Sailing

The return home of Dean Barker

Once hailed as New Zealand's America's Cup hero, Dean Barker is finally coming home - but this time flying the Stars & Stripes. 

Dean Barker was a happy man when Team New Zealand finally confirmed the 2021 America’s Cup would be raced in his old home town.

It’s been three years since Barker, Team NZ’s former skipper, came home to Auckland.

Now he’s itching to return, and race again on the waters where he once learned to sail. And this time, he'll be driving a radical boat that he must first figure out how to sail.

Barker will be proudly racing for the club who were caretakers of the Auld Mug for 132 years, under the flag of the United States of America.

After parting ways with Team NZ in 2013, having skippered three of their Cup campaigns, Barker sailed for the Japanese team in the last Cup in Bermuda. That syndicate, which got a kick-start from the then-defenders Oracle Team USA, has since disbanded.

But it wasn’t long before Barker – with the experience of five America’s Cups behind him – was snared by another challenger. He’s now signed on to helm the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic challenge in this latest version of the Cup.

Barker phones from an airport lounge in Atlanta. He’s just finished his first sailing stint with American Magic off Long Beach, California, where they finished runners-up in the prestigious Congressional Cup. Now he’s on his way to Europe to race with his new crew on the TP52 Super Series monohull circuit.

“I think it’s nice that New Zealand is going to host the [America’s Cup] event, and not somewhere else. That’s obviously one good box ticked,” Barker says.

“It’s been quite some time since I’ve been home. It’s going to be great to get back there and race again. Obviously it’s an area that’s dear to my heart; it’s where I did all my sailing growing up.”

“We’ve obviously got a huge amount of work to do and I think our group has a very good starting point, but the benchmark is still going to be Team New Zealand."

Barker hopes his deep knowledge of the Hauraki Gulf and all its quirks – along with an aptitude for match-racing and foiling – will help the Americans to close the gap on Team NZ, who as defenders naturally have a head-start on the Cup fleet. (A ‘fleet’ that so far totals four).

Not having won the America’s Cup since 2000, it’s a quest that Barker, now 45, still has to chase. “It’s been in my blood now for a long, long time. I still enjoy it with a huge passion,” he says.

“I love the thrill of the sailing and the racing, and all the elements that go with it. Developing a team, designing and building a boat, and all the challenges that you’re faced with. It’s not as simple as just putting a boat in the water and going sailing. It’s intriguing and enjoyable at the same time.”

When the Cup wrapped up in Bermuda, Barker and his wife Mandy moved with their four children to Park City, Utah. That’s a long way from the ocean. “Before we knew what we would do next, we decided we weren’t in a mad panic to get home. We wanted to enjoy some family time before I got into the next project. So we decided to do a winter skiing, and it’s been awesome,” says Barker, whose own family never skied as he was growing up. "I was a late starter."

At the end of next month, the Barkers will head to a more permanent base at Rhode Island, where American Magic will work from.

“It’s a pretty special place in a lot of ways. It has so much sailing history. And I first started sailing around the time Australia II won the America’s Cup in 1983, in Newport [Rhode Island], defeating the New York Yacht Club. To sail for the New York Yacht Club is a special thing, and I’m really thankful for the opportunity to be involved,” says Barker.

He also sees it as a kind of reunion. The guy next to Barker calling tactics, Annapolis-born skipper Terry Hutchinson, was his right-hand-man in Team NZ’s 2007 Cup challenge in Valencia.  

“Terry and I had a really strong relationship during the 2007 campaign, and obviously we’d gone our different ways since then. As he points out, we’ve probably yelled at each other more than raced with each other in recent years,” says Barker with a chuckle.

“But working together again is really cool. Over the last week or so, the Ficker and Congressional Cups have been great to develop our communication on board the boat again, and it will help us in spades in the TP52.”

Barker’s crew won the Ficker Cup, a qualifier for the Congressional Cup, and were in a strong position to win the major regatta, and the coveted crimson jacket that comes with it (which Barker has worn twice before). But in the final, against Taylor Canfield and US One, Barker admits to “a couple of mistakes” that cost them dearly.

“It doesn’t feel like that long ago that you were learning to sail, until you’re suddenly racing against Peter Gilmour’s son.”

“Things actually went well above what we were expecting before we went into it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been match-racing what you’d call normal boats,” he says. “Nothing has changed with match-racing, and you still put your best foot forward in the final - and Taylor definitely saved his best till the last day. We were right there, but you have to put it all together to win.”

For Barker, the “best part” of the Congressional Cup was racing against young Australian skipper Sam Gilmour, son of America’s Cup veteran and four-time world match-race champion Peter Gilmour. “Considering the number of races I sailed against his dad, it definitely puts your sailing career into perspective,” Barker says wryly. “It doesn’t feel like that long ago that you were learning to sail, until you’re suddenly racing against Peter Gilmour’s son.”

Four of the six sailors on American Magic for those two regattas were Kiwis – Barker joined by Sean Clarkson, James Baxter and James Dagg. Barker says there’s a "scattering" of New Zealanders in the camp so far, but one of the team's philosophies is to develop American sailing talent: “because that hasn’t really happened in recent America’s Cups”.

Sailing in Europe in the TP52 series on board Quantum Racing, the American Magic crew will come up against the two other known challengers for the 2021 America’s Cup – Italians Luna Rossa and the British BAR campaign (who've just announced a $217m sponsorship boost from fracking billionaire Jim Ratcliffe). Team NZ has no plans to compete on the TP52 circuit.

Barker hasn’t raced in the high-performance monohull super series since he led Team NZ to victory back in 2012. “We’ll come up against some very strong teams. The fleet is going from strength to strength…  which is incredible when you see a lot of the other classes struggling,” he says.

“You go into a campaign with the belief that you have the ingredients necessary to be successful. It’s always tough as a new group coming up against a strong team like Team NZ."

While they’re racing, the Americans’ design team will be toiling over the creation of their first AC75 – the new class of foiling monohull to be raced in this America’s Cup. The design team is led by Spaniard Marcelino Botin, a former principal designer for Team NZ, and Uruguayan Adolfo Carrau, who also worked for the Kiwis.

“The design time-frame is very tight to have your first boat in the water by the end of March next year,” says Barker. “We’ve obviously got a huge amount of work to do and I think our group has a very good starting point, but the benchmark is still going to be Team New Zealand, with where they have kicked on from and all the IP they’ve developed.

“This new type of boat will be pretty interesting to design, build and develop. But that’s one of the great things about this sport - there’s definitely no time for sitting on your hands.”

Barker says he’s excited by the prospect of wrangling the AC75. “The sailing we’ll see will be completely different again from what we’ve seen in the past,” he says.

“I’m not exactly relearning to sail a third time,” referring to having to learn to sail a catamaran before the 2013 Cup in San Francisco. “But it’s going to be quite intriguing to see how the boats behave and how we manage them on the water compared to the AC50s or AC72s. They’re obviously going to be very high performance when there’s enough breeze and you are going to have to have the same respect for them as we did for the catamarans.”

Although American Magic has had to start from scratch – it’s been 15 years since the NYYC contested the Cup – Barker feels confident around the experience players brought into the team, and the resources to fuel the campaign. The team are backed by a triumvirate of very wealthy men - financier Hap Fauth, Amway president Doug DeVos and automotive entrepreneur Roger Penske, who also runs teams in Nascar and Indycar.

“You go into a campaign with the belief that you have the ingredients necessary to be successful. It’s always tough as a new group coming up against a strong team like Team NZ,” he says.

“But I’m excited about the role I’ve got on board, and working with the design group to help develop a fast boat. I know it’s a big challenge, but we’re really up for it.”

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