Dean Barker carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders - and sailing insiders say that he's up to it, writes SUZANNE McFADDEN.



Picture this: Dean Barker, red faced, standing in the middle of the Team New Zealand compound dressed only in, presumably, his Barkers boxers. It happened a few weeks ago. While the lean young skipper was undergoing a physical test measuring his body fat, some of his crewmates stole his clothes and hid them in the fridge. It took a while for Barker to find them.



"Don't worry, it was just the boys getting their own back," says black boat trimmer James Dagg, a childhood buddy of Barker's, revealing that yes, our clean-cut, golden-haired sailing hero is capable of cooking up practical jokes of his own.



Or maybe that should read "was". Over the past 12 months Dean Barker has become a more serious young man. Down at the big black shed in the America's Cup village, people have witnessed something of a transformation as the 28-year-old kid who once "threw wobblies" when he didn't get his own way, grew into a level-headed leader. Which is reassuring. He is, after all, captain of one of New Zealand's foremost sports teams defending the world's oldest trophy.

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Barker's father, Ray, admits to having some doubts when his son took him out to lunch in May last year and broke the news that was about to shock the nation. Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth had left Team New Zealand, and Barker had been offered the leadership alongside navigator Tom Schnackenberg (who, incidentally, is exactly twice his age).



"I wasn't so concerned about him being skipper. But I was worried about how, at his age, he would handle heading up Team New Zealand," Barker senior said. "But so far he's been great. He's always been mature, but Billie [Dean's mother] and I are amazed at how he has become even more mature so suddenly.



"When he was younger, he could throw a real wobbly if things weren't going right, but that's part of his determination. Now he has learned to control his emotions better. If something upsets him, he goes very quiet, and we leave him to it."



The younger Barker grins at memories of his temper tantrums and admits he has made a concerted effort to change how he deals with things.



"There are still days when I'm pissed off about something - but now I take it home and I try to make sure I sleep on it before I deal with it," he says. "With this job, you have to get good at managing your frustrations."



Up until now, Barker has had little experience as the leader of a team. Although he played soccer at primary school, he moved to solo sport, sailing dinghies - a passion that was to consume his teenage years.



"I became quite self-reliant," he says. "In some ways it would have been good to come through the rugby kind of mould, but then I wouldn't have come this far in sailing."



And how did he take to being made skipper of Team New Zealand when he was barely 27 and after several shocking defections that left the team in a shambles?



"It was daunting at first," Barker says. "But I've really, really enjoyed it so far - there seems to be a different challenge every day."



And no, he never dreamed that his day at the helm would come so soon - let alone come at all.



There is something distinctly fairytale about this story. Dean Barker was a sure bet to win New Zealanders' hearts from the day when, as a virtual unknown, he took the wheel of NZL60 in the final race of the 2000 America's Cup match - and won.



A few months later, after Coutts and Brad Butterworth bailed out, the golden boy bravely stepped up alongside Schnackenberg, the wise little navigator with a masters degree in nuclear physics. This odd couple had to save the syndicate after a rash of defections left the ship listing sharply.



Soon afterward Barker became the world matchracing champion in Croatia against near-impossible odds - racing all day and phoning sailors through the night to try to salvage a Team New Zealand crew out of the debris for the 2003 cup defence.



Then there is the princess in his fairytale, the gorgeous Mandy Smith, one of the world's top hockey players, who has won public hearts in her own right.



Friends say that the calm and centred Smith, a businesswoman when she is not playing hockey, has been a good, steadying influence on Barker and she is incredibly supportive of his sailing career.



They play a lot of golf together and share a central-city house overlooking the sea. He drives her around in a sleek, black, two-seater Toyota Lexus convertible borrowed from one of the team's five sponsors, sporting the famous number plate, NZL32, that used to be attached to Sir Peter Blake's more family-style saloon.



Barker loves cars, especially fast ones. He used to race a Ford Escort Mark I around the country, but he's had to take more caution in his new job.



But this is a whole step upwards. How does it feel to whip round the waterfront at 28 with a little silver fern emblazoned on your driver's door and the famous NZL32 number plate?



On the back seat of the sportscar as we whiz around the waterfront are a brown curly wig and large dark glasses. Barker is adamant that these are not part of a disguise, but belong to his sister Anna, who he collected from a fancy-dress party the other night.



Recently, though, there have been times when Barker would have been happy to have the wig as he and Smith became fuel for the international paparazzi, ending up "incredibly frustrated" to find themselves plastered across women's magazines and newspapers.



The latest magazine spread was snapped while they were on holiday in Fiji. The photographer seized the moment while on his honeymoon when Barker and Smith turned up at the same resort.



"It's incredibly disappointing to see photos taken of us on holiday," says a clearly frustrated Barker. "That was our time together. We want to be able to relax when we go away. We're just like normal people who want time to ourselves.



"Mandy and I find it amusing that people are interested in us in the first place. But with the sports we're in, it's very difficult to be anonymous, and the fact we're together attracts the paparazzi," he explains.



"But we're not going to change our life because of what may or may not be in a photo. I can only hope there are only so many photos that can be taken of us walking across the street or drinking a cup of coffee."



For all that, and as much as he dislikes the prying of telescopic lenses, Barker wants people to know that he is not unapproachable.



"I love it when people come up and talk to me in the supermarket," he says. "The public shouldn't feel frightened about talking to any of the guys - everyone is happy to talk."



Ray Barker says he never imagined he'd see his son on the cover of a women's mag. But then, he didn't expect the skinny little lad would grow up to be skipper of an America's Cup team, either.



One thing was for sure, the father always knew the son would not be following him into the successful family clothing business, Barker's Mens Clothing, with its five upmarket Auckland shops.



"Dean likes nice clothes, but he has never shown any fashion flair," says his father. "He just grew up watching people like Chris Dickson, Grant Dalton and Russell Coutts making a living out of sailing, and he wanted to be as good, if not better, than them."



Perhaps it was inevitable - the young Barker had watched his father sponsor Coutts' gold-medal Olympic Finn campaign in 1984.



"My family have been like my mentors," says Barker. "When I went and told dad that Russell and Brad were leaving, he put on a brave face and said, 'You have our support to do it'. And they've helped me so much financially over the years."



Which is one reason why Barker wears his father's labels when he is not kitted out in the black and silver Team NZ gear. He may be one of the world's top sailors, but like the billboards say, "his father still dresses him". "I like to help them out a little," he smiles.



Barker's sailing career almost came to grief on his first solo sail. Growing up on Auckland's North Shore, his father pushed him out on to Lake Pupuke one day in a tiny Optimist dinghy to see how he would get on. The 10-year-old had to be rescued, screaming and howling, from the middle of the lake by a resident.



"It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was terrified. There was no way I was ever getting in a boat again," Barker recalls.



He almost gave it all away again in 1996, when he had the Olympic berth in the Finn dinghy at his fingertips, but lost the trials on the final day to Craig Monk.



That was one of a couple of times in Barker's early career when he choked in the face of victory. The other notable occasion was the world Laser championships, sailed off Takapuna, when he led the fleet, then ended up 10th.



What kind of omen is this for February 2003? Barker believes it is an excellent one. He has known the hurt of failure, he knows where he went wrong, and the Olympic trials in particular were a turning point in his life.



"Nothing else really mattered to me but the Olympics - so it [failing to qualify] was a massive setback," he says. "I couldn't see myself continuing in sailing. I was in limbo. Fortunately I had more than a day to think through that one. I gave myself plenty of time.



"And as my mum said at the time, although it's hard to see it, one door has closed and another one will open. Now I think if I had won those trials and gone to the Olympics, I might still be sailing a dinghy right now."



Certainly James Dagg, who sailed against Barker in single-handed dinghies and then with him as a crewmate in keelboats, sees a different man today.



"I think he's much more relaxed sailing with other people than he was when he was on his own," Dagg says. "He's very level-headed, and he runs his ideas past other people."



After venturing into keelboat racing, calling tactics for crews, Barker joined the Team NZ campaign for the 2000 defence - and quickly became one of the young hopefuls Coutts singled out for special attention.



Although Barker wasn't in the original reckoning for the back-up helmsman's job - tactician Murray Jones was being groomed for the part - Coutts approached a couple of promising guys in the team to have a go on the world matchracing circuit. And Barker scrambled together a crew for his first regatta.



Tom Schnackenberg was intrigued by what unfolded. "You know when Russell started matchracing, he showed signs of a beginner," he says. "You know - running into a wharf, crashing into the committee boat. But Dean hardly made a mistake.



"He came second in his first international matchracing regatta. It was obvious he had huge natural talent."



The talent did not escape Coutts, who put Barker behind the wheel of one of the black boats in the hundreds of days of training leading up to the cup match in February 2000, and then raced against him.



"Russell would win five out of 10, and it was great for the team," says Schnackenberg. "That's when it became obvious to everyone that Dean was the heir apparent."



Even then, when Coutts offered Barker the helm in that fateful fifth race of the America's Cup match in 2000, Schnackenberg told Coutts he didn't think it was a good idea. After all, Coutts had nothing to lose. If he had sailed and lost, he would just sail again the next day. But if Barker lost, it would put a huge blemish on a career that hadn't really even begun.



Coutts' punt was right - today history celebrates a new hero. Since then however, there have been the inevitable comparisons between the old skipper and the new rising star.



"People wonder if I am good enough to take over from where Russell was. The only way that will be known is in 2003," says Barker. "We've got a much bigger job on our hands this time - we're in a lot weaker position as far as the experience of the other teams goes. But I've got the senior guys in the team to help me when I'm not sure about something."



From the outside, things have not shaped up brilliantly for Barker so far this year. Whereas last year he was at the top of the world matchracing heap, this year it has been Coutts' domain once more. However, people in the know realise that the youngster, who dropped to 10th in the latest world rankings, has been obliged to stay home for much of the season, learning the skipper's job off the water, dealing with crew commitments, going to design meetings, pressing flesh with the sponsors.



"I've had a lot more distractions," admits Barker. "I'd go to regattas but not be as focused when I got there. It's something I'm well aware of, and I'm not particularly concerned about.



"You've got to taper off for a little while - you can't physically keep going at the top like that for three straight years. It's not the time to be on top of the world right now."



Schnackenberg points out that Coutts and Barker have different qualities.



"Dean is not Russell. Maybe he doesn't have the same absolute determination that Russell is famous for. But he might have more ability, tolerance and physical strength than Russell - being 10 years younger has got to help.



"Just how good is he? Well, it's that uncertainty factor, just like in physics. And I guess that's part of our weaponry this time, people just don't really know."