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Insight: Andrew McLean

By Mark Chisnell

Land Rover BAR Sailor and Team Leader on Systems Engineering - Andrew 'Animal' McLean. Photo: Harry KH

There are only two people on the Land Rover BAR sailing team who combine the role with a job on the design team. One is Bleddyn Môn and the other is Andrew McLean, a laconic Kiwi who never says ten words when a couple – or preferably none – will do. But given that McLean is Team Leader on Systems Engineering – and systems are one of only two major areas of development allowed by the America’s Cup Class rule – there’s obviously a lot going on behind the enigmatic exterior.

Although born in New Zealand, McLean spent the first decade of his life growing up in Brunei. “We left New Zealand when I was one and went to Brunei. I grew up there until I was nine. Dad went there as an engineer and Mum got a teaching job at the International School which we attended. My parents always sailed. That’s how I got into it, before we moved to Asia my parents built a small cruising boat and did a bit of sailing. And we sailed in Brunei quite a bit. It was pretty uncommon around there, but we did it, just cruising around the islands in a little 28 footer on the weekends.”

Andrew McLean at the helm from a young age

“When we moved back to New Zealand, we moved to Wellington and we sailed there. Dad owned a keelboat, a 30 footer. He’s always had a boat, some sort of boat, nothing flash, but always something to go sailing in – like most New Zealanders – and we raced them. We used to race in the winter series and I remember being terrified sometimes. Those were the biggest waves I had ever seen. And when I did my first around the world race, I remembered those waves. I was anticipating something bigger, more scary in the open ocean, but we saw nothing like it!”

Andrew McLean soon progressed to racing dinghies. “The dinghy scene’s pretty good in New Zealand. They're all homemade, plywood boats, slightly modified, slightly developed, but it’s cool. I saved up all my money and bought a Starling, like a plywood Laser Radial, and we did that up in the garage. “At the time the top end keelboat racing was an Auckland scene, and it’s actually a little tough to get into if you're outside Auckland. I was just keelboat sailing with my old man and hanging around the yacht clubs in Wellington, but there were a couple of guys there that had quite good contacts and they asked me to join the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron Youth Training Programme.” This was a well-trodden route to a future in professional sailing.

“It was a match racing squad, run by Harold Bennett. It meant sailing all weekend and two, maybe three nights a week. We did six or seven regattas during the year against sailing clubs internationally, so I was racing against Mark Campbell-James (brother of Land Rover BAR team member Paul Campbell-James) and James Spithill. We used to have some good racing. It was intense.”

By then McLean was at university in Auckland. “I was originally going to do Naval Architecture at Southampton University (UK), but it was just so far away and in the end, I thought no. So, I went to university in Auckland and did engineering because their yacht research side was pretty strong. I learned a lot of computational techniques, engineering, science, and the composite engineering, it was pretty broad, but it was good fun.”

Andrew McLean wasn’t just a student though, he was also hard at work within Auckland’s world-renowned marine industry. “I did a lot of nightshift work with North Sails Group and Southern Spars. My original dream was to be a sailmaker. It was my dream, but mum wouldn’t let me. I'd always finish a year of school and get good marks and I’d think, ‘Oh, might as well do another year.’ So, I used to do a lot of nightshifts sailmaking. I also did some design and composite work at Southern Spars.

“And then I ended up designing and running the Twisted Flow Wind Tunnel at Auckland University. It was a good job in that I ran all the testing for Illbruck Challenge and that generation of Volvo Ocean Racers. Those guys would come down and spend a week or two in the tunnel, and then the next team would come down. I was getting my finger on the pulse of what was happening in sailing while I was at university, it was a good summer job.”

It was a rock solid start to a career in professional sailing. McLean had connections with the world’s biggest sailmaker, one of its most sophisticated spar manufacturers, and was working on sail development for one of the top professional events. All this while still at university, and a place with the RNZYS’s youth programme. “I had a clear plan, I was pretty smart about it. I was focused on what I wanted to do and I made sure I took the right steps. It was a lot of hard work. There are so many good guys sailing in New Zealand, my philosophy was that when we went sailing we would do it at 100%, otherwise you're not going to go anywhere. And so, even evening racing I would take as seriously as anything else, it was amazing what opportunities I picked up on the way.”

The next place that those contacts led was to Team New Zealand, and the America’s Cup. In 2001, straight out of university, McLean was hired to write visualization tools for the weather team. “I did a couple of days sailing and I was about 75kg and physically not strong enough. I was blown away sailing those boats, sailing with the best in the world with the national flag on our gear was a big lift in intensity and something I really wanted to do more of!”

Unfortunately, 2003 wasn’t a great America’s Cup for the Kiwis. The boat failed in three races, two of which led to a retirement, and they lost 5-0 to the Swiss team, Alinghi. “Looking back that team was a very young group with very little sailor input into the design development which was a disaster, we learnt a lot of lessons but it was bad for the country that we lost the Cup.”

“After that I picked back up with Southern Spars and did a lot of R&D projects, as one of the world’s leading marine engineering groups it was a fascinating place to work, and satisfying being involved in the full development cycle from concept and design to testing on the water. I joined the next Team New Zealand campaign with Dalts [Grant Dalton, new CEO at Team New Zealand] very early. I got a job straight away doing reconnaissance, but when I had a meeting with him he said, ‘What do you want to be?’ I said, ‘I want to be a sailor.’ He said, ‘You won't get on the boat unless you're 100kgs.’ I said, ‘No problem.’ I went away and trained like hell. And I was putting on something like half a kilo a week. And I came back at 100kgs. Dalts had to give me a sailing role! That was a fun campaign doing a mix of serious sailing and engineering development work.”

It was the start of a pattern for Andrew McLean, of sailing and racing, while still working at the cutting edge of the technology and development. “I enjoy the engineering, the technology side. That’s probably the most exciting bit, certainly in this Cup on these boats.”

The 2007 America’s Cup was much more successful for the New Zealand team, losing a close-fought rematch with Alinghi 5-2. By now, McLean was well established, and signed again for the next Cup cycle. Except, the date and boats for the next Cup kept changing, first it was to be a 90ft monohull called the AC90. “We designed the AC90 and we were ready to start the build process when Dalts called, ‘They’ve cancelled it. The Cup has gone to court’.”

The row over format, rules and boats went on for three years, fought out in the courts and then eventually in a one-sided match between Switzerland and the USA under the original rules of the Deed of Gift. It was another three years before there was a Cup competition in which New Zealand could compete, and by then, McLean had had to move on. He raced on the Extreme Sailing Series, then moved across to fully-crewed ocean racing, with an Irish boat called Green Dragon in the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) with Ian Walker.

© HARRY KH

“I'd always wanted to do ocean racing. I did a lot of distance racing out of Auckland. It was a lot of fun. I’d always done quite a bit of navigating, and I’d spent a lot of time with the weather teams [at Team New Zealand], so I had quite a good handle on that side of racing. I had experience running and maintaining complex systems and enjoyed working hard so the endurance racing was a perfect fit.”

McLean went back to Team New Zealand when they entered the next round the world race in a partnership with Spanish clothing brand Camper. “I went around again as a navigator, so that was quite different for me and that was rewarding. The class was still a development class so the bulk of the work was designing and building the boat so it was a really interesting project.”

By the time the project was finished it was the middle of 2012, the America’s Cup was a year away and he was picked up by the Swedish team, Artemis Racing to work on system control software. He joined late, and suffered with the team through the tragic sailing accident that cost the life of Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson. The team had changed design direction to build foiling boats much later than the other teams, and never really put a competitive boat in the water.

By the end of the 34th Cup, McLean had another choice between carrying on to the next, or going back to offshore racing. “I was really tempted by the VOR again especially with some exciting teams announcing, but Jono [Macbeth, Land Rover BAR’s sailing team manager] rang me and said, ‘Do you want to do the Cup with BAR?’ I said yes. The thought of designing and building a new development class from scratch was attractive.”

Andrew McLean ocean racing with Irish Volvo Ocean Race Team - Green Dragon

“I signed as a sailor, but quickly got involved in the design side offering feedback and input from the sailing side, it got a bit out of hand from there, eventually leading the systems group. It’s not what I came here for, but it’s a big challenge. As a first time team, there are certainly some challenges but we are well set up to be competitive and establish ourselves as a great team of the future.

And looking ahead, how does McLean see his role developing? “The dual sailor/engineering role doesn’t really exist in the AC as both disciplines need such a high level of commitment, but it’s still critical that there's a link between the technology side and the sailors, which is my role now. If someone is injured I might have to step up, and I can do that too.

“It’s the technical side of the sport I think that has always appealed to me. I saved up for that first dinghy and then worked on it with dad in the garage. We stripped it down and worked out how to make it better and faster, the whole process of developing and racing was fun. The sport is far greater than that though, cruising with my parents and friends in New Zealand and the rest of the world. There is a whole other side to sailing, the adventure side.

“One of my favourite moments was on the Green Dragon, coming into Cape Town, I think we were on 24-hour record pace, tired and pushing hard all day and night, that was cool and on edge. I love the VOR stuff it’s just such hard work. I get terrible flashbacks now with Vivienne [McLean’s baby daughter], I wake up and I can hear the chaos going on in the next room.” McLean laughed at the recollection. “It’s the same feeling I used to get laying in the bunk off watch. ‘Oh, they sound like they’re struggling up there. Should I get dressed and help or should I stay here and rest for my watch?’” They do say that offshore racing is the perfect training for parenthood.

Land Rover BAR sailor & Team Leader on Systems Engineering - Andrew McLean
© Jack Brockway