After New Zealand’s F50 was struck by lightning in Singapore, SailGP’s tech team faced a formidable task. From that moment, they entered a race against time to accurately assess the damage, undertake full structural testing of the platform, and repair or replace all damaged components to ensure the boat was fit for racing at New Zealand’s first ever home event on March 18-19.
The Kiwis’ F50 was being towed back to the Tech Site at the end of racing in Singapore when lightning struck the top of the 29m mast, resulting in the injury of Denmark athlete Martin Kirketerp. Once Kirketerp’s condition was cleared, attention turned to the condition of the F50, with Tech Team director Brad Marsh predicting ‘a lot of damage’.
The Tech Team wasted no time. While still in Singapore, they conducted an ultrasound of the platform known as ‘non destructive testing’. This was to assess Marsh’s ‘greatest fear’ - that the bond between the aluminum core of the F50 and layers of carbon fiber had been compromised - jeopardizing the structural integrity of the entire platform. The ultrasound was looking for ‘air gaps’, Marsh explained, ‘that had been blown up as a result of the electrical energy’. But none were found. “That was the first sign that the boat was still valid.” Had that ultrasound found air gaps, the conversation would have moved swiftly onto ‘talking about write-offs and Plan Bs’, Marsh said, but “leaving Singapore, we had some degree of confidence.”
Next was the decision of how to properly assess and adequately test the platform to ensure a ‘due diligence process’ had been followed. “The only way to do that is to put time and resources into a controlled environment, which is not what we have on tour.” So the team came up with an alternative solution. He realized there was just enough time to send the damaged F50 known as ‘Amokura’ back to SailGP Technologies in Warkworth, New Zealand and send Canada’s new F50, known as Boat 10, from SailGP Technologies straight onto Sydney. This meant a reshuffle of the F50 fleet ahead of racing in Sydney, with Canada taking delivery of its brand new F50 and New Zealand competing with Canada’s rebranded F50. Marsh said it was a result of ‘good planning’ that Boat 10 was ready at that precise moment, adding that it ‘would have been a very difficult decision’ had it not been. With nine boats delivered to the start line of Sydney, a thorough assessment and testing schedule could get underway on Amokura back in Warkworth.
But, as Marsh says, SailGP ‘lives and dies’ by shipping logistics and, with global strain on shipping, it took longer than expected to get the damaged Amokura back to SailGP Technologies. Each day that passed ate into the precious and limited time to repair Amokura in time for the long-awaited ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix in Christchurch. In the end, the team were left with just eight days to fully test, address and repair the F50. As a result, some of the Tech Team flew directly from Sydney to Warkworth to assist with the repair project. This meant that eight people worked on Amokura solidly across all eight days. The to-do list was long, consisting of structural load testing, electronic tap testing and repairing all damaged electronic and hydraulic components.
Once the platform was given the thumbs up after successful structural load testing, attention turned to tracking the path of the lightning. Lightning is, Marsh said, ‘incredibly hard to track’. As a result, SailGP Technologies called on the expertise of aviation firm Air New Zealand, which gave advice based on its experience of lightning strikes. “They helped us with tracking the lightning path,” Marsh said.
The team began tracing the ‘evidence trails’ of the lightning energy, which had ‘traveled all through the boat,’ Marsh said, ‘scarring’ the electronic and metallic components. “We could see from the electronic and hydraulic components that it had gone through all four corners of the boat.” The injury to Denmark athlete Kirketerp, who was holding onto a stay when the lightning struck, also proved that the electrical current had traveled the full length of the wing. “We could see where the lightning entered the mast by the hole in the top and we could see where it exited by the scar at the bottom of the wing.” While the electronic and hydraulic components within the wing were ‘toast’ and needed completely replacing, the carbon fiber had, Marsh said, ‘done an awesome job of simply conducting and transferring the electric surge, rather than absorbing it.’
After eight days of non-stop work at SailGP Technologies, the Tech Team had completed ‘80%’ of the componentry refit. With time of the essence, Amokura was shipped by train to Lyttelton where almost 20 people are currently continuing repairs on site. Marsh says he is ‘very confident’ that the ‘platform, foils and appendages’ are ready - but a challenge remains in repairing the wing, especially following the damage sustained to the fleet’s entire wing stock in Sydney. The team is currently ‘laying out the parts and pieces’ of the modular wings to complete ‘the jigsaw puzzle’, with the aim of supplying nine 24m wings for racing in Lyttelton.
The ability to assess, test and repair Amokura to such a tight deadline is, Marsh says, ‘a testament to the talent of the people who work for SailGP Technologies and resources’ they were given to get the job done. Thanks to the project, SailGP Technologies has also created an ‘interesting case study’ for the wider marine industry. “We’ve been on a path that’s new to the marine industry and new to SailGP, but we’ve been pioneering some good approaches and techniques which gives us a lot of confidence in the final decision.”