"C-Tech extending technology from skiffs to America's Cup and beyond"
Richard Gladwell, Sail-World, April 2009
'C-Tech’s Alex Vallings is a familiar sight on the Waitemata at the helm of a 12 or 18ft skiff.'
Most associate the name Alex Vallings with skiff sailing.
He's better known for bouncing down the Waitemata harbour tightly attached to a trapeze wire, extended tiller in hand, and to most people's minds only barely in touch with reality. Alex is a sailor, most comfortable at the extremes of the sport.
During the week, he's also involved at the extremes of the sport – making very light and exotic sail battens for all manner of yachts and their sails.
C-Tech has extended carbon technology developed for skiffs into Volvo Ocean Racers, America’s Cup and Superyachts, plus racing dinghy classes.
His company C-Tech is the world leader in the field – having supplied all of the 2007 America's Cup fleet, the whole of the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race fleet, and a growing fleet of superyachts.
A fitter and turner by trade, Vallings started C-Tech to make 49er wings for Mackay Boats.
'We made wings for nine years, and now Dave is making them himself because we got too busy doing other things. They were predominantly fibreglass made in moulds. There was a little bit of carbon in them. For us, it was a bit of a learning curve to start off with.
'Right from the start I’d been playing around with 12ft skiffs. We made what I believe is probably the first carbon mast in New Zealand for a skiff. Tim Bartlett and I made it in a garage. That went really well. We won some of the races in the Interdominions by more than 15 minutes. It got busier and busier making rigs and foils, and sails, too. We made 11 or 12 rigs.
From that garage, Vallings has moved the business several times. Mostly to fit with other work he had nearby. Seven years ago they moved into fulltime operation in west Auckland.
Sailbattens are made from square carbon tube, produced at C-Tech.
All the C-Tech products are made on mandrels (milled stainless steel tubes which are a male mould for the component), as opposed to buying preformed tube and just adding fittings to build the finished product.
'The first spar we started was a prod first, and that was just wet laminate with unidirectional. That was shrink wrapped using a thin tape, similar to what we do now, but in wet laminate. We didn't have the machines to put on the shrink tape as at present . It was done by hand, and by eye, with someone cranking it at the end.
'Then we started making the masts and couldn't use the same method as with the prods, so we got some prepreg and started using that.'
Construction of dinghy and skiff spars now form a significant part of the C-Tech business - extending to Javelins, 3.7's, and OK dinghies. ' They go all over the place', says Vallings. 'Mostly to New Zealand and Australia, but also there’s been quite a few orders this year to Europe. Karl Purdie won the World’s with one of our masts last year, so its been quite a busy period for the OK mast side of the business. All told, C-Tech have made more than 50 3.7 masts and around 185 OK masts – mostly for the Australian and New Zealand markets.
Karl Purdie (NZ) won the 2008 OK Worlds using a CTech spar, CTech have produced 185 of these masts for the OK class.
For C-Tech, sail batten construction started in 2002, when Vallings made a trip to the start of the 2002/03 Volvo Ocean Race.
'Illbruck (the eventual the race winner) were just crying out for some decent sail battens. The ones they were using at the time just weren’t up to the job.
'I talked to a few people up there and started mentally designing what I thought was the ultimate sail batten.
'When we got back to New Zealand, sail makers were having the same issues with some of the big boats not having anything to put in the sails which would do the job. They were trying round battens and some from Canada – wooden battens with fibreglass on the outside.'
'They were derived from archery bow technology, which is fibreglass over wood. Quite good battens, but were enormously heavy. You’d be talking something like over 200 kilos for a set of battens for a super yacht.
'We cut that down to between 30 and 50 kilos'.
Alinghi and Team New Zealand were the first to use CT-Sailbattens in 2003, in 2007 Alinghi, plus all Challengers used CT-Sailbattens.
It was the 31st America's Cup in Auckland in 2003 that opened up another new market for C-Tech. 'In 2002 we made a little tiny sample batten for a meeting at Team New Zealand, I had been telling them that I could make new sail battens for them.
'I walked into a meeting and there’s six designers and head honchos and staff sitting there
'They told me to make one for them to try it out. Team NZ couldn’t break the first one and then commissioned a full set. At the same time I’d gone to Alinghi with a single pattern, as well. They tried it and wanted them as well. I negotiated to do an exclusive deal - one challenger and one defender.
'It just so happened that Alinghi and Team New Zealand were in the final so it was a perfect scenario for C-Tech. Both teams were really open with their information and that helped me. It was a good partnership development.
'We did well on the first sets getting the stiffnesses right. Of course they were lighter and stronger and we ended up being able to make them more consistently than what they’d been using previously. We would have made probably 15 to 20 sets of battens each for both of those teams – probably more with spares during that Cup.
Wild Oats XI used CT-Sailbattens in all her three Sydney to Hobart line honours wins.
In the 2007 America's Cup we ended up supplying all 12 teams at Valencia.
'From 2002 to now we’ve made about 7300 battens in total, Vallings reflects.
The market is mainly the America’s Cup, Volvo and super yachts on the globe. We don’t sell a lot of battens for the smaller range boats. Our main market is in the 60ft and up, essentially for monohulls.
'During the America’s Cup in 2003 we made our first super yacht set of sailbattens, which was for Visione, a Baltic 147 fter for Hasso Platner.
Vallings estimates that C-Tech now supply about 70% of the superyacht sailbatten market.
The battens are supplied directly to the sail maker or the boat. Most go direct to the sail maker. Direct supply happens with America’s Cup teams, and some Volvo teams go directly.
Battens being finished in the C-Tech factory. Over 7,000 battens of up to 18metres long have been produced here.
Inflatable battens are another growth area for C-Tech, arising directly from the last America's Cup, when the teams wanted to support free leech area in the jib, but needed a batten that was sufficiently flexible to be tacked , but sufficiently rigid to support the jib leech
'Team New Zealand made their own. We did the inflatable battens for Desafio, Victory, Shosholoza and Plus 39. We cracked the issues involved a little late and many of the teams had already completed their development.
'We’d been working on it for about a year before we came up with anything that was good enough to use.
'We came up with an idea that doesn’t have a bladder and the skin is tubeless, reinforced plastic.
You can fold it in half and keep on folding it. They outlast the jibs on the America’s Cup boats, and they can transfer the batten to the next jib, which is pretty good going. Our battens get a very hard time.
Alex Vallings demonstrates the extreme flexibility of the C-Tech Air Batten product. It returned to a perfectly straight, no kinks tube immediately.
'It’s quite good to come up with a product that none of the others have been able to. 'explains Vallings. 'It’s a limited market, but we’re the only ones making air battens at the moment in the world. They are about the same price as carbon mainsail battens
'We’ve got a new batten called a Flexifurl, which is a budget version of Air Batten. It’s non-inflatable and when you furl it round the foresail they go flat, meaning they can still go into a pretty tight curves. And when they’re straight they pop into their shape and are quite strong.'
CT-AirBatten jib and adjustment mechanism for a superyacht.
There's no shortage of new project and products for C-Tech. Moving out of marine applications, Vallings shows off some crossbars they have developed for racing hang gliders – all made from carbon tube.
From the small dinghy and skiff scene, C-Tech have moved in 18fter spar production – with good results in this year's JJ Giltinan Trophy – winning three of the seven heats. Their standard 18ft mast is supplied fully fitted – just add stays.
The company has moved offshore too – with Fraser Brown appointed as European sales agent, based in Cowes, Isle of Wight.
And Alex 'Ginge' Vallings is still doing that other thing in which he has few peers – skiff sailing.