A sailing rookie hailing from the mountains of Colorado, Kelly Hartzell plays a crucial part in Team New Zealand’s defence of the America’s Cup. She explains her role as a mechatronics engineer to Suzanne McFadden. 

Kelly Hartzell may have one of the coolest offices in New Zealand right now.

Most days – even during lockdown – you can spot Hartzell on board Emirates Team New Zealand’s second chase boat, trying to keep up with Te Rehutai as it rockets around the Hauraki Gulf.

Attached to Te Rehutai, Team NZ’s slick race yacht, are a multitude of intricate sensors measuring the forces and strains the radical, highly-refined hull is being pushed through.

Hartzell stands at the front of the chase boat cabin with her laptop open, wearing a mask when Auckland is at Level 3, and making sure the data is continuously pouring off the foiling monohull. “It’s constant vigilance,” the 28-year-old laughs.  

Sometimes you’ll find Hartzell on Te Rehutai, tucked inside the hull checking the sensors’ wiring. “But I’m more about translating raw numbers into something that makes sense,” she says.

Some of that data is fed back to the sailors “so they know how much force they’re putting through all of the boat’s components, and where they are relative to our design limits.”

Working on a whizz-bang boat on Auckland’s harbour is nowhere near where Hartzell ever expected to be, having grown up in the snowy mountains of Colorado. But as Team NZ goes through its final paces before defending the America’s Cup, Hartzell wouldn’t swap it for the world.

“It’s really been amazing, watching the pace of our improvement and how far we can push ourselves within the scope of the design. I love it,” she says.

“Every day we can see the work people are putting in is really making a difference, each time we’re out on the water.”

The delay to the start of the America’s Cup match with Italian challenger Luna Rossa until at least next Wednesday, because of the latest Covid-19 outbreak in Auckland, only gives Hartzell and her team more time to perfect the systems.

Te Rehutai going through her paces against Luna Rossa in last year’s America’s Cup World Series. Photo: COR36 | Studio Borlenghi

Hartzell is a mechatronics engineer, who joined Team NZ at the end of 2019 after going through what she calls “a quarter-life crisis”.

The daughter of two engineers, Hartzell was always drawn to enter the same field. With a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering and a Masters in engineering management, she spent five years working for the Ford Motor Company in Michigan.

She was working on AWD (All Wheel Drive) technology in cars, measuring torque and control, particularly on winter road conditions.

“But then both my partner and I were graduating university and we’d had five years in the industry, so we sort of had this moment of ‘Is this it?’,” she says.

“We’d heard good things about New Zealand, so we decided to move there. We figured why not?”

The couple spent their first two months travelling around the country and applying for jobs while on the road. “Then I was scrolling through my morning email of all the jobs that had been posted, and I almost scrolled past it. But I was like, hold on, that sounds interesting,” Hartzell says.

The job description for a “talented and enthusiastic” electronics, mechatronics or mechanical engineer to help develop and look after the sensors and data acquisition systems on the Team NZ race yacht fitted with what Hartzell knew how to do.

“I figured it would be a bit of a long shot. But I applied, and here I am,” she says.

Trying not to sound ignorant, I ask Hartzell to explain what a mechatronics engineer does. She admits it’s a “hard term to pin down”.

Mechatronics is a relatively new field, born out of the demand for smart devices, robots and intelligence systems. “Our mechatronics team is at the intersection of the hardware and the software; they bring the two pieces together so the boat functions,” she says.

Sensors have become a major part of the America’s Cup competition: from helping to control the systems on the yachts, to providing the instruments that guide the sailors, and collecting data for designers to analyse.

Hartzell’s role includes taking care of a lot of those sensors. “I’m managing the calibration and how we’re actually converting the raw data from the sensors into numbers that make sense to us,” she says.

Kelly Hartzell working on data from the Team NZ race boat back at the team’s base. Photo: Hamish Hooper | ETNZ

Hartzell faces a “huge challenge” trying to keep saltwater out of the electronics. “Obviously they don’t like to play nice together. It’s quite a challenge for our team – it’s something that needs constant attention,” she says. She’s part of a three-strong mechatronics team with Michael Rasmussen and Ryan Thomas, who developed a control system on the 2017 Team NZ catamarans. 

While it’s her first time working on yachts, Hartzell says it’s the same type of concepts that carry over from cars. “It’s all just instrumentation, how you collect data, and how you process that so it makes sense,” she says.

Her job description warned this wasn’t your typical nine-to-five job. And the days have got longer at Team NZ’s waterfront base as the America’s Cup match approaches.

Hartzell’s role won’t ease off when racing starts either. “You’re constantly keeping an eye on things to make sure your systems foolproof. There are always things popping up when you don’t want them to,” she says.  

“We’ve been switching gears into our racing routine set-up, so we can all get used to what the rhythms are going to be like. The days are long, but you can see every day how far we’re pushing the boat forward.”

And how can you complain when your spot on the chase boat that’s been setting up Team NZ’s training ‘racecourse’ is “a very cool office”.

Standing in the same spot on another of Team NZ’s chase boats is Elise Beavis, the other woman in the defenders’ engineering team. Beavis is a performance engineer, whose work in Team NZ’s last campaign included making the pedalling ‘cyclors’ as aerodynamic as possible – in turn, helping make the winning boat faster.

“We’ve both claimed that position in the front cabin as our little workstations. We joke that’s the women’s spot on the boat,” Hartzell says.  

“I definitely have days where it’s like ‘Okay, there are a lot of boys around’. But it’s never been an issue; we’re all here to do our jobs.”

Elise Beavis came fresh out of university in 2015 to join one of the world’s most successful sports teams. Photo: Hamish Hooper | ETNZ

Hartzell says she’s learned a lot from Beavis – “Elise is an incredible person” – and she might be the ideal person to teach the American how to sail on foils.

Beavis has been a national champion of the Waszp single-handed foiling dinghy, and is now president of the New Zealand Waszp Association.

Sailing is a relatively new pursuit for Hartzell, who discovered it as an adult.

“When I started working at Ford Motor Company, a couple of the engineers there were sailors. They were recruiting crew for a racing series, and it was another ‘why not?’ moment. I really fell in love with it,” she says.

“That was five years ago, so I’m still very new to it, and everything I’ve learned has been haphazardly trial by fire. It’s something I’m looking forward to getting into here where it’s such a huge part of the culture.”

Hartzell has had a brief spin on one of Team NZ’s AC75s, their first boat, Te Aihe.

“That was a really cool experience. It almost didn’t feel real,” she says. “I tried to soak up every little second of it.

“Everyone knows what piece they’re contributing to in the team. But to be able to experience how it all comes together on the boat, and see how the sailors are using what we’ve created for them, is really special.

“I’ve probably learned more in the last year [at Team NZ] than in all my years at university as well as five years working in the industry. It’s such an accelerated pace; there’s so much you can do and learn.

“There are a lot of things I’m doing now that I never thought I’d be doing.”

She hopes she can show other young women that they too can have careers in engineering and sailing.

“One of the biggest things is putting it in their heads: ‘Hey cool that’s something I could do’,” she says. “If you have a passion, there’s probably a way you can be involved with it. You just have to find the right ways to get there.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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