America’s Cup 2021: The making of American Magic helmsman Dean Barker – The Kiwi who could take down Team New Zealand

When Terry Hutchinson sat down to ponder his helmsman options for a new America’s Cup project, there wasn’t a long list in front of him.

The legendary New York Yacht Club was challenging again for yachting’s oldest prize – for the first time since 2003 – and Hutchinson needed to find the right person, with a unique mix of skills.

Not just someone who could drive the new AC75s – arguably the most advanced boats in Cup history – but an individual who understood all the other nuances of the fabled event.

While those prerequisites limited the field, Hutchinson always had his eyes set on one man. Someone he had first met by chance near his hometown of Annapolis, Maryland sixteen years ago, shared a Cup campaign in Valencia in 2007 and competed with and against in many of the intervening years.

For Hutchinson, the choice of Dean Barker for the most high-profile position in the American Magic syndicate was a no brainer.

“We needed a helmsman that was exceptionally knowledgeable of the America’s Cup, had the foiling experience and had the understanding of what the event was,” Hutchinson told the Herald. “[Dean] also brings experience from a challenger perspective of getting into the [Cup] match.”

Barker ticks a lot of boxes. He’s been through five Cup campaigns, three as challenger, and won two Louis Vuitton Cup finals. The 47-year-old has competed in the Cup match four times, if you include his one shot on the helm in 2000.

Barker was at the forefront of the foiling revolution led by Team New Zealand in 2012, then had to master the smaller catamarans in Bermuda. Probably no one at this regatta has had more time on the Waitematā Harbour than the former Westlake Boys High student and he brings plenty of insight into the defender’s mindset, having spent two decades with Team New Zealand.

But some critics, especially locally, fixate on his supposed inability to land the big one when it matters. There was the defeat in San Francisco in 2013 – with Oracle’s infamous comeback – and a close battle with Alinghi in 2007, including a painful one-second loss in the final race.

But Hutchinson has no doubt his man has the right stuff.

“Ignorance is bliss,” says Hutchinson. “And that’s based on experience. In 2007 there were 16 of us on the boat and we all saw what we saw – the faster boat won. We had a successful campaign, outside of not winning which is the ultimate goal, but we didn’t leave a lot on the table.

“In 2013 they were incredibly unlucky with two races they were winning that were abandoned and then the decision that gave Oracle a lay day. All that gets a little lost in the noise.”

Conversely, Hutchinson argues that in pivotal moments, Barker has excelled.

“In the last race of both those regattas (2007 and 2013) he won the start,” explains Hutchinson.

“Things that were in his control he did a really nice job of controlling, unfortunately the faster boat won. So much of that after the fact, hindsight criticism falls on the helmsman which is incredibly unfair because it is a team.

“We are set up with that mentality. There are certain areas of responsibility and expectations of all of us is that we own our area.

“[Dean] is doing exceptionally good work and I know, and the team knows, if push comes to shove, we will be in good hands.”

Barker’s advantageous family background is often mentioned, but fate hasn’t always been kind to the son of the man behind the clothing empire.

In 2003 he had to helm possibly the worst boat built for a New Zealand Cup campaign – the brittle NZL82 – against the best skipper/tactician duo in Cup history, Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth.

That chastening experience was followed by San Francisco, when Team New Zealand were well ahead three times on match point, only for races to be abandoned for excess or insufficient wind.

“As the thing rolled on, someone was looking after them [Oracle],” reflects former Team New Zealand sailor Adam Beashel, who sailed alongside Barker for more than a decade. “Everything fell their way. We certainly didn’t roll over and die and Dean did a superb job in that regatta.”

“People tend to blame the helmsman,” says former Team New Zealand director Jim Farmer. “Dean is a modest guy, but a great sailor and he won a lot of the starts in San Francisco.”

Hutchinson first met Barker in 2003, when the New Zealander was visiting friends in Maryland. The American joined Team New Zealand the following year and was Barker’s tactician throughout that campaign.

Hutchinson left the Kiwi syndicate after Valencia, but the duo continued to cross swords on the international circuit.

“For the better part of eight years we were competitors,” says Hutchinson. “During that time there was always a healthy amount of respect for each other’s sailing skills and we maintained a good friendship.”

Now the duo are charged with New York Yacht Club’s latest quest for yachting’s holy grail. Hutchinson is aware of the storied history – he vividly recalls as a 14-year-old in 1983 watching the end of New York’s 132-year Cup reign – and was proud to sail under Dennis Conner in 2003 in Auckland, the club’s most recent challenge.

“It’s awesome to be a part of the club’s history,” says Hutchinson. “It’s New York so the [Cup] bond is always there. But there is no extra pressure to perform; I can assure you we put way more pressure on ourselves than anyone else ever could.”

Of the three challengers, the United States team were the most impressive during December’s America’s Cup World Series. They were the only syndicate to topple Team New Zealand and led Te Rehutai in their second clash before gear failure intervened.

They’ve endured a steep learning curve, as the only ‘new’ team in this Cup cycle but have progressed well with each milestone. They led the field with the launch of Defiant and Patriot and accumulated more hours on the water than any team last year.

Barker’s status in this country means he will be in the spotlight across the Prada Cup, in a battle of wits against Jimmy Spithill (Luna Rossa) and Sir Ben Ainslie (Ineos Team UK), but Hutchinson is quick to deflect the glare.

“Dean is one piece of the puzzle,” says Hutchinson. “But there are 100 people that are the same piece of the puzzle. If you believe in the concept, which we do, that we are only as strong as our teammates – it is not on one person.

“It is on all of us to win.”

Heading into the Cup racing?

• Be aware that traffic will be busy, and parking will be very limited.

• Give yourself plenty of time and think about catching a ferry, train or bus instead.

• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It’s the best way to ride to the Cup.

• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup.

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