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Dean Barker - One Year On

It’s been a little over a year now since Dean Barker stumbled away from the wreckage of his 20-year association with America’s Cup-syndicate, Team New Zealand, in the wake of the now legendary turnaround defeat in the 34th Cup final in San Francisco. 

Despite the crushing loss, afterwards Barker remained largely popular with the sporting public in New Zealand. However, as the Kiwi team scrambled to find a way to appease both an unsympathetic national media and their government backers, it was he who carried the can and got unceremoniously demoted from skipper to what amounted to a management desk job. 

After opting instead to walk away from the team he had been part of almost all his life, Barker was left bereft and faced an uncertain future until a phone call from Russell Coutts offered a way back in to the Cup. A boardroom-level deal brokered by ORACLE Team USA owner Larry Ellison would make Barker head of a new Japanese syndicate – SoftBank Team Japan.

The Japanese entry was perilously late to the party, limited on funds and fated to rely heavily on hand-me-down designs and technology from Ellison’s team. Despite these unappealing odds, for Barker this was a chance to continue his lifelong quest to lift the America’s Cup and he didn’t hesitate for a second before taking the project on.   

Smartly capitalising on the withdrawal of Italian Luna Rossa team from the Cup Barker quickly snapped up their helmsman, Britain’s Chris Draper as his wing trimmer and tactician before poaching his former Team NZ teammates Jeremy Lomas, Derek Saward and Winston Macfarlane to join veteran Japanese Cup campaigner Kazuhiko Sofuku as the founding members of the fledgling SoftBank challenge. 

A lot has happened in the SoftBank Team Japan camp since those early days and when I checked in with Barker recently at the America’s Cup World Series event in New York I found him looking relaxed and happy and justifiably proud of what the Japanese outfit have achieved in their first 12 months.

“It's actually less than a year since we started up properly,” he told me. “When I think back to the very beginning of May last year there was really just Fuku [Kazuhiko Sofuku] and I and pretty much nothing else. Now we are fully relocated to Bermuda, we have a full team operating there and we have been doing plenty of sailing in the test boat. By the end of May, the base will be open in Bermuda and we will have competed in five World Series events.”

When we last spoke at the beginning of the campaign Barker had given me a cynical smile when I asked how the arrangement for sharing design info with his former nemesis team ORACLE Team USA would work. “Erm - yet to be decided,” he had said wryly back then. 

Now however, the SoftBank skipper and CEO is effusive in his praise for the cooperation he has received from the OTUSA design team. 

“They have been fantastic,” he said. “We couldn't have asked for a better relationship right from the get-go. They’ve been very supportive in helping us get up and going and without that help this team would not be able to operate at anything like the level that it is now. 

“Our relationship with ORACLE is what’s allowed us to get well set up in Bermuda with a very good boat to get out there on the water to test on. Working with their design group has helped us immensely and hopefully we can feed information back into that process as well.”

Purchasing the first of the Defender’s three development boats has leapfrogged Barker’s men past the French syndicate who have yet to launch a test boat and arguably put them on par with Barker’s former teammates ETNZ who have been making do with one of Luna Rossa’s original foiling AC45s down in New Zealand.

According to Barker, getting hold of the ORACLE boat has made a huge difference to the Japanese team’s progress along the learning curve.  

“It has given our guys an opportunity to start developing the control systems and to take a look at different daggerboards, as well as modifying lots of the other equipment around the boat. We really feel like we have made some massive strides in development since we got the boat.”

Since taking delivery of the boat at the end of last year, Barker says the boat’s systems have been so heavily modified as to be almost unrecognisable from their original form.

“They are very complex boats and it's a fascinating process when you start analysing the systems and looking at how you might improve them. That boat came complete as a fully working boat, but since then we have removed a lot of stuff and put our own systems in as we modify and customise the boat to how we want to sail it. It feels like most of the ideas we have had have worked well, but there is still plenty left on the table.”

In a development race like this America’s Cup is turning out to be, Barker says you have to keep pushing and pushing the design envelope. However, he also points out that it’s vital to be able to analyse and assimilate what the sailors experience in the real world out on the water – something that apparently is harder than you might think. 

Being based in Bermuda means SoftBank get the chance to line up against the ORACLE and Artemis Racing teams who both have two development boats at their disposal. This is in itself represents a significant gain in the game of catch up Barker’s team has been playing for the last year against the Kiwis, British and French teams who are yet to establish a base in Bermuda. 

“For us as a new group it's invaluable to work with two very strong teams like Artemis and ORACLE and to be able to push our learning curve as hard as we can,” he says. “Both Artemis and Oracle have got two boats that they regularly sail together, which means often there are five of these suped-up 45s charging around the Sound.

“Those sessions are really interesting because you can be out there training in isolation and thinking things are going along pretty well,” Barker explains. “But it's only when you line up with another boat that pretty quickly you know where is good and where is bad and what the boats like or don't. 

“The goal is to get consistently good at sailing these boats and that is something that takes a significant time investment,” Barker says. “Often you come back ashore feeling like you have taken two steps backwards. But then over time you learn the lessons about how the boats sail and how you need to handle them. 

“The problem though is that you don't really know what the other guys are up to and where they are up to with their development or testing. So you have to make a lot of assumptions.

"It's important to understand why you were faster or slower than somebody else and although you can see the physical elements of the boat, you don't necessarily see the hidden systems that make the boats easier to sail. I think that is part of the intrigue that we are all up against in this next cycle.”

A typical Bermuda work week at SoftBank Team Japan is made up of five or six days but Barker says working seven straight days is apparently not uncommon for the team when needs must. Unsurprisingly in this era of the America’s Cup where hydraulics oil pressure is required to make the boats sail, there is a significant physical element with the sailors hitting the gym five days per week as an absolute minimum. 

“We love to get three or four days on the water if possible,” Barker tells me. “Although conditions through the winter in Bermuda proved to be a little bit challenging at times with a few storm systems blowing through, so we needed to be selective about the days we tried to get the sailing in. As we now move into the more settled period the number of sailing days has really increased.”

I wondered if having to break off from all that crew training and boat development work in Bermuda to compete in the America’s Cup World Series events ever felt like an unwarranted distraction? Far from it, according to Barker.

“These World Series events are fantastic,” he enthused. “I think it’s really important for the America’s Cup to have some sort of presence on the international stage between Cup cycles, rather than historically when the teams would turn up every two or three years to go racing and in between everyone forgot all about the Cup. That approach is just not justifiable any more in terms of returns for sponsors and all the other commercial aspects. 

“This new model brings the events close to spectators in many countries around the world and the new foiling, short-course format makes the sport very appealing to a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily have been interested in sailing previously.

“It's also a great opportunity for the teams to trial different combinations, try different sailors and to generally build the culture and racecraft you need to be good performers in these boats. So, for all those reasons, we embrace the World Series and think it's a fantastic thing.”

The ACWS events also give the shore team time to work on the test boat while the sailors are away racing the AC45F. 

“In total we have a team of about 38 people in Bermuda and when we come to an ACWS event we bring a squad of about 15,” Barker says. “That means there are plenty of people still in Bermuda and there is a lot of work still going on on the test boat. 

“The ACWS events constitute a sort of enforced downtime and that means you can set your programme around the World Series calendar. We don't have the resources to carry on sailing during the events so we try to schedule in blocks of work like changes or mods or to the boat.”

Two of the aspects of the team’s evolution that bring a smile to Barker’s face are the quality of his relationship with Chris Draper and the integration of the two Japanese sailors – 470 helmsman Yugo Yoshida and rower Yuki Kasatani - into the squad. 

“I'm really enjoying sailing with Chris and I feel like our interaction and communication is going really well,” he said. “That's important because it's a key relationship on the boat and will become even more so when we launch the AC50.”

“The Japanese pair have been brilliant. Yuki comes from rowing and has represented Japan but has no real sailing background. He's been getting on very well in the gym and has got very strong very quickly. Then there's Yugo who comes from a 470 sailing background and he brings a real depth of sailing ability. I have been really impressed with the way he has learned the boats.

“They joined the team in January and they have both been on fire from day one. They are loving the team culture and have fitted in really well and are both working very hard. They have been doing a lot of sailing on the test boat.”

Ensuring the team is ‘Japanese enough’ is high on Barker’s agenda as the head of the syndicate, along with raising the team’s public profile back in Japan. The much mooted ACWS event rumoured to be held there before the end of this year would help in both these areas – if it comes off. 

“The Japanese ACWS event isn't confirmed yet,” Barker says somewhat ruefully. “These deals take a lot of time to get all the key ingredients together enough to be able to push the button. But it's looking positive and as a team we would love it if it happened.

“We know one of the big things we have to work hard on is to get some real growth in interest and to build a following in Japan,” Barker adds. “There are five Japanese people within the team now and we have a big involvement with the Japanese community in Bermuda. 

“We are doing what we can to grow our profile in Japan and we integrate a lot with SoftBank on their marketing initiatives. The truth is that sailing is very much a minority sport there and it's going to take time to get the momentum going properly.”

Barker’s biggest frustration to date is SoftBank’s lacklustre performance so far in the AC World Series events. 

“We feel like we have often sailed better than the results would show,” he told me. “But in the end it's consistency throughout the regatta that counts. In each event we can easily put our fingers on where and when we made losses around the course and as part of a new group this is all part of the learning process.”

“We can certainly see a number of areas we can improve, but in general I think we do a lot of the race well, it's just that every now and then we let ourselves down with a poor decision or bad communication or something like that. We know that we will get better and better as we do more racing, so every time we line up on the start line is hopefully going to show an improvement for us.”

Does Barker and Draper’s impressive combined tally of AC72 helming hours from the last Cup count for much this time around, I wondered, and just how similar or different are these much smaller but almost as fast development boats to sail?

“The speeds we have already recorded in these new development boats are not that much slower than the 72s,” Barker says. “We hit a top speed in San Francisco in our boat [Ed, note: ETNZ] of just a click over 50 knots - 50.2 knots, I think it was - and we often saw speeds in the mid to high forties when the boats were going around mark one of the course. 

“So those boats used to rip along, but the new development boats are already not a lot slower and given the right configuration and the development that goes into the AC class boats [Ed, note: the 50-footers that will be used in 2017] I think you could see us get close to or even surpass the speeds of the AC72s.

“The AC72s were big powerful boats - quite wide for their length - and they they generated a huge amount of power. However, the rudder differential systems on the new 45s deliver a significant amount of righting moment and that generates a huge amount of extra speed.

“On the 72 everything was damped down a lot more, you had more time to react and the boat was inherently a bit more stable. Whereas in the development 45 you everything happens quickly and you instantly feel everything that's going on and you know straight away when you are sailing the boat well and when you are not. That means your reaction times have to be really sharp and it's a real challenge for the sailors.”

To maximise the potential for design development to the absolute limit, Barker does not plan to launch the final AC50 boat that the Japanese team will pin their hopes on in the Challenger Series in Bermuda next year, until early January 2017. The sign off on the final design will have to happen much earlier, however, to ensure enough runway to get the custom components built and tested in time.

“These boats take quite some time to commission,” Barker says. “A lot of the components are underway already but the longer we can leave signing off on the very final decisions the better, because we are learning things every day we go sailing that can be input back into the design. So there’s a constant battle between giving yourself as much design time as you can with the current boat, but trying to make sure you don’t have to make dramatic changes to the one in build."

The SoftBank boat will be built at Core Builders Composites in Warkworth, New Zealand so that they can share tooling costs on the one-design elements of the boat with several of the other teams. 

“Out of the same hull moulds they will build our hulls, Oracle's hulls and I think Team New Zealand's hulls too,” Barker explains. “I think they have built beams for Artemis as well as ours and Oracle's and they have done the wing leading elements for four teams up to now. The standardisation of these parts is now translating into cost savings for a lot of the teams - mainly around the costs of tooling.”

I was surprised to find that there is not a sole mandated manufacturer for all the one-design elements of next year’s Cup boats. According to Barker there was a great deal of initial discussion about doing it that way, but in the end the teams could not agree on a fair way of divvying up the components.

“There is a logic to having one source that the teams all buy from, but inevitably there will be variations and then you get the problem of how to determine who gets which parts. Then there's the question of whether anyone is willing to sign off in terms of liability. So, in the end the decision was made to have common tooling and allow people to make the decision on where they order from.”

To comply with the protocol and the ‘constructed in country’ section of the Deed of Gift, the Japanese boat’s bows will be built in Japan at the Yamaha facility. The boat will be fully shipped from New Zealand to Bermuda – a six-to-eight-week window - for fitting out and making ready for sailing. 

It’s a complex logistics project that Barker acknowledges will take some careful managing and coordination. 

“We have a very clear process and a well-defined timeline, but boats never end up being built quicker than you planned. We will still be making decisions all the way through to the point the boat goes in the water, but there are obviously some hard and fast dates that we need to meet along the way, otherwise the boat will be late. 

“You have a two-or-three-month lead time on daggerboards, for example. It all creeps up on you pretty quickly and I often end up feeling like: wow, we have only just got going but we are already making some final decisions.”

The final design of the boat will be based around what the ORACLE TEAM USA designers have been willing to share, but Barker was unsure at this point as to how much this would be modified to suit the SoftBank crew. 

“It's hard to put a definitive number on that,” he said. “We work closely with the Oracle design group and we have taken some of their output and modified it. In the end I think we will end up with some sort of hybrid model of the direction they are pushing in and what we feel is strong. It may be strange to say, but I'm pretty sure their guys are looking for slightly different features to the design than we are. 

“You have to bear in mind as well, that the conditions for the Challenger Selection Series could different to what you will get for the actual America’s Cup Match. There might be more breeze around the time of the Match so that would influence the decisions that we have to make.

“What is encouraging is that a lot of the things we have tried have moved us in a positive direction. A good example is our daggerboard designs, which we have worked on in collaboration with the OTUSA designers with Nick Holroyd [Ed. Note: SoftBank Team Japan technical director] heavily involved in that process. We have managed to try out a couple of different things around the boards that have been good and that gives us more ideas to push on with for the next generation of boards.”

Although Barker says time is the one resource he would always wish for more of, he is also clearly proud of what has been achieved so far by the Japanese squad under his guidance.

“A bit more time would always be nice,” he says with a grin. “For us, time is always the one issue we are going to keep bumping up against. But, with the guys we've got and the team we have assembled, I have been really really happy with the progress to date. 

“The one thing we would really like to improve on is the World Series results and happily that's something that is well within our control. In my wildest dreams I never thought we would be where we are right now.  

“I am really enjoying my role and it's been a great experience so far.”

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