America's Cup

Delivering the dolphins for the America’s Cup

America's Cup defenders Emirates Team New Zealand have done things differently by building their own boats for the first time, and so far, it's paying off

Sometime this week - if Huey, the sailors’ god of the wind and waves, obliges - 40 boat builders will venture out on to the Hauraki Gulf to watch their exceptional creation fly.

For many of them, this will be the first time they have seen Te Aihe, the dolphin – Emirates Team New Zealand’s first AC75 boat – in full flight.

Since October last year, the craftsmen have been head-down, tail-up in the bespoke boatyard that Team NZ set up on Auckland’s North Shore (its exact whereabouts is a closely guarded secret, protecting it from prying eyes and drones).

Geoff Senior, the team’s construction manager, will be like a proud dad.

“You never lose that excitement when you first see the boat in the water,” he says.

“That’s why it’s important to show everyone who built the boat what it looks like sailing. There’s a big difference between the boat we completed here [in the yard] and when it’s actually sailing.

“It will be an enormous boost for the guys. I’m really proud of them and what they’ve achieved.”

But don’t think for a moment that these boat builders can now sit back and watch the fruit of their labours at play. There’s a second boat to build before the 2021 America’s Cup, and their workload is swelling.

The Team NZ building crew with their masterpiece, Te Aihe, before it left the yard on the North Shore. Photo: Hamish Hooper, ETNZ

The defenders of the Auld Mug have done things differently this time around. It’s the first time Team NZ have built their own boat – and hired their own boat builders to do the job.

It means the team have more control over the build. And as chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge explains, it gives them the manpower to create something quickly, without having to wait for a commercial yard to fit the work in. “We can change the plan overnight, and just do it,” he says.

But the quality of the build remains the same. Many of the team have come from the Cookson Boats yard, which built all eight of Team NZ’s boats between 2000 and 2013.

The team snapped up many of the boat builders after the Cookson family closed the doors on their once-thriving business.

Builders like Peter “Peewee” Ockleston (who got his nickname as the shortest member of Team NZ). He's been building boats for New Zealand America’s Cup syndicates since 1990, switching between Cooksons and Team NZ – during the sharp end of a Cup campaign - for over two decades.

This time around, he admits, there's a notable difference. “Previously, Team NZ were a client. This time around we are the team; we’ve cut out the middle man,” he says. “But there’s definitely no difference in quality.”

Peter Ockleston (left) looking over plans in the Team NZ boatyard with fellow builder Callum Jones. Photo: Hamish Hooper, ETNZ

Ockleston spent a year working for pioneering Kiwi aerospace manufacturer Rocket Lab before joining Team NZ. He jumped at the opportunity to return from space to the water when Sean Regan, who heads Team NZ’s boat building programme, called him up.

Finding enough skilled boat builders, though, has been a mission for the defenders. In fact, they’re still on the hunt for more builders and experienced composite workers to construct the sister of Te Aihe.

“The search for boatbuilders is non-stop really; it’s been a battle for sure,” Senior says. “After the GFC, the whole industry contracted.

“We have 34 boatbuilders here now, and we’d like to have over 40. The more you have, the more you can do and the more that gets asked of you.”

Eight of the builders who worked on Te Aihe have gone with the boat to Team NZ’s home in the Viaduct Basin, joining the shore crew to tend to the boat’s daily needs. 

In the event of a catastrophe at sea, the North Shore builders will cross the harbour to help out the city team. In three months of trialling the revolutionary Te Aihe on the Hauraki Gulf, that hasn’t had to happen.

Team NZ have also taken on six apprentice boat builders in the last year. “One of the young guys, Josh Vogels, started straight out of school. He came to the interview in his school uniform,” says Senior.

Another, Jeff Kim, was working for carbon fibre specialists C-Tech during the last America’s Cup in 2017. The company, which has worked with Team NZ on five Cup campaigns, pulled all hands on deck to make an emergency rudder, and then new fairings and struts to rush to Bermuda, after the catamaran’s spectacular pitch-pole capsize. 

“Then I really wanted to get involved with the team,” Kim says. “This was my dream.”

Team NZ’s boatyard, all constructed by the team within the skeleton of an empty factory, is now almost a round-the-clock operation.

Senior calculates there are over 2000 man-hours of work done each week at the facility. “That’s the equivalent of one boat builder’s workload in a year,” he says.

They’ve just put on night shifts to manage the load.

Geoff Senior has had a hand in building nine Team NZ boats. Photo: Hamish Hooper, ETNZ

Senior was a competitive sailor – as a kid, he won the prestigious P Class Tauranga Cup – and started his career building wooden sports fishing boats. In 1999, he joined Cooksons and has worked on race boats ever since – including nine boats for Team NZ.

He moves between the two Team NZ headquarters, as the facilitator in the building process. Working with people like Scott Stokes, the build facility’s production manager, for 18 years, means communication isn’t a problem.

“It’s a unique relationship we have. I know how Scott works, and he knows what I can do - so when we’re transferring information, we don’t have to say much,” Senior says. “We don’t waste our words.”

Building the boats in-house is paying off, he says.

“We’re not building the boats any quicker. But you don’t have to fit the work in with an existing yard’s production schedule. That’s where the efficiency comes in,” he says.  “And the guys take a lot of pride in the boat.”

Sean Bull finished his apprenticeship in the Team NZ yard last week. The 21-year-old has worked at a string of Kiwi marine companies but says he’s glad he completed his hours at Team NZ.

“It’s really good working with the best boat builders in the world,” he says.

A sailor, Bull always wanted to build race yachts. And right now, these foiling monohulls are at the zenith of racing yacht technology.

“It’s a passion for everyone as much as it is a job,” Senior explains. “These guys build boats during the week, then sail their own boats on the weekend. They love it.”

Senior hopes this America’s Cup will showcase composite boat building and inspire a new generation of boat builders.

“Five years ago, I wouldn’t have recommended it [as a career] to my kids,” he says. “But now, it’s not such a bad career again.”

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