Team New Zealand are preparing to axe long-serving skipper Dean Barker and appoint 24-year-old Peter Burling to the helm.
There was some suggestion yesterday that Barker would not be retained in any capacity, with Emirates Team New Zealand looking to cut costs and present a fresh approach for the 2017 campaign.
But the Herald understands Team NZ are still working to keep his experience in the team.
International sailing media have suggested Barker could be bound for Italy's Luna Rossa.
Sailing news website Sail World said American sources had linked Barker's departure to a new role with Italian Luna Rossa team.
Rumours of Barker moving to Luna Rossa had surfaced before and amounted to nothing, Sail World reported.
Barker, with several other veteran members of the crew, is currently off-contract, having been signed only on a retainer following the 2013 America's Cup while management assessed whether they could pull together the funding to campaign for the next event in 2017.
Team NZ chairman Keith Turner last night denied any decision on Barker's future had been made, but said the organisation were reviewing all operations with the view to decreasing costs and increasing competitiveness. The fact is there's been no decision made about helmsmen in the future."
Former America's Cup skipper Chris Dickson told Newstalk ZB he wasn't surprised time's been called on Barker, who has helmed Team NZ for 15 years.
Dickson said age wasn't on Barker's side and Burling was part of a new generation of sailors up for the job.
"It doesn't matter whether you're a Richie McCaw, a Ruben Wiki, a Dean Barker or whoever."
"A sportsperson's life is a limited one. Dean's done a great job."
Yachting commentator Peter Montgomery said Burling and fellow Olympic sailor Blair Tuke are outstanding young sailors but may not have the experience needed to lead the team.
"In the tough, ruthless world of the America's Cup, Burling and Tuke still don't know what they don't know," Montgomery said.
Montgomery said replacing Dean Barker would be disappointing, given his history of loyalty.
Rumours around since late year
Rumours Barker was to be dumped have been floating about in sailing circles since late last year, but given at that point Team NZ's involvement in the 35th America's Cup was still in limbo, the syndicate would not entertain questions as to who would lead the campaign.
Barker did not return calls last night, and Burling said he had been "told to go into radio silence".
When approached by the Herald about the rumours last month, Barker said he had no plans to leave Team NZ.
"Not that I'm aware of. Put it this way, if I am leaving it's not through my desire, that's for sure," said the 42-year-old.
Burling, regarded as one of world sailing's brightest young talents, was always expected to pose a strong challenge for the helmsman position when he was snapped up by Team NZ at the beginning of last year, as they sought young blood to rejuvenate the team.
But chief executive Grant Dalton maintained that no matter who would be steering the boat in 2017, Barker would still play a key role in the team's challenge, having been made sailing director, overseeing the entire sailing programme.
"If Dean Barker is not driving Emirates Team New Zealand's boat in 2017 - and Dean will be very much involved in that decision - Peter Burling will have to take it from him," Dalton said a year ago.
But there appears to have been a change of thinking within the team's compound in Auckland.
After the public backlash that followed the team's pleas for further Government funding, Team NZ recognised they could not ask taxpayers to sink more money into the same people who have delivered two failed Cup campaigns. They needed to convince the public they are a new team under new leadership and rather than axing Dalton, who brought in more than $100 million in sponsorship last time, Barker has become the fall-guy.
Other sources have told the Herald it was not a case of Dalton vs Barker, but rather a collective decision among some of the more experienced members of the crew, who believe Burling should be at the helm. The Olympic silver medallist last month beat a field of seasoned Cup veterans, including Barker, to claim the Moth world title in Australia.
The major concern over Burling is his age, and that he has not led a sailing team of this size before.
Burling's coach gives backing
Burling's Olympic coach is wary of throwing the 24-year-old in the deep end with his potential Team New Zealand promotion.
49er Olympic coach Hamish Willcox told RadioSport Burling's more than capable for the role, but would initially need some support.
"There's still a lot of experience required for him to make a good fist of it and that's where those older, more senior members of the team need to make sure if he's going to take that position, that he's well equipped.
"I mean he's still got a lot of development too, so what needs to happen is America's Cup sailors, experienced ones, they really need to take a lead with Pete and give him that experience under their guidance."
Willcox said the skills obtained in the Olympic classes can be paramount to success on the larger America's Cup yachts and that Burling and Tuke have managed their workloads well up until now, and that shouldn't change.
"They really want to prioritise winning an Olympic gold medal and I think that they're quite capable of doing that and absorbing the extra responsibility if that were to happen."
Willcox believes Burling has all the attributes needed to skipper the syndicate, but would need a few other senior members to ensure there's support around him.
An 'operational matter' for Team NZ - Minister
Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said he did not offer a view on the speculation Team NZ skipper Dean Barker would be replaced.
"I think Dean's being doing a great job overall for Team NZ, there's no doubt about that.
But in terms of who's right to take them to the next challenge, I don't think it would be right for ministers to offer a view on that."
He said Team NZ did brief the Government on some matters but not in any great detail and it was an "operational matter."
"The day politicians decide who drives the boat is not a good day. I think we need to let the team do their own thing. I have no views on it."
He said he had not spoken to Mr Barker personally for some time.
Meanwhile Prime Minister John Key, appearing on TV3's Firstline this morning, said the Government had agreed on whether it would provide funding to Team NZ.
"We're unfortunately subject to a confidentiality agreement so there's very little that we can say, but I think if you read between the lines of what Steven Joyce has been saying, they are, at the core of it, Bermuda makes a tougher proposition for the Government, it's just a more difficult location I suppose for us to get exposure, which is what we're trying to get through any kind of sponsorship of Team New Zealand.
"But having the challenger series, or part thereof, in Auckland, presents a real opportunity for the country to showcase Auckland.
"So if that happens, that makes things a little bit easier," Mr Key said.
"We're working our way through it, it's a challenging time for the team and we'll see how it all goes."
Mr Key referred questions regarding whether funding for Team NZ was dependant on who was at the helm to Mr Joyce.
"I'm not intimately involved in the contract. My guess is no, I think it's more around some of the other conditions - whether races would be sailed in New Zealand and all of those things.
"It's more about our capacity to deliver leverage benefit to New Zealand, rather than who the skipper of the ship is.
"I think in reality we've got to leave that to those who have run the syndicate," Mr Key said.
"Even if the Government was to put in some money into Team New Zealand, it would still be a fraction of the overall $100-odd million that they would need to run a campaign."
Mr Key said he expected that public support for Team NZ would increase if the team competed in New Zealand waters.
Tauranga-born Peter Burling is one of the hottest sailing talents around. At 24, the helmsman is already an Olympic medallist, two-time Olympian and double World Champion.
• He is the youngest ever sailor to represent New Zealand at the Olympic Games. He was 17 when he competed in the 470 class with Carl Evans, also 17. At the time Evans was at the helm and Burling crewed.
• He was at the helm in the 49er skiff class when he and Blair Tuke won the silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
• He has four world championship titles under his belt - in the 49er skiff in 2013 and 2014 and in the 420 class during 2006 and 2007.
• In January, he beat Dean Barker to win the prestigious Moth World Championship.
• The sailor signed with Emirates Team New Zealand in January last year. His 49er teammate Tuke also signed.
• Burling shared the Emirates Team New Zealand skipper's duties with Barker over the eight-regatta Extreme Sailing series last year.
• He has won New Zealand Young Sailor of the Year four times.
• He was named 2013 New Zealand Sailors of the Year with Tuke.
• Burling skippered the NZL Sailing Team to victory in the inaugural Red Bull Youth America's Cup in 2013.
- Additional reporting Sophie Ryan