For its third move in five years, Composite Builders LLC dropped anchor in 30,000 square feet of warehouse space in Holland, Mich., invested $750,000 and added employees.
Now it's all hands on deck to finish building one of the most sophisticated sailboats ever.
Composite Builders was selected by Stars + Stripes Team USA to craft its carbon fiber vessel for the 36th annual America's Cup race in Auckland, New Zealand. Set for March 2021, competitors will vie for the oldest trophy in international sports — it dates back to 1851 — sailing in a futuristic class of yacht dubbed AC75.
The AC75 design calls for a 75-foot monohull that has no keel but can right itself in the event of a capsize. The groundbreaking concept is achieved with twin canting T-foils that are ballasted to provide roll stability and return the ship to its upright position.
The T-foils are a combination of computer numerically controlled-cut, high-tensile steel and molded carbon fiber, Composite Builders founder and CEO Brian MacInnes said in a phone interview. The parts make up some of the ballast so the weight of the steel is needed, he added.
An electronically controlled hydraulic foil cant system with more than 400 components will control the roughly 13-foot composite foil arms and wings, which will be maneuvered for stability, lift and speed. The system was supplied to each team as a safety precaution and to help control costs.
A smaller test model of the AC75 sailboat was likened by one observer to a "nautical insect" that "rises up on hydrofoils and slices across the top of the waves."
MacInnes said: "Building a large structure like that is very exciting and incredible for the business. For us, it's not just another large component, but a complicated one. There are a lot of different bits and pieces. It's a great challenge and a great thing to be involved with."
MacInnes opened Composite Builders in 2014 after retiring from professional sailing. He had competed in six bids for the America's Cup and twice was on the winning Oracle Team USA, plus he was involved with the design and construction of the yachts he raced. MacInnes learned about tooling, lamination and performance testing.
The U.S. location of MacInnes's business also was important, Stars + Stripes Team USA CEO Justin Shaffer said in a news release.
"For a number of reasons, including the outsourcing of the design and build of yachts in the past, there are a smaller number of American yacht designers and boat builders skilled in creating this new breed of foiling America's Cup yachts," Shaffer said. "What excites us about our grassroots vision for Stars + Stripes Team USA is that it creates new opportunities for the next generation of American boat builders and designers by having our all-American team learn from global experts."
To tap into those industry experts, the Stars + Stripes team purchased a design package for its AC75 race yacht from Emirates Team New Zealand, which is the defending champion from the last race in 2017 as well as the team that developed the 2021 foiling monohull concept.
A 62-page rule book regulates all aspects of the boat with the goal of having a fair and exciting race while giving builders freedom to innovate.
For example, boat builders can choose from several permitted core materials, inculding specific kinds of aluminum honeycomb that may be surface treated to prevent corrosion; the DuPont-developed Nomex-brand honeycomb or its equivalent; timber; or plastic foam.
For the Stars + Stripes team, Composite Builders will use mostly intermediate modulus carbonate over a honeycomb Nomex core as well as high modulus carbonate for high-stress areas. The Nomex honeycomb, which essentially is paper dipped in phenolic resin, is sandwiched between two layers of carbon fiber.
"It will be extremely lightweight and extremely strong for its size," MacInnes said. "You're talking about a 75-foot boat that will weigh around 6 tons with crew and rig and everything. The load factors on it are quite incredible. You've got to use the best of the best."