The Story of “Project 0.5” – the Innovation Project Behind our Paddlers’ Performances in Tokyo

The NZ women’s team had access to some unique equipment for their Tokyo campaign, developed through “Project 0.5,” a collaborative innovation and technology project designed to maximise every element of our team’s performance.

The story began with a challenge laid out by Gordon Walker in 2017. He asked “what can we do, that’s independent of the athletes and their physical preparation, to give our NZ crews a performance boost in Tokyo?” The vision was for our NZ athletes to be sitting on the Olympic start line, knowing that they had the best possible tools, processes and plans for the job in front of them. The goal was to find a 0.5% improvement, which equates to approximately half a second over a 500m race, and could often mean at least one placing difference at Olympic level.

HPSNZ’s Paul McAlpine took on Gordon’s challenge, identifying areas where some equipment refinement could improve performance. The initial discovery phase suggested several areas of possible improvement: boat construction, aerodynamics and customised boat fittings.

The team decided early on not to try to totally reinvent the wheel, and to work within existing kayak designs. The team believed the existing designs from Nelo are so well refined that it would be difficult to find material improvements in this area.  Instead, there was scope for enhanced construction and fitout methods not well suited to mass production. After some analysis, the decision was made to use Nelo’s Cinco design for the K4, and Sete model for the K2 and K1.

Over 2019 and 2020, Paul and a group of NZ experts worked on the project. This included two trips to Portugal to work with Nelo (who were amazingly welcoming to our team) on construction of the Olympic boats. The boats were tested during the team training camp in Germany in July 2019, then raced at the 2019 World Champs.

Following Worlds, the fleet returned to NZ for further refinement of the fittings, surface finish and trim. Particular effort was invested in building custom seats and footplates to minimise energy loss from flexing components. The team also found an additional opportunity to improve via design and construction of reduced-drag rudders.

At the same time, the team developed race suits to excel in the conditions in Tokyo. The goal was to create a suit that improved aerodynamics, temperature control and comfort. Each athlete was custom-fitted, and the garments were created in several iterations until the final product – the sleek white long-sleeve speed suit with matching spray deck that the team raced with in Tokyo.

CRNZ CEO, Tom Ashley, commented “It is difficult to quantify the precise performance gain rendered by Project 0.5. However, the team’s performances speak volumes. Three gold medals were won by Lisa Carrington and Caitlin Regal, and the women’s K4 finished a close 4th. Analysing finals times doesn’t tell the whole story – each athlete raced multiple times during the Games, and every joule of energy conserved during heats, quarters and semis could be applied at key moments in the finals. Likewise, the psychological benefit of sitting on the start line knowing that no stone had been left unturned can create calm in moments of intense pressure.”

He continued “The IP developed, and lessons learned during the project will be applied to future campaigns and extended to the fast-developing men’s squad. The amazing boats themselves will be used in future competitions.”

Our team wishes to thank all the people who contributed to this project. In total, we have calculated that at least 2371 hours were devoted to the project by non-employees of CRNZ and HPSNZ. That is almost 14 months of full-time work for one person. Many people contributed time and energy either for free or at a discount.

Even with the outstanding expertise and support in-kind from Kiwi businesses, the project required significant financial investment. We are incredibly grateful to our supporters Rowan Simpson (and his Hoku Foundation) and Sir Stephen Tindall for providing the funding that allowed Project 0.5 to go ahead. The HPSNZ Innovation Fund also provided vital support.

We would like to acknowledge two Kiwi businesses as key contributors to this unique project, that ultimately helped our athletes perform in Tokyo:

Solid Composites – prototyping, project direction and design, construction of boats and components, fit outs and finish.

One Studio – race wear and spray deck design and fabrication.

Alongside these key players, we had fantastic support from a number of specialised suppliers. In particular, we acknowledge the following

Hauraki Design Consultancy – composite engineering
Dibley Marine – rudder design, boat trim analysis, hydrodynamic modelling
Zenith Technica – rudder blade fabrication, other components
Beale Engineering – rudder shaft fabrication
Aspiring Safety – footstrap design and fabrication
Alpine Panelbeaters – paint work