Yachting: Dean Barker's Cup destiny

By Suzanne McFadden

From a young man in the limelight to a tested leader, Suzanne McFadden assesses a career in sailing.

Barker owns 50 per cent of Kiwi Yachting Consultants, but his dedication to Team NZ has meant he hasn't always been involved in the day-to-day running of the business. Photo / Photo / Balazs Gardi
Barker owns 50 per cent of Kiwi Yachting Consultants, but his dedication to Team NZ has meant he hasn't always been involved in the day-to-day running of the business. Photo / Photo / Balazs Gardi

"It was one of the toughest times of my life. It was hard to fathom that everything that could go wrong would go wrong in a period of two weeks." - Dean Barker, on the 2003 America's Cup defence, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It was just on dusk, and the crowd was slowly draining out of the Viaduct Basin. Russell Coutts and Alinghi were supping the winner's spoils out of the Auld Mug, and the strains of Dave Dobbyn's guitar, tuning up for yet another rendition of Loyal at the wake of the vanquished, seeped across the water.

Dean Barker drove us in a little chaseboat, from the final press conference of the 2003 America's Cup, across the basin to the Team New Zealand base. Hours before, he had been at the wheel of a 24m racing yacht that once carried a nation's hopes. Now he was an over-qualified water taxi driver; silent and downcast, pouring all of his focus into steering the short journey.

Ray Barker made light conversation - how "the boys tried so hard" - so his crestfallen son didn't have to speak.

Knowing what had gone on that day, and the awful two weeks up until then - not to mention the tumult of the past three years - I wondered in that moment whether it would be the last New Zealand would see of Dean Barker in the America's Cup.

He was 29, and had been given skipper responsibilities well beyond his experience to try to defend the world's oldest sporting trophy. His boat leaked and snapped; his young, green team were defeated in every sense of the word. And oh, the ignominy, he'd had his butt kicked good and proper by Coutts, his former mentor.

Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts (left) eyeballs losing Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker after his team won the America's Cup from New Zealand 5-0. Photo / NZ Herald
Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts (left) eyeballs losing Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker after his team won the America's Cup from New Zealand 5-0. Photo / NZ Herald

A decade later, Coutts, chief executive of Oracle Team USA, was once more drinking out of the silver ewer; and still Barker wasn't.

Instead, he was again taking that forlorn ride on the chase boat back to the Team New Zealand base, this time in the lee of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Again he was trapped with his thoughts, like a silent water torture.

The lessons learned in two previous heart-wrenching America's Cup defeats had almost come good. Although in 10 years, the reticent, young helmsman had flourished into a master sailor, he had fallen excruciatingly short of pulling off victory in the longest, stiffest, most melodramatic Cup in 162 years. And second, once again, wasn't good enough.

There was nothing stopping Dean Barker from walking away from the America's Cup right there and then, with no future guaranteed. But those closest to Barker believe that, like Sir Thomas Lipton - the most persistent and gracious challenger in Cup history - he won't give up.

"He will be resolved that this will never happen again," says Emirates Team New Zealand business manager Ross Blackman. "This campaign is probably Dean's full passage from young yachtsman to one of New Zealand's leaders. This isn't the end of Dean Barker. It's the start of his life as a new leader."

Top of the class
"It's funny, but part of me feels like I've missed an opportunity. It's definitely given me a newfound energy. I feel young again." - Barker, on sailing a catamaran for the first time.

In 2010, at a luncheon in the stately Members Lounge of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron - the room where the Auld Mug was once bashed with a sledgehammer - Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker was asked how he felt about the prospect of sailing multihulls in future editions of the America's Cup.

The world champion match racer and dinghy champion admitted it would be a challenge, considering the only catamaran he'd ever sailed was a 16ft Hobie cat he'd bought that summer to muck around in at the beach.

So when the decision was announced to race giant 72ft multihulls on San Francisco Bay, Barker bought himself an A-class single-handed catamaran, and began learning how to sail anew.

Friend and former round-the-world sailor Richard Macalister was amazed by Barker's commitment to learning the ropes of an entirely new class.

"He sailed, and sailed, and sailed, and sailed ... more than I have ever seen anyone commit to something before," says Macalister, who owns a marine business with Barker.

"He has a family, four young children, and here he was sailing every day, just to make himself one of the best in multis. At that point I saw how driven he was. He told me he'd always had an aim of winning the America's Cup, then defending the America's Cup. Very few people have that drive and commitment."

Within a couple of months, Barker was racing against the big guns of multihull sailing at the Australian International A-Class championships, on the long, shallow Lake Cootharaba on the Noosa River. With "zero expectations", he finished fifth in a fleet of 73.

Twice he crossed the finish line just behind seven-time world A-class champion Glenn Ashby; the Australian multihull legend would become Barker's tutor racing cats and a judicious brain in the Team NZ AC72 sailing crew. He'd also taught Barker's archrival Jimmy Spithill to master multis in the 2010 America's Cup.

Ashby praised Barker for taking the bull by the horns and his intense work ethic. He also admired Barker's loyalty to New Zealand.

Loyal. There's that hackneyed word that many of us sadly connect with losing the Cup in 2003. Macalister prefers to use "patriotic" to describe Barker's decision stick with Team New Zealand.

"You look at some of the mercenaries who have gone offshore, and Dean is the complete opposite. He's a patriot. And he wants to contribute, to give back. That makes a very mature young man," he says.

A matter of trust
"I am angry, frustrated, pissed off. We've put a lot into this team. But in the end, it's been enough to get us to the final but not win, so we still have a lot to do to take that next step." - Barker, on failing to win back the America's Cup from Alinghi, Valencia, 2007.

You can just imagine it, can't you? Grant Dalton - the balding, brusque round-the-world adventurer, brought in to salvage Team NZ's reputation in 2003 and mount a campaign to reclaim the filched silverware - looking at the young, handsome round-the-buoys sailor thinking: "He couldn't sail out past the Hauraki Gulf." Who really knows what Dalton thought about Barker at first greeting; but it's folklore that the elder wasn't easy on the younger for the first couple of years of their working relationship.

Insiders say it took much of the 2007 Cup campaign to build trust between the two main players.

But by the end of the campaign, Barker had the full respect of Dalton as a helmsman and skipper of the sailing team, and it was seen as a turning point in Barker's career.

Dalton's conviction was based on Barker's performance on the water. Even though British Olympic legend Ben Ainslie (now Sir Ben, and Oracle's "saviour" tactician), was breathing down Barker's neck as the back-up helmsman, Dalton had no question that Barker was the man for the job in Valencia. It was there that the Kiwis stormed the Louis Vuitton Cup, but dipped out when it really mattered, losing the America's Cup 2-5 to Brad Butterworth's Alinghi.

Barker reacts after Team NZ were defeated by Alinghi 5-2 in the 2007 America's Cup. Photos /  Mark Mitchell
Barker reacts after Team NZ were defeated by Alinghi 5-2 in the 2007 America's Cup. Photos / Mark Mitchell

It would be another six onerous years until Team NZ got to challenge again. In this campaign, Barker, as head of the sailing crew, got to make more input into the design of the two AC72 boats the team built.

Ross Blackman believes Barker learned a harsh lesson back in 2003 that gave him the self-assurance to make big decisions.

"In 2000, he was handed an incredibly difficult job at a young age, when he was least prepared for it. We were a design-led campaign, because the designers were older and had more standing. He simply accepted the boat he was given," he says.

"I don't think Dean would ever make that mistake again. He knows that at the end of the day, it's the guy on the wheel who wins or loses the America's Cup. The big lesson for him was that he realised he had to control his own future. And since then, that's what he's done." If 2003 hadn't happened to Barker, he would not be the man he is today, says former teammate and dinghy rival Craig Monk. "He could have walked away from sailing after quite a few of the hard knocks he's had in the last 20 years. But that's what makes him so strong now."

Monk, a grinder with Artemis this time around, helped Barker as a teenager before beating him for the Finn spot at the 1996 Olympics. He's seen him mature "every year" since then. At those Olympic trials Barker looked to have the Finn berth sewn up, but the more practiced Monk snatched it on the final day.

"I couldn't really see the leadership or the gamesmanship coming out of him back then, but he stuck at it and learned from his lessons," Monk says.

"He used to throw mighty tantrums - he was one of the worst. He'd cry, yell and scream, kick holes in his dinghy. But he's really worked on overcoming that, on controlling his frustration. You can see it in his game face today."

That's the poker face Barker held for 19 days - whether he was pinning Spithill against the ropes in the first half of the Cup marathon, or as he was taking the repeated hits from the Australian pugilist-helmsman in the second stanza. Not until it was all over did Barker finally let his emotions spill, tears streaking his chiselled face as he guided the cat back to the dock.

"He's done it hard," Monk says, "and any young sportsperson could really learn from him."

Taking care of business
"I'm not even close to thinking about giving up sailing yet, and ideally I never will. But in some ways, it's about having a backstop - if one day I wake up and feel I'm not enjoying it anymore, the fun has gone, then there is life after sport." - Barker on becoming a businessman, in 2008.

Barker never finished his business degree. Straight out of Westlake Boys High he studied business management, but didn't finish before sailing engulfed him.

He had the smarts though, coming from a business family. And he wanted to be stimulated by something outside of sailing. So when in 2008 he approached Richard Macalister about buying into his marine product supply company, Kiwi Yachting Consultants, Macalister was impressed.

"I've had many people wanting to buy into the business, and I've said no. But Dean was the right guy to do it with. Not only does he bring his profile, but he also wants to contribute to the marine industry, to give back, and this is a vehicle for him to do so," Macalister says.

Barker owns 50 per cent of Kiwi Yachting Consultants, but his dedication to Team NZ has meant he hasn't always been involved in the day-to-day running of the business.

"We've been in acquisition mode of late, and he's always involved in that. He's more conservative than me, but he always supports me," says Macalister. "He has a very good head on him, and he's a very good sounding board for me.

"I think running a business and running a sailing team are very similar. The structure of the programme they put together, the crew work on board, it's like having a well-oiled business. At the end of the day, they have to perform. And he's the glue for that team."

Barker kept a sporadic blog on the Kiwi Yachting website from San Francisco. The day after the 8-9 final score was posted, he wrote of the hurt he felt, and his personal failure: "To finish second is just not enough." But he constantly praised his teammates and never spoke an ill word of the opposition.

"I am so incredibly proud of the team. What we have achieved over the past three years has been amazing and something I have enjoyed more than any other time in my sailing career. The attitude of the team even after Oracle began their comeback was incredible, with not a person ever close to throwing in the towel," he wrote.

Man of steel
"After countless hours of designing, building, testing and practising, it all finally starts tomorrow. It has been an incredibly long and difficult road to get this far, and one that has been immensely satisfying." - Barker in his blog the day before the start of the 2013 America's Cup.

If Barker devotees thought there was a Superman quality to the guy, Dr Brett Howes went some way to validating their theories.

The Auckland optometrist found the helmsman has a recognition ability where he can absorb large amounts of data in a snapshot, process it all and make split-second decisions at the wheel. In an eyesight test, Barker was shown a series of six numbers for 1/100th of a second and he could recall them all without hesitation. Most elite athletes can recall four or five.

He is a naturally intuitive yachtsman, with a Man of Steel exterior - at the helm of Aotearoa, he appeared cool, calm, unwavering. Even when the boat almost flipped on top of him in the unforgettable race eight of the Cup match, he just kept steering.

He was surrounded by crewmates who respect him - many of whom have been his friends for 20 years.

 Dean Barker is inconsolable after losing to Oracle Team USA in the final race of the 34th America's Cup. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dean Barker is inconsolable after losing to Oracle Team USA in the final race of the 34th America's Cup. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"He's managed to retain a core group of guys around him that he can sail with, socialise with, joke with, and grow with. Guys like Jero [Jeremy Lomas], Dick [Richard Meecham] and Daggy [James Dagg], who have grown with him," Blackman says.

"His core strength is that he's liked by the guys. But he has an element of distance; he's not down at the pub every night with them. He's always been his own man."

Family comes first: wife Mandy, daughters Mia, Olivia, Isla and son Matteo. Friends say Barker is a devoted "Dada", who supports former Black Sticks star Mandy in her business ventures - she has her own fashion label, Mandyb.

She was there on Pier 27 waiting to comfort him after the final race.

Barker has stopped racing Ford Escorts, packed away his golf clubs, to spend most of his time off the water with his kids. Before the Louis Vuitton Cup, they saw the sights of San Francisco, cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge together.

"You end up travelling a lot in this job, and there's certainly nothing more enjoyable than coming home and spending time with my family. Things have definitely changed a lot for me, but for the better. In Valencia in 2007 we had one daughter; now it's four kids," he said last year.

Both Blackman and Macalister say they have never heard a bad word spoken about Barker, the person.

"He's a guy that people would find hard to criticise," Blackman says.

"If he hadn't had the major setback of 2003 and recovered from it, he could quite possibly be a different guy. I think he's a richer guy for it, a smarter guy, a lot more balanced. He's done it the really hard way and it shows in his character now."

So can an aching Barker take something positive from the gut-churning loss in 2013? Not immediately, says Blackman.

"It's going to be very raw with him for a while. But eventually what Dean - and everyone in the team - will get out of this is a hardened resolve, to raise the bar to an even higher standard. He and the boys made all the initial lifts of the bar, then someone came and took it higher," he says.

"It certainly won't affect the way he plays the game. He did it with dignity and honesty; he was never tempted to play the way that others did."

No, Barker did not choke. In fact, the final winner-takes-all showdown proved that.

"That last race was perfection," Blackman says.

"They had been beaten in the last seven races and to sail the way they did in that final race was extraordinary - a true stamp of strength. It was the speed that the others had found that finally told. What Dean and the boys did was nothing short of superhuman."

"The emotion of having lost this Cup is pretty raw. Having been only one win away from bringing the Cup home, to then lose it makes things so much tougher. I can honestly say we could have done no more." - Barker's final America's Cup blog, September 27, 2013.

Dean Barker

Born: April 18, 1972, Takapuna
Height: 1.92m
Parents: Ray and Billie, sister Anna
Married: Mandy Smith in 2004. Daughters, Mia, Olivia and Isla; son Matteo.
Educated: Westlake Boys High School
Business: Part-owner Kiwi Yachting Consultants
America's Cup: Team NZ 2000, 2003, 2007, 2013 Race wins as America's Cup helmsman 11 Olympics Finn, 2004 Athens, 13th of 25 competitors

Other sailing honours

*P-class Tanner and Tauranga Cups, 1988
*World Youth Champion (Laser) 1990
*NZ matchracing champion 1998, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008
*World matchracing champion 2000.
*Congressional Cup 2005
*Audi MedCup champion 2009-10
*2011-12 America's Cup World Series, second place

- NZ Herald

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