Back calling tactics on board Vladimir Prosikhin’s Team Nika this season is America’s Cup skipper and helmsman Dean Barker.
The mild-mannered Kiwi is best known for the three America’s Cups he spent behind the wheel of Emirates Team New Zealand’s boats during their unsuccessful defence in 2003, getting through to line up against Alinghi again in the America’s Cup final in 2007 in Valencia and then the victory that slipped through their fingers in 2013 when Oracle Team USA incredibly fought back from 1-8 down. In between Barker helmed the Kiwi team to victory twice on the Audi MedCup.
For the America’s Cup in Bermuda last year, Barker skippered Softbank Team Japan, falling to Artemis Racing in the America's Cup Challenger Play-off semi-finals. For the next America’s Cup, back in his native New Zealand in 2021, Barker has been signed up to helm the powerful American challenge, newly christened ‘New York Yacht Club American Magic’. This team will reunite his with his 2007 tactician Terry Hutchinson, who is managing the Doug de Vos/Hap Fauth-backed US campaign.
With the launch of their new America’s Cup foiling monohull not due until spring 2019, Barker is spending this season steering the Quantum Racing TP52 for three events and calling tactics for Vladimir Prosikhin aboard the Team Nika on the RC44 circuit.
Over the years, Barker’s involvement has been sporadic with the RC44 – the boat conceived by his former mentor Russell Coutts, whom he succeeded at Team New Zealand. He sailed the 2008 season on Artemis Racing when Torbjörn Törnqvist made his debut in the RC44 class. He joined Patrick de Barros for a couple of events on Black Pearl and stood in for Russell Coutts to call tactics for Larry Ellison on board BMW Oracle Racing in Malcesine in 2009. TP52 and America’s Cup commitments then kept Barker away from the class until 2015 when he first signed on with Team Nika.
“I did three of the five events that year,” recalls Barker. “It was a great experience - we won the World Championship and the team won the season as well. It was a good year…”
In fact with Barker’s return to his team this season, Vladimir Prosikhin’s intention has been to reassemble as much as possible of his 2015 ‘supreme team’. This includes main trimmer Zach Hurt, plus other Barker regulars, Sean Clarkson in the pit and Jeremy Lomas on the bow, alongside the Slovenian contingent – main trimmer Tomaz Copi, offside trimmer Mitja Margon and grinder Iztok Knafelc (hence why May’s RC44 Portorož Cup will be as significant to Team Nika as it will be for Igor Lah’s Team CEEREF.)
“For Vladimir it is about enjoying the social side as the sailing and it is great, there is a nice feeling in the team,” says Barker.
Prosikhin has been fortunate during his time in the RC44 class to have sailed with the world’s very best tacticians – initially with Russell Coutts himself, then with Terry Hutchinson and Ed Baird for the last two seasons. “Vladimir is a great guy to sail with,” says Barker. “He is enjoyable and loves his sailing and wants to have a good experience and he is realistic about the high quality of the fleet.”
As to the RC44 itself, Barker is impressed how well the one design is standing up now she is 11 years old. “It is amazing - the boats are still exciting downwind and they really reward you if you get them going well.”
While race boat designs have been going beamy over the last decade, the RC44 gains more stability from its bulb and how hard the crew hikes (this also keeps the boat slender enough to fit into a 40ft container for cost-effective shipping). “They are narrow but they are well balanced when you get everything set up with the keel and the trim tab,” says Barker of the flap on the back of the keel (among one design keelboats, the RC44 is unique in having this) that ‘lifts’ the RC44 to weather when sailing upwind. “The trim tab makes a big difference upwind without the associated drag gains. You can really feel its benefits without the associated leeway reduction. And they still get up and go really well downwind.”
In fact during training in Lanzarote at the end of February Team Nika hit 24.8 knots. “Vladimir was super excited. He was hoping he was going to break 25. He was buzzing after that,” Barker recalls.
Generally of the RC44 Barker says he likes it being a strict one design but with permitted areas of freedom such as sail design. For example Team Nika and Hugues Lepic’s Aleph Racing are the only RC44 teams to use Quantum sails and on Team Nika they work closely with Quantum’s veteran sail designer Brett Jones. The continual quest is for upwind speed: “That makes life so much easier around the course, so you are pushing the sail development as hard as you can,” says Barker.
Then there are always ways to improve how they sail the boat. “Downwind techniques continue to evolve,” continues Barker. “The boats are being sailed more dynamically in waves, with the pumping of the sails - there are gains to be had there.”
Being available for purchase for 200-400,000 Euros RC44s are also attractive financially for owners, says Barker: “The class is good value compared to anything else that is out there at the same size and crew numbers. For owners it doesn’t cost them an arm and a leg. Plus there are five events a year and by limiting training days it isn’t a huge time commitment - a week every couple of months or so. Costs are contained and it not an arms racing like some other classes.” And with a good boat and crew, top results are quickly attainable, regardless of the level of the owner-driver. “With the standard of the boats today – anyone could win,” concludes Barker.