examining a situation and finding ways of employing its complex-shape forming techniques to produce a lighter weight and/or stronger item. “The package they get here includes project management skills and a depth of experience of working with composites, and there is also a creative element from working with racing yachts all this time that can be applied to other applications.”

Richard believes there are many industries that could benefit from McConaghy’s technology that don’t even know it yet (the firm has just done a project for the nuclear industry, and Richard says, “if you’d told me a year ago I would be involved in that, I would not have believed you.” The company has, he says, a workforce with a culture of continuous improvement and evolution.

The company’s Sydney base has become the focus for such work, which is quickly growing in demand, while the yachts – especially the one-class models which, though built to order, are essentially “production-line” craft – are constructed in its plant in Zhuhai in southern China (a Special Economic Zone adjacent to Macau). This plant, in its sixth year of operation, has already quadrupled in size from its original 2,500 square metres; the strong Aussie dollar and the after-effects of the GFC combined to soften demand for boats but the move offshore has helped reduce the effect on the company’s bottom line. Zhuhai is a facility with Australian expat supervision to ensure the same standards of quality as in Sydney.

Yachts and the people who race them remain a core focus for the company, along with breaking new ground and Richard imagines this will always be the case. “But pushing the boundaries in those areas has enabled McConaghy to help people in other industries with their applications, with our knowledge of strength and lightweight.” Until 1988, when McConaghy built Windward Passage II, the largest composite structure ever built had been the door of the Space Shuttle; with its expertise and equipment, including computational fluid dynamics engineering, the company thrives on doing complex-shaped things better, lighter and stronger.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:31 PM AEDT