Lakes, rivers and the high seas: Boating’s influence on composites

We have the marine industry to thank for many of the advances seen in large-part composites fabrication.
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In February 1987, the Society of the Plastics Industry held its annual Reinforced Plastics and Composites Conference in Cincinnati, OH, US. The forerunner of the American Composite Manufacturers Assn.’s Composites Show and today’s CAMX event, it was then the premier US trade showcase for fiberglass-based composites (SAMPE hosted a separate event for advanced composites). Each night that conference week, following dinner, I and several Dow Chemical colleagues, and a few of our customers, would find a late-night bar with ESPN on television, so we could watch the America’s Cup yacht racing finals, live from Fremantle, Australia. Although the hulls of the Australian and American finalists were made of aluminum and wood, not composites, we were glued to the TV screen that February.

Four years earlier in 1983, Australia II, from the Royal Perth Yacht Club, had won the cup and the right to host the next challenge — the first time a non-US entry had prevailed since 1851. With its famous “winged keel,” the boat had been able to make tighter turns than conventional boats and had opened a new era of technological innovation in sailing. In 1987, we watched as skipper Dennis Conner employed additional design innovations in the keel shape and hull surfaces to recapture the cup for the US. But that America’s Cup series represented another major turning point in yacht racing, because New Zealand’s boat with the first Cup hull ever fabricated from composites, albeit fiberglass, made it to the finals of the challenger series (the Louis Vuitton Cup) before falling to Connor’s aluminum hulled boat. It didn’t win, but the door was opened for composite materials, going forward.

They have played a key role in the America’s Cup ever since. Today, the sport resembles Formula 1 auto racing more than the traditional “old money” version of sailing. Boats use high-modulus carbon fiber, often to the point of razor-thin safety margins (and the ugly consequences of not accounting for rougher than expected seas or high winds). Major collections of composites-based yacht design and fabrication facilities have evolved in select waterfront boatyard havens: Rhode Island in the US, New Zealand, the west coast of France, and even along Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

Composites have a long history in watercraft, causing one to wonder why it took so long for the America’s Cup to embrace them. The earliest reported construction of a fiberglass boat dates clear back to 1937. Commercial production of fiberglass-hulled boats began in earnest in the 1950s, first with small craft, then larger powerboats and sailboats from the 1960s onward to become the world’s largest market for fiberglass. 

Although it has since been eclipsed, volume-wise, by the automotive and wind energy industries, we have the marine industry to thank for many of the advances seen in large-part composites fabrication, including advanced gel coats, isophthalic polyester resins, multiaxial non-crimp fabrics and advanced core materials. Concerns over open molding techniques and styrene led to development of low-VOC resins and closed-mold vacuum infusion techniques, even for very large yacht hulls. These advancements have found their way into other markets, optimizing production of wind turbine blades, bridge decks, corrosion-resistant tanks and building exteriors. Notably, low-temperature-cure prepregs were introduced specifically to serve the marine market. And many fiberglass-hulled sailboats and yachts feature long, stiff and lightweight carbon fiber composite masts, more representative of aerospace construction.

According to data released by the National Marine Manufacturers Assn. (Chicago, IL, US) in May this year, the recreational watercraft market had its best year in the previous 10 in 2017, with sales of new powerboats exceeding 262,000 units. Most of these employ composites in hulls, decks and interiors. The Web site superyachts.com claims that more than 500 boats greater than 24m in length are currently in production around the world. A sizable portion of those up to 40m long have both hulls and decks of fiberglass, carbon fiber or glass/carbon hybrid composites.

Emirates Team New Zealand won last year’s America’s Cup, contested in Bermuda, and will defend its title in Auckland, in March 2021. The New York Yacht Club will field a contender featuring a new 75-ft monohull with advanced airfoils that will provide enough lift, at speed, to enable the boat hull to sail above the water. Fabricated in Rhode Island, the boat will benefit substantially from use of advanced composites. But so will the contenders from elsewhere in the world. Because the races will again be held “down under,” it will be televised (and streamed or available via augmented reality, I presume) live in the late-night hours in America. I know I’ll be watching.

About the Author

Dale Brosius is the chief commercialization officer for the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI, Knoxville, TN, US), a DoE-sponsored public/private partnership targeting high-volume applications of composites in energy-related industries. He is also head of his own consulting company, which serves clients in the global composites industry. His career has included positions at US-based firms Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, MI), Fiberite (Tempe, AZ) and successor Cytec Industries Inc. (Woodland Park, NJ), and Bankstown Airport, NSW, Australia-based Quickstep Holdings. He served as chair of the Society of Plastics Engineers Composites and Thermoset Divisions. Brosius has a BS in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University and an MBA.