Almost 20 years ago, a young Dean Barker was exiting from a very ordinary series in the World Laser Championships off Takapuna, on Auckland’s North Shore.
In some ways it was the Regatta from Hell - with high expectations from local fans, and short delivery on those, by the former ISAF Youth World Champion. The longer the series went, the worse it got. In the end it seemed that Barker was pleased it was over. Relieved, bowed, but not broken.
That cathartic moment sparked a switch to other forms of sailing, notably match racing, and eight years later, Barker was tune up helmsman on the 'mushroom crew' for Russell Coutts in the 2000 America’s Cup - helming in the final race of the Match. A few weeks later with the departure of Coutts and the 'Tight Five' to Alinghi, Barker found himself promoted to be Team New Zealand’s principal helmsman.
Fast forward to December 2012, and after a very challenging 30 days of sailing spread over five months, at the helm of the first AC72, Dean Barker reflects on what it is like to sail one of the fastest racing yachts in the world.
'On that first sail, in July, there were a lot of very nervous people around. They knew it was the first AC72 to go in the water. A lot of the design choices we made early on, pushed us into a boat that was very technical and complex, and when we sailed for the first time we didn’t want a major incident,' Barker recalls.
'From a sailing team perspective, we had to get out there and see what an AC72 could do', he added,
Four days into the sailing program, the team lined up late one afternoon on the inner Auckland Harbour, and put the AC72 into foiling mode. Photographer Graeme Swan captured a series of images which leaked onto the interweb to gasps of incredulity from sailing aficionados. Many claimed the images of the First Flight were photo-shopped. But a week or so later Emirates Team NZ released some AC72 foiling video, and even the most vociferous of the nay-sayers were eventually silenced.
Emirates Team NZ team said very little in the week or so that intervened, letting rumour, conjecture and commentary to make the running in the PR stakes.
Barker again 'We were on our way back in from a training session, and we were aware that some of our friends from the other teams had seen that we were foiling earlier that day, and it wasn’t going to remain a secret for too much longer. On reflection it probably wasn’t the smartest thing, but it was inevitable that people would see what we were doing.'
Several of the America’s Cup teams have been criticized for putting monohull on the helm of the AC72 catamaran, with the protagonists arguing that multihull specialists should have been in their stead from the get-go.
Barker says that making the transition from the IACC yachts, which he has sailed for 11 years, to the four times faster catamarans was 'not quite a different sport, but it almost is.'
'Multihull sailing has a lot of similarities to monohulls – there are the basic principles that you have in any yacht. But there definitely are aspects of multihull sailing which are counter intuitive.
'In a multihull as it gets windier, you have to be very instinctive. When you start something like a bearaway, for instance, you have to know the exit strategy if things go wrong. You have to learn when the boat is close to the edge. There were a couple of times in the AC45 when we have pushed too far, and found that edge. We don’t want to do that in the AC72.
Barker admits to always being very passionate about car racing, and compare that to America’s Cup sailing in mono/multihulls. 'The difference is that car racing is an adrenaline sport, while IACC sailing is more of a finesse – it’s tuning and tweaking sport to get the last nth out of a boat’s performance.
'Mulitihull sailing is a different world. Multihulls are very gross in that you are looking for speed all the time. You are looking for knots of difference, if the boat is well set up, rather than tenths of a knot.
'These AC72’s certainly take you into the same realm of adrenaline sport as car racing', he adds.
In a previous interview Emirates Team NZ’s MD Grant Dalton, also a grinder aboard AC72, talked about having to 'learn to lean on the boat'.
Dean Barker expands: 'The one thing you learn very quickly is that these boats are apparent wind animals. They are always generating apparent wind. The wind is always in front of you no matter whether you are going up or downwind.
'To both make the boat safe and extract performance, you have to push incredibly hard. There is not a conservative approach to sailing one of these boats. You manage these boats differently as the breeze increases. The best way to manage the power is to sail the boat at its full performance as much as you can.'
'Keep the breeze in front of you, because it is much safer there than when it is behind you', Barker explains - a reference to the dynamics of apparent wind sailing. (Click here for a fuller explanation of Apparent Wind sailing).
Emirates Team NZ have regularly clocked over 40 knots in their first AC72. That’s white knuckle stuff for most. 'The first time couple of times, we got up into the high 30’s and low 40’s, there was a definite tension, because we were pushing into the unknown', Barker recalls. 'You don’t know what the loads are at those high speeds on the foils and the rest of the boat.
'You are obviously nervous about the whole boat holding together, because a failure at those speeds would be catastrophic. But the boat is incredibly well balanced, and you have to work hard at those speeds to keep sailing well.'
'When the boat is properly set up and ripping along, it is quite exhilarating. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to those speeds. Sailing around at 20 knots now feels quite mundane!
'Now we are always looking to push those speeds higher and higher.'
On the America’s Cup course in San Francisco, Barker says it won’t be the same as the long training legs they now sail. The shorter America’s Cup legs will mean they have to be able to sail at the high speeds as much of the time as possible – placing a premium on crew work and sailing accuracy.
Upwind, Barker is notable for his relaxed sailing style. None of your standing erect at the wheel, legs wide apart and braced, coaxing the 72ft catamaran every metre of the beat.
His is a more relaxed style, sitting off to one side, driving with just a light touch on the wheel, and body positioned outboard to get a clear view of the course.
'These boats are very powerful so you can sail a variety of modes upwind. It comes down to having a good relationship with the wingsail trimmers and the jib trimmer, so you get the boat set up, as to how you want to sail at the particular time', Barker explains.
'If you get that sorted then the boat becomes very easy to sail. Trying to keep the boat in the groove is a challenge.
The tornado and accompanying weather system that struck Auckland in early December provided one of the most enjoyable rides the Emirates Team NZ crew had on the AC72.
Faced with having to sail dead downwind in winds in excess of 28knots, the Team’s initial reaction was to seek shelter in the Hauraki Gulft, but a call from their Base advised that winds were expected to increase later in the day and to head for home.
'The boat was incredibly well behaved, and we literally had a blast on the way back, it was an amazing experience', Barker recalls.
Top multihull sailor, Olympic Silver medalist, and multiple world A-class catamaran champion, Glen Ashby, plays a pivotal role on the AC72. 'On that day, the dialogue between him and I was constant', says Barker. 'We were trying to keep the boat nicely balanced, up on the foils and sailing as quickly as we could. We are always talking about where we think the edge is and trying to understand where exactly that point is,' Barker adds.
One of the counter intuitive aspects of multihull sailing , particularly in strong winds is the need to keep the boat pressured, and leaning hard on the foils to generate lift and speed, rather then the monohull approach which is to ease and reduce loads on the boat and rig.
'With boats with lifting foils like the AC72, they allow you to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. If you want to sail the boat well, you have to be prepared to push the boat hard.'
Having had the most foiling of any of the teams in the Class of 2013, does Barker see it as being the silver bullet in the next America’s Cup Match?
'I don’t know if that will be answered until mid-September, 2013', he replies with a slight shake of the head. 'We are operating with a very blank sheet of paper. There are different schools of thoughts between the different teams, with Artemis Racing sailing a very conventional boat, and no apparent intention of foiling their boat. Maybe they will change with the second one, who knows?
'Oracle are probably best described as semi-foiling, they don’t really achieve a good stable flight.
'And then there is ourselves and Luna Rossa who are fully foiling, and foiling in quite a stable way.
'The thing with foiling is that it is not a free lunch, you have to pay for it somewhere. Upwind, we give away a lot for hopefully making a gain downwind. But it still remains to be seen as to whether the benefits are always there.
'Having been able to sail the boat for 30 days, we know where the strengths of the boat are, and relative to the other teams, But until you line up with another boat it is almost impossible to say.
Barker says that the decision as to whether to foil, or not on a particular America’s Cup leg will have to be second nature and intuitive for the AC72 crew as there is no time to refer back to the performance analyst, and his laptop, who rides shotgun on the back of the AC72, at present.
Barker says these boats are under-crewed and they just don’t have the luxury of being able to carry an analyst or navigator as in the past. 'Even the tactician spends a fair amount of his time grinding or in crew maneuvers. The guys have had to adapt and become much more rounded sailors to handle the various functions required on the boat.'
With the first AC72 now out of the water, and being decommissioned Emirates Team New Zealand will sail their AC45 against Italian Challenger, Luna Rossa, in Auckland, as well as doing a small amount of work in the SL33 catamarans which have been a test platform for the team for 18 months.
'The issue now,’ explains Barker, 'is that we are running out of lead time to be able to design and build anything new. We have to narrow in on final configurations. To be able to build new dagger boards, for instance, takes two or three months. 'We just don’t have the time to be able to go through the process of a design and build for the SL33, test on that platform and then repeat the exercise for the AC72', he adds.
'We just have to trust our tools and all the validation we have done over the past couple of years. But in the end you have to make a few blind leaps of faith to be ready in the direction you want to go for San Francisco
'We are armed now with 30 good days of sailing under our belts. But we know we have got a lot still to do and not very much time in which to do it.
'We are definitely trying to hone in and refine the areas which will give us the best chance of winning.' by Richard Gladwell