Eight Bells: David Barnes

Published on October 23rd, 2020

The New Zealand sailing community lost a revolutionary figure with the passing of David Barnes on October 23, 2020. He was 62.

Barnes won three 470 world titles with Hamish Willcox in the early 1980s and went on to be involved in six America’s Cup campaigns between 1985 and 2003, and was famously skipper of Team New Zealand’s ‘Big Boat’ challenge of 1988 when they took on Dennis Conner’s catamaran.

Willcox teamed up with Barnes in 1980 and remembers the helmsman as a deep thinker who was always pushing the boundaries when it came to both technique and the technical side of the sport.

The pair were the first New Zealanders to win an Olympic class world title and their first, in 1981, happened to also be their first regatta in Europe. They did it having come up with a different way of sailing the 470 – lower and faster – and became known for making significant changes to their mast and sail setup, centreboard, and rudder.

Barnes even tried a two-skin jib sail setup which is a feature of the present generation of America’s Cup boat. He also came up with a different approach to mast rake in the Flying Dutchman which everyone in the fleet imitated.

“David was a very revolutionary thinker,” Willcox said. “He was always thinking outside the box and came up with new concepts no one had thought of. He was always looking for an advantage and was confident enough to do it himself rather than looking to manufacturers to produce it.

“That’s what stood him apart, and still does. He was a pioneer. We didn’t see that happen very often, especially when you come from a far corner of the world like New Zealand. He made significant changes to two Olympic classes and everyone was desperately trying to catch up.”

This country was a 470 powerhouse in the 1980s with the likes of Barnes, Willcox, Chris Dickson, Dave Mackay, Peter Evans, Joey Allen, Murray Jones, and Terry and Peter Nicholas.

That internal competition was critical to the overall success of Kiwis sailors – New Zealand crews finished first, second, and third at the 1984 World Championships and five were in the top 10 – but it also meant Barnes and Willcox both missed out on Olympic selection over the course of their careers.

Both had long associations with the America’s Cup and Barnes became Michael Fay’s right-hand-man for the Big Boat Challenge of 1988. He was also helm until the final stages of the 1992 campaign and was involved in subsequent campaigns with Australian, American, and British teams.

“As well as his sailing brain, he had a natural feel for a boat,” Willcox said. “I would rate him as high, if not the highest, of anyone I have sailed with. He was one of the few New Zealanders who could sail the boat well in light airs.”

Barnes had his challenges over the last decade as he battled with multiple sclerosis. In 2013 he became involved with Kiwi Gold Sailing alongside fellow America’s Cup veteran Rick Dodson as they attempted to qualify a Sonar for the 2016 Paralympics but withdrew from the team a year later as his condition worsened.

“He was also a very talented endurance athlete, musician, husband [to Karen], and dad [to Jason, Sacha, and Logan],” Willcox said. “He was a great family man so it is a huge loss to them and a huge loss to the sailing community.”

Source: Yachting New Zealand

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