There are few sailors who have experienced the intense highs and lows of America’s Cup racing like Dean Barker. In the space of 13 years, he has steered the final race in a successful defence for New Zealand in 2000, lost the Cup skippering Team New Zealand in 2003, failed to win it back in a close contest with Alinghi in 2007, then held what appeared to be an unbeatable lead in 2013 against Team Oracle USA, before ending-up on the wrong side “of one of sport’s greatest comebacks.”
It’s a history that would have broken a lesser individual, but Barker is back chasing the painfully elusive dream of securing sailing’s ultimate prize.
Ivor Wilkins speaks exclusively with the CEO and skipper of Softbank Team Japan about his determination to climb the mountain one more time.
There have been times when Dean Barker looked as if his shoulders were bowed, if not under the weight of the world, then certainly under the weight of a nation. Small as it is, New Zealand’s America’s Cup expectations have always been precociously large – yet, the record shows it has reached the loftiest heights of its own ambitions.
But, it has also suffered crushing failure, first in the 5-0 loss of the Cup in front of home fans in 2003 and then the death by a thousand cuts in San Francisco when Oracle Team USA staged that inconceivable comeback to retain the Cup. On both occasions, Barker looked a broken man.
Then came the messy divorce as Emirates Team New Zealand restructured for 2017 and turned to younger rising talents in the form of 49er aces Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.
Let’s not forget, however, that Barker has also tasted significant success – as a very young sparring partner to Russell Coutts in the successful 2000 defence of the Cup in Auckland and also in twice winning the Louis Vuitton Cup. The competitive fires still burn and the ETNZ exit was not an acceptable epitaph to his America’s Cup career. When the opportunity arose to lead a Japanese challenge, he leaped at it.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, the saying goes, and as he set about building the Softbank Team Japan campaign from the ground up, he has looked re-energised, engaged, a man with a mission, happy.
Even if this was not the narrative he would have chosen, does he perhaps feel liberated from the baggage of New Zealand’s Cup story? “Some of the best years of my life were working in New Zealand,” he says.
“I enjoyed the friendships of people I worked with. It obviously wasn’t something I would have wanted to end the way it did. I wanted to continue racing. I have a huge love of the sport, the racing and the competition, so when this opportunity came around, it was certainly unexpected, but it has been amazing.
“To be able to continue to race in a different environment and with a different level of expectation, does mean you can go out and relax a bit and have some fun. I am enjoying this environment we have created. Having the ownership of doing something new and in the way you would like to do it has been very satisfying. It is very rewarding being part of this new team.”
Japan, of course, is not new to the America’s Cup and it has always had strong connections with New Zealand and Australia. Chris Dickson skippered the first Nippon Challenge campaign in 1992, John Cutler in 1995 and Peter Gilmour in 2000, the last time the Rising Sun flag flew over the Cup arena.