Yachting: Barker may stand down

By Paul Lewis

Dean Barker will be at the next America's Cup but not necessarily at the helm, writes Paul Lewis

Dean Barker will continue to lead ETNZ's sailing team but his duties within that role may change. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dean Barker will continue to lead ETNZ's sailing team but his duties within that role may change. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"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."

The speaker: ETNZ boss Grant Dalton. The topic: the possible succession of Barker as Team NZ skipper. The machinery: a partial restructure of Team NZ roles looking ahead to the 2017 America's Cup.

The announcement this week of 23-year-old Burling and Olympic sailing colleague Blair Tuke, 24, as new members of Team NZ was more than just introducing new blood.

It was part of a subtle shift designed to allow the team to develop in new and different ways even as they wait for word from holders Oracle Team USA on the new ground rules for the 35th America's Cup.

The re-think comes after a review of the so-close-but-so-far 2013 campaign and a slight re-angling of several roles, including Dalton's, Barker's and that of ETNZ chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge.

Dalton will step more into a director's role, focusing a little less on the day-to-day running of the team but still holding the reins as overall leader. Shoebridge will take up even more of the operations role and Barker will become a sort of skipper cum sailing director - still leading the entire sailing team.

However, within that role, there is room for the hand on the tiller of Team NZ's racing boat to change in San Francisco (if that venue is confirmed) in 2017. Burling and Tuke have been signed to a reduced ETNZ sailing team as part of the future and to keep other potential America's Cup suitors at bay.

Dalton said: "I will still be running the place. But there are a lot of good brains in the organisation and you want to be making decisions based on their measured input. There is still a buck and it still has to stop somewhere. You can't run everything by committee.

"The unsung hero of Emirates Team NZ is Kevin Shoebridge. I say I run the place but he actually runs it. I try and fund it, he runs it. His role will be extended a little more and we have spent 20 years together and work really well together. He actually makes a lot of the decisions and just informs me."

Dalton also made it clear that Barker would continue to be skipper in the present while also morphing into a sailing director's role. That leaves the question of skipper open in the long term and Dalton said: "Peter Burling may ultimately be the best thing this country has ever seen - but he is not there yet. If Dean Barker is not driving the boat in 2017 - and Dean will be very much involved in that decision - Peter Burling will have to take it from him.

"Pete's a good guy; he's just a sponge, absorbing information. But [to be skipper] he has to be more than just a good sailor. He has to get guys working for him and around him and inputting into all the processes, like design and so on, that Dean has done so well. Whatever decision is made, Dean will still be a mentor [to Burling]."

Dalton said some who didn't understand the sport called for a change of skipper to be made after the loss but said: "It's like Formula One. The fastest driver in F1 doesn't always win the title. It's more about how you integrate the whole team and the organisation - it's not just about one man."

Burling's arrival is redolent of the 2000 America's Cup regatta when Barker was the future, coming up behind then Team NZ skipper (and now OTUSA CEO) Sir Russell Coutts. If Coutts had not defected, it is doubtful Barker would have made skipper quite so quickly. There is no denying Burling's talent but he will similarly need to overtake Barker in many different areas, including leadership and Barker's across-the-board ability to understand what makes a yacht - and particularly the complex America's Cup catamarans - go fast.

It will be intriguing watching the pair joust on the water in A-class catamarans and in the two AC45 cataramans that Team NZ are planning for the America's Cup World Series which is due to start next year - but there should be no assumptions that the wheel will change hands; Barker could still be the man by 2017. Dalton says Barker will fight all the way.

Burling and Tuke are also part of a Team NZ move to safeguard their options while addressing the need to marshall costs in the short-term - and waiting for OTUSA's protocol (the new rules) to be released, probably in March.

Team NZ now consists of 29 people, only eight of whom (including Barker, Burling and Tuke) are sailing crew. Wing trimmer Glenn Ashby and tactician Ray Davies are among the others. All of the 130-odd people from San Francisco came off contract two weeks after the last regatta ended before re-hiring started.

"We'd retain many of the guys automatically but we can't retain them right now," said Dalton. "We have to watch our dollars pretty carefully. We don't have anything for them to do right now and, for some of the guys and through no fault of their own, it's just time [to go]. That's just the cycle of life, of sport."

One example is Team NZ's big, powerful grinders - the men who provide the "manual power" that effectively powered the giant AC72 catamarans last time. There are strong suggestions that, in the next regatta, more forms of stored power will be permitted, meaning less need for grinders.

The design team numbered well over 30 people for the last regatta and is assumed to be an area where Coutts and OTUSA will seek to make savings next time as they try to manage costs to attract more competitors.

Both Dalton and Barker have already stated publicly that they believe the 35th America's Cup will likely cost about the same as last time - about US$100 million (or $120 million). Dalton said it would be "brilliant" if OTUSA capped costs at the suggested level of US$80m. But he doubted it would happen, as the holder would not want to blunt their own technical and resources edge, even though Oracle billionaire backer Larry Ellison is understood to have told Coutts to trim costs to that level.

"I'd heard US$80m as well but that seems to be an entry level; you could compete at US$80m but I don't think you could be competitive," said Dalton. "If you have some one-design features on the boats and cut design teams, that could knock the top off the costs - but I still think the cost will be about the same as last time."

Having said that, Dalton complimented Oracle and Coutts on their work so far towards the next regatta: "I like what Oracle are doing and I think Russell Coutts is steering it well. We have all talked about reducing cost and they need to do that to get more competitors."

Dalton also suggested another change in Team NZ's armoury could come in the form of new technology sponsors. Asked whether it was true that some technology companies, maybe keen to take on Ellison, had already lined up to fund Team NZ before they left San Francisco, Dalton laughed: "I wouldn't say anyone was lining up - and if you know who those guys were, please tell me."

But he said he had a sense that the team needed more technology companies and a a higher technology level - not just for the sake of sponsorship dollars but also to sharpen the team's ability to react to change during a regatta and keep ahead of the performance curve.

- Herald on Sunday

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