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David Barnes, triple 470 world champion and Big Boat skipper, dies at 62

by Yachting NZ/ 23 Oct 03:05 PDT 23 October 2020
David Barnes (helm) Hamish Willcox (crew) on their way to winning the 1984 470 World Championship. They won three world 470 titles 1981-1984 and placed third in the other in that era. © PJ Montgomery

The New Zealand sailing community lost a revolutionary figure Friday morning with the passing of David Barnes. He was 62.

He began his sailing career at the Paremata Boating Club, Wellington in conjunction with several other sailors who would also go onto achieve significant sailing success.

Barnes completed the double of junior sailing in New Zealand winning the Tanner and Tauranga Cups for P class in 1973. He backed that up with a very rare triple, winning the national championship in the Starling class in 1974. He backed that up a year later with a third place in the Youth Worlds sailing the 420 class with fellow Paremata sailor, Murray Jones - who went on to be part of the sailing crew in four America's Cup winning campaigns, and sailing coach in two others including Emirates Team NZ's win in 2017 in Bermuda..

When he moved to Auckland, Barnes started sailing OK dinghies, but was too light for the one-man singlehanded. However his slight frame and light weight was ideal for the helmsman's role in the 470 class.

Barnes won three 470 world titles with Hamish Willcox in 1981, 1983 and 1984. The pair finished third in the 1982 World 470 titles. Despite being easily the most dominant crew in the 470 in the 1984 Quadrennium, Barnes and Wuillcox missed Olympic selection in the sudden death local Olympic trials conducted after the 1984 World championship.

Barnes went on to be involved in six America's Cup campaigns between 1985 and 2003. He was helmsman of the backup boat in the 1987 campaign in Fremantle and a year later was famously skipper of Team New Zealand's 'Big Boat' challenge of 1988 when they took on Dennis Conner's catamaran. His last two America's Cup campaigns were with US and British teams - being CEO of the British team in 2003.

Willcox teamed up with Barnes in 1980 and remembers the helmsman as a deep thinker who was always pushing the boundaries when it came to both technique and the technical side of the sport.

The pair were the first New Zealanders to win an Olympic class world title and their first, in 1981, happened to also be their first regatta in Europe. They did it having come up with a different way of sailing the 470 - lower and faster - and became known for making significant changes to their mast and sail setup, centreboard and rudder.

Barnes even tried a two-skin jib sail setup which is a feature of the present generation of America's Cup boat. He also came up with a different approach to mast rake in the Flying Dutchman which everyone in the fleet imitated.

"David was a very revolutionary thinker," Willcox said. "He was always thinking outside the box and came up with new concepts no one had thought of. He was always looking for an advantage and was confident enough to do it himself rather than looking to manufacturers to produce it.

"That's what stood him apart, and still does. He was a pioneer. We didn't see that happen very often, especially when you come from a far corner of the world like New Zealand. He made significant changes to two Olympic classes and everyone was desperately trying to catch up."

This country was a 470 powerhouse in the 1980s with the likes of Barnes, Willcox, Chris Dickson, Dave Mackay, Peter Evans, Joey Allen, Murray Jones and Terry and Peter Nicholas.

That internal competition was critical to the overall success of Kiwis sailors - New Zealand crews finished first, second and third at the 1984 world championships and five were in the top 10 - but it also meant Barnes and Willcox both missed out on Olympic selection over the course of their careers.

Both had long associations with the America's Cup and Barnes became Michael Fay's right-hand-man for the Big Boat challenge of 1988. He was also helm until the final stages of the 1992 campaign and was involved in subsequent campaigns with Australian, American and British teams.

"As well as his sailing brain, he had a natural feel for a boat," Willcox said. "I would rate him as high, if not the highest, of anyone I have sailed with. He was one of the few New Zealanders who could sail the boat well in light airs."

Barnes had his challenges over the last decade as he battled with multiple sclerosis. In 2013 he became involved with Kiwi Gold Sailing alongside fellow America's Cup veteran Rick Dodson as they attempted to qualify a Sonar for the 2016 Paralympics but withdrew from the team a year later as his condition worsened.

"He was also a very talented endurance athlete, musician, husband [to Karen] and dad [to Jason, Sacha and Logan]," Willcox said. "He was a great family man so it is a huge loss to them and a huge loss to the sailing community."

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