ASIA-PACIFIC BOATING TALKS EXCLUSIVELY TO SOFTBANK TEAM JAPAN SKIPPER DEAN BARKER AND GENERAL MANAGER KAZUHIKO SOFUKU ABOUT THEIR HOPES FOR THE SOLE ASIAN CHALLENGER IN THE 35TH AMERIC A’S CUP IN BERMUDA.
CEO / SKIPPER
Dean, after two decades of America’s Cups with Team New Zealand, how has it been working with SoftBank Team Japan?
It has been great. It has been a really cool experience to put a team together from nothing and to pull it into what now feels like a very cohesive unit of just under 50 people. We are still a small team compared to the others, but the people we’ve got have come together well. I’m really happy with the signings we have in the team.
Working with the Japanese has been a very unique experience and something I really enjoy. I’ve raced against ‘Fuku’ (Kazuhiko Sofuku) for many years on the match racing circuit and in different America’s Cup teams and to finally work with him has been great. I’ve really enjoyed that experience and he’s a fantastic host when we’re in Japan.
How’s the support from the Japanese media and public? Is the country behind the Team Japan campaign or is sailing still very much a minority sport?
Oh, it’s one of those things that takes time to build a following. The best way for us to do that is to be successful on the water in late May and June. If we can continue to show good improvement and develop the boat well through racing, then I really believe we have a strong chance to do well. I think if we start posting some good results, we will see the Japanese really getting behind the team.
Certainly, SoftBank has been very engaged and helped penetrate the market there, so with their assistance we’re slowly building the brand of America’s Cup and SoftBank Team Japan in the Japanese market. It has been a long time. Japan hasn’t raced in the America’s Cup since 2000, so 17 years of absence doesn’t help with re-engaging the Japanese public with what we do. But given what it is now and how appealing it is to a number of different people, you can sense some momentum growing.
How about last November when you raced in Japan for the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series?
We were in Fukuoka, which is far away from the large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but it was actually a fantastic venue for showcasing the sport. It was pretty much capacity each day in terms of people going into the venue, which was great. The organisers did a really good job in terms of promoting the event.
We were fortunate there with the conditions and got a couple of good days, so the people that came down were able to see foiling and some great racing. In general, people went away quite impressed with what they saw.
What had been your experience of Japan before joining the team?
I’d been there a few times for both sailing and for business meetings and I’ve always enjoyed my time there. The Japanese people are very polite and very respectful. I don’t pretend to know a huge amount about the Japanese culture, but it has been a fantastic learning experience to know more about the culture and customs and everything else. We’ve tried our best to integrate those into the team and the way we operate.
Tell us how you came to skipper Team Japan after such a long time with Team New Zealand.
I made a decision to leave Team New Zealand back in the beginning of 2015. At that stage, I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen. As fate would have it, this team was created. Fuku was involved in the early stages and working with the Kansai Yacht Club to challenge for the America’s Cup. I was contacted to join around April. I first caught up with him in Bermuda in May and it became clear very quickly we had a huge job on our hands to get the team up and running in a very short space of time. It has been quite a process but very enjoyable at the same time.
How does it feel to be in the America’s Cup not as part of Team New Zealand?
For sure, it’s different. I think people understood the circumstances in which I made my decision. I’ve never really had anyone express their discontent with the decision I made. To be perfectly honest, I don’t regret anything that’s changed over the last two years. It has been a great opportunity to be involved in something very different. The great thing is that I still get to go sailing and racing, which is still very much my passion, and at the same time being involved with a big group is great.
I left New Zealand with very mixed emotions, but I’ve really relished the challenge we’ve had to put together this team, to get up and running and try to compete with these very established and strong teams.
I’ve been able to surround myself with some really great people and everything has been looking forward. We are trying to do the best we can, having started late in a super competitive environment. In the end, it’s been great working with people you want to work with.
How did your team benefit from last year’s testing sessions with Oracle Team USA, the defender, and Artemis Racing (Sweden)?
The fact we didn’t have time to base ourselves anywhere other than Bermuda gave us a huge advantage in a way – to set up one base and not be faced with a move. To be able to be based here and to go sailing, training and racing with both Oracle and Artemis has been a really good process for us to help develop our sailing skills and boat development and everything else along the way.
By virtue of being able to work with Oracle and their design team to develop our race packages has been an enjoyable experience as well. We’ve been able to go through and look at everything that’s going on and try to end up with the best-possible boat.
What are your thoughts on the new yacht design for the 35th America’s Cup and how does it compare to previous editions?
This is really the second iteration of the foiling catamaran. The boats are a lot smaller than we had in San Francisco (in 2013), but the performance of these things is quite remarkable. Every day you go sailing you definitely come back with a pretty big smile on your face because the sailing is high paced and there’s a lot of adrenalin.
When the wind strength gets up, the performance of these things is just phenomenal – two to three times wind speed. It’s a real learning curve to sail these boats well and sail them consistently well.
I think the great thing with this type of racing is that it rewards good crew work more than the other boats we sailed, because if you mess up one of the tacks or gybes, you give up hundreds of metres as opposed to maybe losing one or two lengths.
The other thing you do see very quickly is design improvements or changes and how they affect the way the boats are modified for the different conditions. It’s really instant feedback.
What will be the main differences for TV or streaming viewers watching this America’s Cup?
In terms of the hardware, there are two things that would have the largest impact. The one aspect you can see is the appendages. You’re only allowed to build two sets of daggerboards. The way you set up to mode the boat for the different conditions will be quite interesting for spectators, to see each boat’s mode for each given wind condition or day. We’ll see some teams performing better than others in certain conditions and it’s going to be very hard to be fast right across the range from six knots to 25. That’s one aspect.
The one aspect you can’t see is the control systems and that’s where a huge amount of time, effort and resources have gone to develop the systems that allow you to fly the boat in a really good, stable manner. Getting the boat round the course in good shape and being very efficient in the use of the hydraulic oil is something you can’t see, but that’s a very big part of the performance result.
What about Bermuda itself as a host venue and the wind at that time of the year?
It will be awesome. The sailing we’ve done down here in Bermuda has been just incredible, actually. The conditions are quite varied so it provides a really good ability to test you in different conditions and try different configurations and everything else, and do all that over a period of time.
As we move into summer, the biggest risk is that we get the big ‘high’ parked over Bermuda for a week or so, which at times will make it a little difficult to get enough breeze for racing. But I think there were only two days over the race period last year where we probably couldn’t have sailed. While there’s always risk and there is pretty much anywhere you go, I think we’re going to have some great racing unless we’re very unfortunate.
What chance do you think Team Japan has of winning the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Qualifiers?
We’re in with a very real chance to be successful. We’re definitely not here to make up the numbers. We think we have a very good all-round package, but until you actually line up and go racing with the other teams, it’s very hard to know what you’re up against.
While we observe each other’s boats and make assumptions of the other teams, the proof ’s in the pudding as you get out there and go racing. We just have to keep pushing hard ourselves and be as good as we can be at the start of racing. We feel we’re in a good position right now, but we know there’s a lot of work to do.
Do you think Oracle Team USA has a big advantage due to their campaign partnership with Airbus?
I hope so because we obviously benefit from that as well. The reality is you’re racing against some very competitive teams and there are a lot of very strong technology partners involved, but in the dealings we’ve had with Airbus, they have been a fantastic partner.
What they bring to the table is hugely valuable. It’s valuable any time you can cross-pollinate with different industries and share key learnings from different areas. Certainly, as these boats start going faster and start spending more time above the water, aerodynamics play a much bigger part than sailing has dealt with in the past. It’s really interesting how Airbus view some of the issues we have to deal with.
If you win the Qualifiers, how would you fancy a rematch with Jimmy Spithill?
Ha ha! That’d be a great thing to do given the history there, but we’ve got some very strong challengers to overcome to be able to get that opportunity.
Can you see yourself doing another America’s Cup campaign as a sailor?
I don’t know. I’m starting to feel a bit old! This type of racing is very physically demanding, not so much for the helmsman and the trimmers, but in saying that, you need to be very fast and agile and think very clearly because things happen so quickly. I’ll continue to keep going while I can. I haven’t given too much thought to what the future holds beyond this.
For us, the big thing at the moment is trying to develop a sustainable team that will continue on through future generations of the America’s Cup. We really hope we get the opportunity to keep pushing forward with the framework agreement that was signed by the five teams. It’s a very sensible move in terms of developing a sustainable event that commercial teams really benefit from.
GENERAL MANAGER / BOWMAN
Fuku, how did you become involved with SoftBank Team Japan, the fourth Japanese campaign for the America’s Cup after Nippon Challenge in 1992, 1995 and 2000?
I got a phone call from ACEA (America’s Cup Event Authority) in 2014 and they said: “There’s a chance to have a team from Japan. Can you help them?” I was in Spain at that time and I couldn’t believe it.
They were talking about a challenger from Japan because Mr [Masayoshi] Son (founder and CEO of SoftBank) had been talking to Larry Ellison (founder and Executive Chairman of Oracle). That was the start. Mr Son has a very good eye for the future and is obviously a very good businessman, so he saw something in the future for Japan and his business in the America’s Cup. Larry and him are very good friends, so I think that’s how he got involved. I just helped him and here we are.
How has the Japanese population connected with the America’s Cup and SoftBank Team Japan since the challenge was announced in late April 2015?
It’s very difficult. In the beginning when we started, in 2015, we managed to agree for Kansai Yacht Club to be a challenger. That was hard enough, for them to agree to become a challenge yacht club because they have never experienced this before. They know that the America’s Cup is very big and well known, and they were very excited, but they wanted to know how to do it.
Previously, Japan had its first challenge (Nippon Challenge) in 1992 but the Nippon Ocean Racing Club is not really a yacht club. They set up the yacht club by themselves. It is a yacht club, but just a name made up for the challenge for legal reasons. We could easily have done it the Nippon Challenge way this time, but I really liked the idea of getting an existing yacht club involved in a more proper way.
In the long term, I think it’s a really good way to do it. It was a long process and a lot of talking to get the consensus of every board member, but finally they were happy and they agreed and moved forward.
From the country’s point of view, sailing is a minor sport in Japan, unfortunately. The knowledge and recognition was very small before 2015, but we are building it up very slowly.
We’re trying to use resources to get the media more involved and we luckily managed to have an America’s Cup World Series event in Fukuoka last November. That had a big impact on sailing in Japan. For the first time, a lot of people saw a flying catamaran and I felt more support after that. People are asking me a lot of questions and I feel more support from the country now.
How is it working with Dean Barker?
It is amazing. We are so lucky to have him. I had no experience of these new multihulls being used in the America’s Cup. In terms of managing the team, I am an absolute amateur, so we really needed someone experienced who can look after the sailing side, build the team, leadership and all that. Dean was one of the best ones out there after the last Cup in San Francisco and luckily for us there was a situation and he was able to leave Team New Zealand. Luckily we got him. He’s absolutely amazing.
I’ve competed against him quite a bit in match racing and I know he’s a great sailor. He’s always calm – some call him the ‘Ice Man’. He’s really incredible on the water and onshore. This is shown by the fact so many of our crew members came from his old team because everyone wants to follow him. He’s doing a fantastic job for the team. I really appreciate him and every day I work with him I learn something new.
How are the two Japanese sailors, Yugo Yoshida and Yuki Kasatani, keeping up with the experienced New Zealand, Australian and British crew?
They’ve been great since we had trials in Japan in November 2015. They joined in January 2016 and have been working really hard. They’ve had a lot of influence on the team as they have typical Japanese qualities – work hard, no complaints, responsibility.
Yugo is an Olympic sailor and raced 470 in London 2012, while Yuki was a top rower and was in the Olympic trials. Both are successful in their sports so they know teamwork, how to pace themselves and how to push hard. It’s incredible to watch them work and we really appreciate them. I talk to them every day and they have been great.
How did everyone feel when you received your AC50, Hikari, in late February?
We got a very, very beautiful boat from the shore team, so we were pretty happy. The ceremony went really well. Actually, for the first sail of the new boat, we had a little issue with the weather conditions so we had to wait longer than expected. It gave us more time to confirm every detail. So far, so good.
Why was the yacht named Hikari, meaning ‘flash of light’?
Earlier this year, SoftBank ran a competition to name the boat. They had 450 entries through the website and had shortlisted quite a few names. Then SoftBank picked a few and the team decided from there. We really loved the Japanese word, Hikari. There were a few English names as well. Hikari is one character, one symbol and it kind of symbolises that the light is fast. The light is also sort of a hope, like the country’s hope to win the America’s Cup. The meaning is very strong for us.
Is there a feeling within Team Japan that you can actually win the Qualifiers and even the America’s Cup?
I believe we will do well. So far, we are on the right track. We have just under 50 people, so a very small team compared to the others, but we have worked together as a team really well. I believe we have what it takes – in the team and the boat – to win. I believe we will do well and I am looking forward to the racing.
Photos Matt Knighton/SoftBank Team Japan