Meet Team NZ’s ‘golden girl’

Since winning the America’s Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand have had just two designers working full-time on conceiving a yacht, the like of which has never been sailed before.

One of them is Dan Bernasconi, the team’s technical director, with a glittering 25-year design career that includes working for McLaren’s Formula One team.

The other is 23-year-old Elise Beavis, a talented sailor in her youth, who came fresh out of university in late 2015 to join one of the most successful sports teams in the world. It doesn’t seem to bother Beavis that her boss was solving engineering problems well before she was born.

“I’m quite a lot younger than other people here; a new grad who’s not an expert in any area. But they’ve trusted me to do my job right,” she says. “I know I’m pretty lucky to have been given this opportunity.”

But Team NZ reckon the good fortune is theirs. Bernasconi says the team couldn’t wait to get Beavis – with her technical engineering nous and practical sailing knowledge - back on board for the 2021 America’s Cup defence. Her work in the last campaign, which included making the pedalling cyclors as aerodynamic as possible, certainly contributed to the victory in Bermuda.

“A lot of the other guys wanted to have a break after the last Cup, but she was massively enthusiastic to get back into it. And we’re really happy to have her back full-time,” says Bernasconi.

While he’s been in Europe this past fortnight finalising the design of the new fully foiling 75ft monohull with the Italian Luna Rossa team, Bernasconi has left Beavis holding the ropes back in Auckland.

The Team NZ base in Silo Park is a ghost of its former self. Most days, there are no more than 12 people rattling around inside the two-storeyed office and the swarm of shipping containers outside.

When Beavis meets you at the gate, in a Team NZ shirt and cut-off shorts, it’s clear she’s not the reserved, intense boffin you might imagine a specialist in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to be.

With engaging green eyes and an easy laugh, she speaks in a knowledgeable, yet understandable, way about the new boat – which is still little more than an animation, but has already put the sailing world in a spin.

“While the boat is totally different than anything we’ve seen before – with plenty of innovation and new stuff to come - it’s really been designed with the thought of how it could trickle down to mum-and-dad sailors cruising around the harbour."

The AC75 fully foiling monohull looks spectacular even in its virtual form – with its revolutionary twin canting T-foils that look like the legs of a Jesus Christ lizard running across water, and its ability to self-right in a capsize.

It’s also a bit of a chameleon, Beavis points out. At the dock, she says, the boat will look like a mainstream monohull. “But on the water it can take off and go as fast as – and possibly faster than - the AC50 catamaran. It’s going to be pretty exciting for everyone,” she says.

“It’s really the right boat for the event. We looked at a lot of different boats, right across the spectrum. We tried various compromises between what conventional sailing people want, and what people who love the AC50 cats like.

“But that just didn’t work. There is no happy medium. You had to go fully conventional, or fully foiling. And by going fully foiling, there’s a lot of room for development going forward.”

Although Beavis and Bernasconi are currently the only full-time members of the design team, eight other designers from Team NZ’s last campaign have worked part-time on creating this boat. There has also been collaboration from Luna Rossa designers in Italy.

Team NZ couldn't wait to get Beavis back on board for the 2021 America’s Cup. Photo: Hamish Hooper ETNZ

The chosen design is part of Team NZ boss Grant Dalton’s philosophy to create “affordable and sustainable technology” that can trickle down to other sailing classes and yachts.

A prime example is moving away from the massive rigid wing sails, which have dominated recent versions of Cup boats, to a rig that doesn’t have to be craned in and out each day. “That’s been a big part of Dalts’ vision,” Beavis explains. “When we say: ‘But what about if a wing sail is good?’ He says: ‘No, it has to be a sail that can go up and down’.

“While the boat is totally different than anything we’ve seen before – with plenty of innovation and new stuff to come - it’s really been designed with the thought of how it could trickle down to mum-and-dad sailors cruising around the harbour.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but this boat could probably be scaled down to 30-40ft, so more people could sail them.”

It definitely appeals to the yachtie in Beavis. “I look at what this boat can do on the simulator – it’s pretty fast, and definitely manoeuvrable - and I think ‘I can sail that!’”

You see, that’s another string to Beavis’ bow: she knows how to sail. She started off in an Optimist dinghy at the age of 9, sailing off Murrays Bay in the very waters where the next America’s Cup will be raced.

She advanced to sailing for New Zealand, at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. But instead of pursuing the sport further, she decided to buckle down to her engineering science studies at the University of Auckland.

“I faced the facts about girls in sailing. I could have done the Olympic thing, maybe I would have been successful. But you come back from an Olympics and what do you do? You can coach. There just aren’t the same pathways for women,” she says.

“I was always strong in maths and physics at school, and I wanted to understand more about why changing the sail set-up made the boat go faster. So I focused on the more academic side of the sport.”

She still sails on weekends in her Waszp – a single-handed foiling dinghy. And she’s already taking tips from “sailing” the AC75. “I am yet to successfully do a foiling gybe in my Waszp. So what I have learned from sailing the new America’s Cup boat on the simulator is the importance of keeping zero heel through a gybe,” she laughs.

Beavis hopes the opportunity will arise where she gets to sail on the real AC75. These boats require 12 sailors (compared to six on the cat), and Team NZ are allowed to trial two boats while the challengers fight it out in the Prada Cup. “Chances are we won’t have two complete sailing teams, so who knows who will get to jump on the boats?” she says.

“I faced the facts about girls in sailing. I could have done the Olympic thing, maybe I would have been successful. But you come back from an Olympics and what do you do? You can coach. There just aren’t the same pathways for women."

She’s proud of the fact she sailed on Team NZ’s radical AC50 during testing in Auckland, using a wind wand to test the flow of air over the boat’s fairings. “I crouched behind Pete [Burling] and the G-force going through the turns was pretty significant,” she says. “It was amazing; not many girls got to sail on an AC50.”

It’s very unlikely that cyclors will make a return appearance on the new AC75, so Beavis has moved to more programme-related work. Although it was her work in CFD at the end of her degree studies that led to the job offer at Team NZ, she’s now moving towards the field of performance analysis – comparing results from different configurations of the boat.

Now that the AC75 concept has been delivered, her work has only just begun. The design team is now focused on writing the class rule for the boat, before March 31 next year.

“We need to decide what limitations to place on the design so it doesn’t become crazily, stupidly expensive, and to decide the areas where we want the development to be,” she says. “Then once the rule is out, then we can concentrate on what we did with the AC50 – make it as fast as possible.

“It’s looking as fast if not faster, so who knows how much it could gain when we concentrate on speed?”

Beavis knows she couldn’t have arrived at her “dream job” any faster, but she thrives on the fact that she learns from the world experts in race-boat design every day.

“There’s always someone here I can turn to. If I’d done a Masters at university instead of taking up this job, I would have learned a fraction of what I’ve learned at Team NZ,” she says.

During our interview, my phone rings three times, from the same unknown number. When I finally answer, a slightly ominous voice demands: “Give us back our golden girl.”

I eventually figure out the voice belongs to Team NZ sailor Richard Meacham, who’s upstairs and wants Beavis to get back to work on this boat. It only reiterates how valuable this young woman is.

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