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America's Cup: C-Tech from Cup sail battens to superyachts and high-profile aerospace projects

by America's Cup Media 22 Oct 2020 13:48 NZDT 22 October 2020
C-Tech moved into purpose built facilities ten years ago © C-Tech

Eighteen years ago Kiwi composites company C-Tech moved into a few converted pig sheds in West Auckland and started working with Emirates Team New Zealand on its 2003 campaign.

“It was early days back then. We had 5 employees or so, now we’ve got 50.” Managing Director and marine engineer-turned-boat builder Alex Vallings says the business began with his own passion for sailing.

“I sail fast racing dinghies, 12 foot and 18 foot skiffs and have done so for years. I used to build 12 foot skiff hulls back in the day and always liked to experiment with different ways of doing things, beyond the conventional. That’s where I learned how to use carbon fibre and that’s really where the business came from - me just sailing around Auckland Harbour and making parts for my own boat and then other people getting beaten by me, and wanting parts, masts and foils as well.”

Then Vallings just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

“I was fortunate enough to go to the start of the Volvo Ocean Race in 2002 and all the teams were kind of moaning about their sail battens, so we got together with a few guys and said how can we design the ultimate batten? We came up with a few ideas and I ended up going into Emirates Team New Zealand later that year with a few short samples and having a meeting with Tom Schnackenburg, Burns Fallow and about five or six other designers.

“That first meeting was pretty intimidating. But after I got on the sail loft floor with the guys, it was pretty easy to talk to them and they were quite realistic about where the team was at. It wasn’t nearly as high tech as it is now. More grass roots - which is kind of where I came from really. I turned up out of the blue as a man off the street pretty much.”

But Emirates Team New Zealand liked what they saw.

“So we went ahead and made a whole set of full length versions and they tested them to see if they could break them. Turned out they were lighter and stronger than what they had been using, so we ended up signing an exclusive deal to supply them as the Defender and Alinghi as the Challenger. That set us up with a bit of cash to develop the machinery a bit better and the processes.”

And C-Tech took off, literally. Exploring the market outside the America's Cup they started making battens for superyachts and racing boats around the world and are now working on high-profile aerospace projects.

For the last ten years the company has operated out of a custom-built factory on Rosebank Road, Avondale.

“We’re still supplying sail battens to the Team, all teams actually, and essentially, in terms of the manufacturing they’re still the same as what we were producing back then, nearly 18 years ago. But the accuracy we can produce, and the specifications that they can define in their FEM models and computer simulations of the sails is a lot more accurate so it puts a lot more demand on us. Back in the day it was all by the seat of our pants a little bit, we’d just make it to see if they’d try it.”

Sail battens remain C-Tech’s biggest product but they also produce foils, masts, spars, and complex componentry for the marine industry as well as composite products for the aerospace, industrial, sporting and agricultural industries. Using high spec materials, a 5-axis CNC router, plotter, autoclave and world-class clean room capabilities, C-Tech has a wide range of male and female manufacturing processes, with imagination the only limit on product design.

Vallings says working with Emirates Team New Zealand is fun but far from easy.

“Especially on the custom projects, they can still be designing and drawing up the items we’ve already started to manufacture. But that’s how it has to work. So yep it’s demanding, but it’s also a case of give and take. We’re building world-class design. That design gets passed down, ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of if you weren’t working for a team like that. Obviously you can’t use it on a product that’s competing against them, but it might pop up as an idea on a totally different application.”

And he says Emirates Team New Zealand are keen collaborators.

“You can always have a chat with them if you’re struggling with the process. They’re full of advice if you’ve got a problem. We’re not just left with a drawing high and dry. They’ll come in and have a meeting about it. They want to be in the know of how we intend to process it and want to help with that process to get the best product possible.”

Vallings believes the America’s Cup is vital to New Zealand’s marine industry.

“I’d struggle to think where we’d be if it wasn’t for the America’s Cup. We’ve had 25 years of marine industry growth because of it. Since we lost the Cup it’s been on the decline a wee bit in that we’ve lost some of the technical skill from the industry. Also a lot of the old school boat builders are getting older, so we do have to train, from scratch either from school or from someone coming from another trade. Last year we had 5-6 apprentices qualify, this year we’ve only got 2 in process but that’s probably because most of our staff stay with us quite a long time.”

29 year old Blair Walker is a good example. He joined the company 12 years ago straight out of school.

“I was fresh out of school and kind of lost. I was looking for training on the job and got in touch with Alex and became a composite technician - just a grunt really but it was my first proper full time job.”

After completing his apprenticeship two years ago he’s now a team leader in the manufacturing department and extremely proud of the work he does for Emirates Team New Zealand.

“You see the boat flying round and think wow, we built some of that - you get a real kick out of it.”

And although Walker admits he’s no sailor, “I’m more of a fisherman myself and you can’t fish on sailing boats, it’s too hard”, he says the America’s Cup is good for the economy.

“I started at C-Tech during the last big recession. Sensation Yachts had just gone under, then Alloy went a few years later. Having the America’s Cup is good for us and good for the marine industry.”

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