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Barker aims to refocus

SoftBank Team Japan skippered by Dean Barker (Photograph by Talbot Wilson)

SoftBank Team Japan will take a break from on the water training this week to give their crew some down time to recharge. They have been full on for the past month, or longer, and need a little time to refocus and freshen up. Then from next week on till real racing starts May 26, it will be a full press to the end.

“What we are seeing is a number of the boats performing well in certain conditions and not well in other conditions,” skipper and CEO Dean Barker said. “We’ve only seen one set of daggerboards [each challenger is allowed two sets] for each team and these have been for the heavier weather conditions we’ve experienced. It’s really only part of the picture.”

Conditions teams will see as summer approaches will be quite different. “We expect in May and June a decent proportion of time when we sail will be in light air which we haven’t seen much with any of the boats [ACC 50’s] yet. It is a big unknown now. This winter and spring we’ve seen medium and heavy winds most of the days.”

When asked about Artemis Racing’s crew work, Barker said: “From the time we’ve been here, a year or so, we’ve seen different teams leapfrog ahead. It’s been a time when we were going well, then Oracle’s been going well and in these last races Artemis performed well. But there’s nothing in it.

“A lot of the races have been very, very close, down to one or two manoeuvres. Artemis has focused on their crew work and it has paid off in a number of their races. What’s exciting is we are going to see a really close battle between at least three or four of the teams.”

But Groupama Team France, struggling now due to lack of practice time may leapfrog ahead. “You can’t discount any of teams now,” Barker said, “We haven’t seen Team New Zealand. No one knows where they are going to fit into the mix right now.”

“BAR will also be another team to deal with. When you look at the calibre of their people, they could easily make amends.”

Asked about the danger of racing these high-speed foiling flyers with daggerboards and wing-tipped rudders slicing through the water at 40mph, Barker said: “Safety measures that can be in place are in place. The higher speed is part of the game. There is a risk. We try to minimise the risk as much as possible.”

Damage to daggerboards and rudders is an issue. “We’ve seen a lot of turtles and other debris out there and we try to avoid them wherever possible. You can’t engineer daggerboards or rudders strong enough to withstand hitting something like that. It is a concern. We hope that for the actual racing the area will be protected by a barrier of superyachts.”

Kazuhiko “Fuku” Sofuku, the team manager, commented on the Japanese influence on the team. “It is still developing,” he said. “We have me and two Japanese young sailors. They have been here since last January and are pushing themselves very hard. In the future we would like to bring in more Japanese sailors, technology and materials. We do use Japanese tools and materials. The thing is … we don’t have as much experience in this sport. This is a great chance for us to advance.”

Barker commented on the short duration of the races explaining that the grinders start pumping before the prestart and they go full out for 20-25 minutes. “We’ve had lots of lead changes,” he said, “The races are not too long for fans to lose interest.”

“You get a bit dizzy sailing around the Great Sound.” Barker added, probably referring to multiple laps needed for a longer race or even referring to the shifty winds that mean a lot of tacks and gybes at 40mph and high G-forces.

Team Japan can use technology to predict tactics, but Barker stressed the need for a “huge amount of gut feel”, the importance of being comfortable sailing these boats, getting the feel for it. “Then you can get your head out of the boat and look up the course to see what’s really going on. You don’t have time to talk it over with the guys when you’re going 40mph. We have to make clear calls. The trimmer controls the wing and the helmsman controls the daggerboards and rudders to get the right balance.”

And what about Barker’s feelings towards Emirates Team New Zealand, his former team? “They look strong.” Barker noted, “We just haven’t been testing yet on the same piece of water.”

Then he went right into talking of Team Japan’s relationship with Oracle as a development partner. Team Japan was a latecomer into the 2017 challenge and has been allowed to share technology with the defender to bring them up to speed quickly. “In a way it is kind of like having a mentor, but we’ve also been going our own way. We have some excellent design and engineering talent we’ve brought over from Team New Zealand’s last effort.”

What kind of “jumps” does Barker think Team Japan will make in the next training and practice periods? “We’ve got to get practice time on our light air daggerboards and rudders. We have a number of changes to make to the boat and development of systems. We have been too ‘fixed’, locked into our configurations too early. We’ll try to be more open to change. We weren’t willing to make changes during the last practice period. Oracle was more flexible. We’re trying to find the right balance. And we are also looking for reliability, avoiding breakdowns.”