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Dean Barker On Sailing an AC72

As Team Oracle showed this past October, conning an AC72 catamaran is not for the faint of heart. We recently caught up with Emirates Team New Zealand’s skipper Dean Barker to see what it’s like helming one of these behemoths.
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As Team Oracle showed this past October, conning an AC72 catamaran is not for the faint of heart. We recently caught up with Emirates Team New Zealand’s skipper Dean Barker—who at press time was still managing to successfully keep his boat upright under sail—to see what it’s like helming one of these behemoths. 

SAIL: What’s the learning curve been like on the AC72? Is driving the boat as easy as you’re making it look?

DEAN BARKER: It’s been a very, very steep learning curve, and it seems it’s going to be that way all the way through until we finish sailing next year. The boat’s very powerful, it’s a very new concept, and we’ve obviously spent a fair bit of time up on foils on this boat—still trying to understand whether that’s better or worse. Yeah, it’s been a very interesting period. 

SAIL: What does it feel like when the boat starts to lift up on its foils? 

DB: The first few times is pretty frightening. The boat is now obviously foiling on two components that are in the water, and you’re looking down there sort of hoping nothing’s going to let go. There’s a huge amount of load, but it is a very amazing, very cool sensation. 

SAIL: How does steering when the boat is airborne differ from when the hulls are in the water?

DB: Surprisingly, it’s not too different, but the sensation is different because the boat doesn’t really experience any of the sea state...You’ve definitely got plenty to manage, particularly as the breeze gets stronger and stronger, and the boat speeds get higher, and small alterations in steering and everything else have a fairly large impact on the way the boat behaves. 

SAIL: What’s the noise and motion like aboard an AC72?

DB: When you’re up and ripping it’s not too bad. It’s actually quite pleasant. But the movement can be quite jerky, just because you’re traveling at high speeds and any small movement is magnified. Upwind is where it’s really difficult to communicate when you’ve got very high-powered wind speeds, 50 to 60 knots of apparent wind speeds at times. At that stage it is very, very difficult to have conversations.

SAIL: Is sailing an AC72 like sailing on a knife edge, or is it fairly stable once you’re in a groove?

DB: Initially in the lighter breeze it’s actually quite docile. But like all the multihulls that I’ve [sailed] now, they reach a wind speed where things go from pushing and racing the boat hard to feeling like you’re just sort of trying to survive. It’s a difficult sensation because on a 72-footer the downsides are pretty dramatic if you get it wrong. The AC45, to begin with, felt like a reasonably big boat, but now when you get into a much bigger boat again, one that is much more powerful for its size, you obviously have to really keep your wits about you.

SAIL: What are the most dangerous moments on an AC72?

DB: As we’ve seen with Oracle, the most challenging time is going to be any high-wind-speed bear-aways, because the boats are very powerful, you’ve got a wing sitting 40 meters above the water and you can’t reef it down. It’s always up there, and it’s always got some form of power, so you have to get the maneuver completely right. As the wind increases you definitely sense everyone’s awareness really comes to life, and you push the boat as hard as you can, but you also have to manage how aggressive you are with the boat. So, it’s going to be challenging, but I think every day you go out and you’re more accustomed to the power and the speed of the boats, and we know that next year we’re going to be forced to race in some strong wind days and we’re going to have to be very good at it. 

Photos courtesy of Chris Cameron/Emirates Team New Zealand

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