Key Points:

The spoils of Dean Barker's victories at the wheel bedeck the wall of a house in Gisborne.

In an earlier life, New Zealand sailing's glamour boy loved to race on four wheels. He and dad Ray tore around racetracks in Ford Escorts about 10 years ago. Dean's was a red and gold Mk1 RS2000, and it went like the clappers.

"He was as quick in a car as he is in a boat," recalls Martin Kibble, the Barkers' mechanic. "He was very tactical, focused and he wanted to learn. If he'd been out racing or practising, he would come in and ask, 'How'd I go? ... I don't think I did a good gear change there'. He picked up things straight away. You didn't need to tell him twice."

Racing at classic car meetings at Pukekohe and Manfeild, Barker pounced on opponents, having figured out their weaknesses, scoring a few victories and placings.

He never took home the ribbons and trophies. Instead, Kibble has them on the wall of his Gisborne home. "He'd almost get embarrassed when he did well. He didn't really like to take the credit; he liked to keep out of the limelight," Kibble says.

There's no escaping the glare any more.

Tonight, as he stands behind the wheel of a machine far gruntier than his Escort to wrest the America's Cup back from Alinghi, a nation will be glued to Barker's every manoeuvre.

He gave away car racing for an apprenticeship with Team New Zealand, the beginning of a journey of the sweetest highs and gut-wrenching lows. That he has made it this far, powering NZL92 past all challengers, is a testament to his skill and tenacity. Some say he has enjoyed a charmed life but that is to dismiss his courage and sweat, and his ability to rally himself after defeat.

When he failed to make the Olympic Finn team in 1996, he yelled and screamed at himself in the middle of the ocean.

After the humiliating defeat of the broken black boat in 2003, he drew into himself, quietly mortified. It was a cursed campaign, with Barker thrust out of his depth, saddled with management responsibilities.

This time, Grant Dalton has unburdened him of that cross, leaving Barker to sharpen his sailing skills and simply to race - like the young man who zipped around the Pukekohe track. Again, he's not motivated by trophies. He just wants to win.

He hates a particular story about him, because it's always towed out.

At 9, he was given an Optimist dinghy, first launched on Lake Pupuke.

Alone on the lake, making no headway, the boy was stranded - his howls for help finally answered by locals. Though he swore off sailing, he relented and made a name for himself at the Murray's Bay Boating Club on Auckland's North Shore. He conquered the P-Class, the snub-nosed dinghy that has bred many top sailors, and met Hamish Pepper, another promising sailor who lived around the corner.

"We were the best of mates on the land and fierce enemies on the water," says Pepper. "We trained against each other, lifting each other's game."

Long-time Murray's Bay club member Hamish Willcox credits much of Barker's success to that competitive environment. "He was fortunate enough to go through the ranks when there was a bulge of talent running through," says Willcox.

At Westlake Boys High, Barker and Pepper were fed stories of school old-boy Chris Dickson, who in 1987 introduced New Zealand to the America's Cup. Westlake science teacher David Hayden remembers Barker as a hard-working, polite and quiet student. "People think of quiet as weak, when in fact Dean was very strong." Barker sat down the back ... "not because he was bad - he was just comfortable down the back."

Barker was serious, but he wasn't averse to fun either. Pepper reveals he and Barker were later regulars at the Wednesday "skirt night" at Takapuna's Poenamo Hotel where men wearing dresses got free drinks. "Dean often wore a lime green mini-skirt and danced on the bar," says Pepper, who insists he never donned a dress himself.

To Pepper's mind, Barker had a couple of advantages. "He was tall, which gave him leverage - I was a little short-arse," says Pepper. "Dean also had a lot of family support. Billie [Dean's mother] and Ray were fantastic, as were my parents. But the biggest thing he probably had over me was financial support. He could study, and sail at the same level as myself, while I had to work to earn it. I wouldn't say it's an advantage he had - it's been a bit of a luxury."

The family money came from the successful Barkers clothing chain founded (and recently sold) by Ray. Dean and sister Anna grew up comfortably, but, as Willcox points out, the family was generous, always helping out others, and being ambassadors for yachting.

Still, the Team New Zealand captain has suffered jibes over the years. Russell Green, a former Team New Zealand colleague, says Barker has always battled comments about being "born with a silver spoon in his mouth". "Over the years, people would say,'Oh, Dean has done well because he's had the best gear'. Well, hang on, he has gone out there and done it."

Barker was never afraid to put himself on the line, to prove himself. As 18-year-olds, he and Pepper set off for Europe on a mission. "We wanted to see if we were any good, if we could make it in the world," says Pepper. "If we hadn't done that, I think he would have been a bloody lawyer. I would have been maybe an architect."

It worked out for the pair, who sailed to the top of the Laser class. Back home in 1993, Barker wrestled for the world Laser championship off Takapuna. What could have been a crowning moment became the first of two crushing - but valuable - lessons. On the verge of winning, he lost his grip and finished 10th.

He threw himself into a bid for the 1996 Olympic team. In the trial for the Finn class, his place virtually secured, he botched the last day and lost. As he slipped behind in the last race, Barker banged his tiller extension on his boat and yelled at himself.

It was devastating, but years later his mother reminded him how the loss had altered his course. "The Olympic trials changed my tack," Barker once said. "If I'd won I probably wouldn't be in Team New Zealand. I'd still be sailing a Finn."

Barker walked away from dinghies and on to keelboats. His first experience of crew racing had come a few years earlier - Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron member Tim Snedden asked the young Barker to be his tactician for the 1992 match racing nationals. In the following two years, they won the national title. But in Auckland's Steinlager international regatta, up against the world's best, they were outclassed, though Barker learned the intricacies of match racing and how to sail with a crew.

"He was an affable guy, relatively quiet to start with, but we instantly struck up a rapport," says Snedden. "He always had and still has an impish sense of humour; he doesn't mind having a dig at you. As a person I don't think he has changed a heck of a lot - only in his public persona."

If Barker could dish out gags, he had to take them, too. "The joke with him was that he'd never done an honest day's work in his life," laughs Snedden. "He worked as a gardener for about three months, which we all stirred him about." That career ended after a catastrophe with a hedge.

Barker also began a business diploma, but that, too, was cut short - sailing was what drove him.

His biggest break came from the maestro of match racing, Russell Coutts, who first coached him one weekend in a dinghy. Coutts kept an intrigued eye on him and Barker was invited to join Team New Zealand for the 2000 Cup defence.

Barker and Coutts were always fiercely competitive - on the water or the golf course (another area where Barker has a natural talent). Coutts sent him offshore to hone his match racing skills, and he rose to No 4 skipper on the world circuit even though he was just 25.

It was to Barker and Team New Zealand's benefit. On the Hauraki Gulf in the summer of 1999-2000, he took over sailing the back-up boat in races against the gun crew led by Coutts. Barker started winning.

Coutts was so impressed he famously handed the wheel to Barker for the last race of the 2000 Cup match against Prada. Months later Barker received the phone call with news that Coutts had jumped ship to Alinghi. It turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened to Barker's career.

Instead of being able to concentrate on sailing, he was deflected into a management role. He was not a manager. Barker and other senior figures fought as their campaign imploded. Designers compensated for perceived weaknesses by pushing the boat to the edges. Not even Barker could conjure anything from Black Magic as she fell apart.

As well as the team disappointment, Barker had to deal with the personal pressure the campaign brought on his friendship with Pepper, dumped as tactician before the penultimate race. "2003 was probably one of our toughest moments and we ended up going our separate ways a little bit," says Pepper, who is about to defend his world championship title in the Olympic Star class. It was tough, but the friendship survived, not least because Pepper shares his birthday with Barker's 2-year-old daughter, Mia.

Coping with the blow of 2003 and preparing for this 2007 assault has meant finding his way again. Instead of shouting and bashing the boat as he once did, Barker drew into himself, anger and despair fuelling motivation.

Russell Green, a rules adviser with the 2000 and 2003 defences who was business director with BMW Oracle in this Cup, believes relieving Barker of management responsibilities has helped greatly.

"I think he struggled with the role of being manager and sailor, but we didn't lose in 2003 because of Dean Barker," says Green. "It wasn't lack of sailing - it was a lack of critical technical people in Team New Zealand.

"He hated losing, like everyone did. He has that baby-faced attraction but he has got a steel there to him now, instead of being the boy everybody loves. I've got a lot of respect for him."

As he did after '96, Barker found redemption in sailing. "He has a very smooth style and is very intuitive," says Green. "When I'm umpiring, I've noticed he's like Coutts - more often than not, he comes out on the right side when he's got the pressure on him in a matchrace."

Tim Snedden believes Dalton knew how to handle Barker. "He was down on him like a ton of bricks for the first two years - probably too harshly. I think it was bloody hard for him at the time, but he reacted positively."

FOR a fairytale ending, the handsome prince always needed a stunning bride, and there is no New Zealand celebrity couple more glamorous than Barker and former hockey princess Mandy Smith. According to the Australian Women's Weekly - which covered their nuptials with a 20-page special befitting a royal wedding - their first meeting was the result of cajoling from friends and family. "Without that little bit of pushing in the right direction we probably would never have happened," he told the magazine.

Mandy introduced him to Central Otago where she was born and raised, and Barker has fallen overboard for it. His favourite driving route winds along the historical and dramatic road from Queenstown to Wanaka - far from the sea and the limelight.

Here, the intensely private Barker can be the kid sitting quietly at the back of the class, and the young man eschewing glory on the racetrack. He can forget about sailing and for a while just be the boy behind the wheel who loves to drive.

DEAN BARKER
Age 34
Height 1.92m
Parents Ray and Billie, sister Anna
Married Mandy Smith in 2004. Daughter, Mia (2), with another child on the way
Educated Westlake Boys High School
Responsibilities in 2004: Skipper/helmsman of Team NZ, management of the sailing team, liaison with the design and management teams, overview of the full team
Responsibilities in 2007: Skipper/helmsman of Emirates Team NZ

THE HONOURS BOARD

1988: P-class titles, the Tanner and Tauranga Cups
1993: Asian Pacific Laser Champs (1st), NZ Matchracing Champs (1st), world Laser champs (10th)
1994: NZ Matchracing champs (1st)
1995: NZ Matchracing champs (1st)
1996: Finn class world ranking (5th), Olympic Finn class trials (5th), Kenwood Cup (3rd)
1997: Steinlager Line 7 Cup (2nd), NZ Matchracing champs (2nd), Sydney-Hobart (9th)
1998: Australia Cup (1st), ACI Cup Croatia (2nd), Swedish Match Cup (3rd), Kenwood Cup (1st)
2000: Helms Team NZ in final race against Prada
2001: ISAF World Matchracing champs (1st)
2003: Skipper of Team NZ in 0-5 loss to Alinghi
2004: Olympic Games, Finn class (13th)
2005: Congressional Cup (1st)
2006: MedCup TP52 circuit (2nd)
2007: Louis Vuitton Cup winner