The Harken marketing team sat down with Matt Schmidt, Project Lead for the GP Catamaran mainsheet system, to learn about the story behind this new product.
How was the specific purpose of the GP catamaran mainsheet system and its development different to how you've approached other solutions?
We design many of our products for a range of potential uses. The Carbo line, for example, is a universal product that does a good job across a variety of applications. The difference with the GP Catamaran mainsheet system, is that it had to address a very narrow set of design requirements for a very specific customer type. As a result, we had a much longer list of "must haves" than compared with a more universal product. The challenge, of course, is to not only hit everything on the list, but also understand in what order. There's usually a limit as to how many incremental changes can be made in each iteration of a product, otherwise testing can become muddled. So we had to prioritize each element and work through many rounds of prototypes. Thankfully this was made easier due to a much more direct and fast-paced feedback loop with our development partners, allowing us to incorporate quick design revisions and rapidly prototype new iterations for testing on the water.
First and foremost on the design list was achieving maximum efficiency. We examined a variety of bearing materials and chose ceramic for the inner and outer race, as well as the ball bearings. The sheave is made from Carbo material that's used in the Carbo line of Harken blocks. Round two focused on how we could make the top and bottom "nest" together more closely than a stock system, improving overall compactness and giving the skipper a few more inches of trim and a tighter leech. Round three focused on the design of the cam-cleat arm.
Once the functional requirements were met, we had to break down each component and understand how to manufacturer it most efficiently. This involved further design changes and additions without compromising the core requirements. Finally, once we could produce parts and assemble them, the focus moved to branding the system and designing the packaging.
How did the process and relationship of working with sailors on the design of this system evolve?
Design solutions often rise directly out of the feedback we receive from sailors who are competing at high levels and looking for that extra edge. These sailors put in hundreds of hours using our products, testing in environments and scenarios only they can experience. It's here, where the margin of success is so narrow, that they notice potential for refinement and improvement that we simply can't in the testing lab. This feedback is incredibly valuable, and from it we can begin to consider the best solutions.
The development of this project was certainly much faster-paced, thanks to the open dialogue between sailor and engineer. Collaboration was very fluid overall. We'd often chat with our partners on a daily basis, hearing about training and discussing what improvements could be made. It was not uncommon to receive a text message from our enthusiastic development partners saying "What do you think of this idea? Could you work this up in CAD?," followed by a photo of a sketch on a cocktail napkin.
Our end result really came down to the design cycle of: prototype, test, feedback, rinse, and repeat-as often as necessary. As the GP mainsheet system evolved, and on-the-water feedback became more and more direct, we gained a better understanding of what the system did and did not need to do. Eventually, the time came when we had to say GO and have our partner commit to it in its then current form for an important regatta. That was certainly a bit nerve wracking!
At what point are the system and its benefits the most important to the sailor when out on the water?
I'll honestly say that every feature we've designed into this product offers unique on-the-water benefits. First and foremost is efficiency. Because this system is easier to trim, the crew can save a fair amount of energy over a stock system. Elite sailors who train deliberately and closely track their stamina will notice this right away. For a development partner who competed in the Florida 300 distance race, it meant the difference between trimming the mainsail all day with one arm instead of two.
The ease of trim also translates into smoother crew movements. For instance in the Nacra 17 where most often the crew is the lighter smaller team member, it doesn't require the use of legs or full body lunges to get that extra bit of trim. This equates to less bounce and vibrations in the boat and wind spilling out of the sail.
As I mentioned earlier, second only to efficiency is the compactness of the system. This applies specifically to the Nacra 17, where the pin-to-pin distance of the mainsheet directly impacts the maximum mast rake. By closing that margin and getting the top and bottom blocks to nest together more tightly, we effectively give the skipper a tighter leech and the ability to put that much more rake into their rig set up when needed in heavy air.
Finally, the new cam arm adjustment offers infinite settings for each sailor. Instead of moving the cam arm between individual holes every 10 or 15 degress, we changed this to a slider track that can be adjusted very slightly for an ideal lead. Better yet, the entire cam arm assembly is contained, so there's no risk of losing parts if a quick on-the-water adjustment is needed. The entire system is serviced with a single 4 mm hex wrench. Simple, easy, low-hassle.
How does this system help a team widen the margin at the elite level?
Most of this is answered by my last question, but I will try to sum it all up. Competition between sailors at this level is extremely close. Races are decided by inches. The incremental benefits of the GP mainsheet system add up to two important takeaways: 1. Less time and effort spent with the crew's head in the boat, 2. More time with the crew's head outside the boat.
What does the future of a product like this look like? It's not exactly off-the-shelf, but it's not totally custom either? Will the design relationship continue with sailors looking toward the next Olympic Games?
You could say it's "quasi-custom" maybe, available to those who have the narrow need, but custom in how well it is tailored to the very specific usage environment. We always reexam products and try to improve them, so technically the GP mainsheet system will never be "finished". Other potential changes may come from outside influences, such as improvements in rope technology or via our own block designs like the new Power3 family that offers different sheave profiles to handle a variety of wind and wave conditions. Adding improved components like this may cause ripples in the overall design.
Otherwise, if I had to guess, there will be requests to reduce the purchase in the system. Only a handful of boats (Nacra 17, F18, Foiling Phantom) use the current setup of 10:1 and 12:1. So we may "fill out the family" and develop new versions of the same core product for different boats, most likely with lower loads.
On an higher level, all of our products benefit from these custom or semi-custom projects. It helps us understand how the technology can be reapplied to other products or for niche applications.
Finally, what defines success for this product? We want to sell thousands of cam cleats, but where does a Grand Prix catamaran system factor in?
Each project has its own definition of success. For this project, it was creating the perfect solution for this class of sailor and boat. Saleswise, we're very deliberate. For some projects the magic number is 5,000 units in the first year, and for others it's 200. Bottom line - Do we see the Grand-Prix mainsheet system at the front of the high performance cat classes? The Nacra 17 or F18 Worlds? That's certainly the goal.
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