URI alumnus helps design winning America’s Cup sailboat

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Kingston, R.I. – September 30, 2013 – In dramatic fashion, Oracle Team USA completed one of the greatest comebacks ever to clinch the 2013 America’s Cup. The final race lasted just 23 minutes and USA won by a mere 39 seconds, but for University of Rhode Island Andrew Gaynor, the competition spanned more than two years.

Gaynor, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1998, helped design the team’s cutting-edge AC72 catamaran that delivered new speed and excitement to the world’s greatest sailboat regatta.

“Through the whole design process you’re feeling the competition because you see what other teams are doing,” Gaynor says. “You’re in this constant competition to design a better boat and that’s where the energy comes from.”

Gaynor spent the run-up to the race focused on designing the boat’s wing-sail that catches the wind and propels the boat to speeds of upwards of 40 knots, or 46 mph. Team USA chose to make the sail out of lightweight composite materials, and Gaynor went to work modeling designs, conducting finite element analysis and drawing production blueprints. By the end, the wing-sail was perhaps the most prominent part of the boat estimated to cost more than $100 million.

The eminence of the race, the sky-high budget and the potentially dangerous speeds kept the design team on edge until the USA boat crossed the finish line on Sept. 25, 2013 just a nose ahead of the New Zealand team.

To keep the boat together and ensure the safety of its sailors, Gaynor and his colleagues checked and double-checked the design of every component. And even with a seemingly unlimited budget, Gaynor faced challenges that required creative workarounds.

“For the America’s Cup your limitation is usually time,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how big the budget is; you can’t buy time.”

Although time may not have been on Gaynor’s side, he had the experience to handle last-minute design changes. The life-long sailor served on the design teams for the 2010 America’s Cup winning BMW Oracle USA team and the semi-finalist 2007 Italian team. He also designed masts for competitors in the 2008 and 2011 around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.

Gaynor says being part of a winning team is surreal, especially because he never intended to find a career in sailboat design.

Growing up in Connecticut and later southern Rhode Island, Gaynor always enjoyed the ocean. His parents took him sailing on their wooden cruising sailboat and he forged lifelong friendships at the local sailing center. He remembers watching the 1983 America’s Cup on television and his heart sinking when the Australians took the cup from American hands for the first time in 132 years.

After high school, Gaynor headed to the College of Charleston in South Carolina, with no plans to major in engineering. In fact, engineering was not even a major. But by the end of his sophomore year, Gaynor realized his love of building and disassembling things could be a career path. He transferred to the University of Rhode Island, convinced by a friend in the engineering program and a member of the school’s nationally ranked sailing team.

Gaynor settled right in. He joined a competition to design, construct and race a solar-powered boat. The boat, which took second in the national competition, still hangs in the college’s machine shop.

“Andrew threw his life and soul into the project,” recalls mechanical engineering Professor David Taggart, who served as the team’s advisor.

At the same time, Gaynor also participated in the Olympic trials for a spot on the United States sailing team. He didn’t qualify and after graduation the dream of becoming a professional sailor faded. He went on to find engineering jobs at Hall Spars & Rigging in Bristol, R.I. designing masts and later at TPI Composites in Warren, R.I., where he worked on crafting the next-generation wind turbine blades and military armaments.

When a friend called in 2005 and asked for help designing masts for the America’s Cup, Gaynor left his job to gamble on a new career.

“It didn’t make much sense but this was a dream I had,” he says.

Eight years later, that dream has become a reality and Gaynor has found a niche in consulting on the design and analysis of innovative composite structures. In 2008, he launched JAG Composites in Barrington, R.I. And he’s hoping that Team USA calls him back into service for the next America’s Cup so he can design an even faster, better boat.

“That’s the fun part of engineering: having the opportunity to design something, build it and then go back and learn from that and apply it to the next job,” Gaynor says.