Emirates New Zealand gearing up for tough task

Dean Barker, the skipper, has the most successful crew on the job but the team are still not taking any chances at the Louis Vuitton Trophy.

Rob Waddell knows what it is like to grind out victories at the top level of international sport. The big New Zealander captured a rowing gold medal in the single sculls at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, having gone there as a double world champion in the same discipline.

The former flat water specialist is now grinding out a career on the ocean waves as an unheralded but key member of the all-conquering Emirates Team New Zealand sailing team who are favourites to win the Louis Vuitton Trophy regatta which begins at Dubai Marina on Sunday.

Waddell, 35, describes his role as one of the grinders in a 17-man crew as "mechanical". It is certainly not a job for the meek or the weak as he demonstrated when the team took to the Gulf waters for the first time on Monday afternoon to start their build-up for the two-week yachting showpiece.

Working closely with the sail trimmers, Waddell and his grinding colleagues are the men who often frantically turn the handles which alter the movement of the sails during any tacking manoeuvres.

His speed and reaction could make the difference between success and failure in the series of match racing between six teams of sailors hoping to claim the trophy this month.

"It can be very tiring," said the man who holds the world record of 14mins 58secs for a 5,000-metre stint on a rowing machine.

"But you have to deal with it and try to avoid making those slight mistakes that tip the balance in a close race."

Waddell joked about his unglamorous role in a glamorous set-up. "We do all the work, and they take all the glory," he said, pointing in the direction of those in command of the 24-metre yacht.

Dean Barker, the skipper, takes the plaudits on behalf of the much-decorated team, who have won three and finished runners-up in the last four Vuitton meetings, having been assembled as a crew for the 2007 America's Cup in Valencia.

Barker, considered to be one of the three finest sailors to come out of New Zealand along with Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth, who were on opposite sides in this year's America's Cup battle between BMW Oracle and Alinghi, is confident of more success in the Gulf waters.

"The Louis Vuitton series has been great for our team," Barker said. "And we are obviously seeking another victory here even though we are aware that the level of competition from the other five teams is going to be extremely high."

Opposition will come from the triumphant Oracle America's Cup camp, the French/German entry All4One, Artemis from Sweden, Russia's Synergy team and Mascalzo Latino Audi from Italy.

"We've had some good races with all the teams who are here so we appreciate how hard it's going to be," Barker said.

Barker attributes the Emirates Team New Zealand success to outstanding team work, correct decision-making and minimal errors.

"The thing with this event is that you can't blame the boat," he said of an event in which the six teams use four almost identical boats for the series of match races which starts with two round-robins to determine the semi-finalists who then race off for a place in the November 27 final.

"All the equipment is supplied and is pretty much identical. It all comes down to how well the crew use the boat to their advantage. We pride ourselves on doing the basics very well and it works out most of the time."

Team NZ's skipper was satisfied with the way his men regrouped at their first practice session with the All4One team providing the opposition in a four-hour tussle over the racing course which covers about three nautical miles.

"Getting back into the routine of racing and getting the coordination between the guys was the first objective," he said.

"The last time we sailed together was in La Maddalena [the last LVT meeting in Sardinia in June]. Everybody knows what they have to do but there was a bit of rust to shake off and days like this help that."

The fact that the predominantly Kiwi squad have stayed together for so long has been a major factor in their level of success, according to Barker.

"Team spirit among us is fantastic," he said. "It's great that you can come to these events with a bunch of people that you get on well with and enjoy sailing with. The great camaraderie we have built up helps us to bounce back from bad races.

"You have to have trust in all of your crew members. Everybody has to do their job well. There are times when you have to make a decision and I have to make sure I communicate effectively with the guys.

"But when it's a routine manoeuvre you tend to say very little. Everybody knows their job very well and what to do."

That view was endorsed by Ray Davies, the team's tactician and a reliable first mate to Barker. "Team NZ has been going really well in this class of sailing," said Barker, whose key task is trying to anticipate the wind direction and making the skipper aware of any change in conditions before the opposition boat finds out.

"We have had an incredible record. We've been together for a long time and that gives you greater confidence to deal with tricky situations when they come along."

Davies emphasised the importance of a solid start in the match races which are over a much shorter distance than America's Cup contests.

Team NZ and All4One jostled about a dozen times during their four-hour session, which started late through lack of wind and finished abruptly with the onset of a sand storm on the Dubai beach.

Even in such a low-key warm-up, competition was fierce and both crews held out the red and yellow protest flags which will become a feature of the regatta when the real racing begins.

"It's hard to catch up in such a short race if you don't get the start right, so we've spent a lot of time practising that," Davies said. "All4One were equally keen to sharpen up their starting procedure, so we were bound to come too close for comfort on occasions."

They certainly did. What was an exhilarating experience sitting in the "18th man" passenger seat which all crews reserve for race-day joy riders, could have become a frightening one but for the steering skills of the opposing skippers.

Equally crucial to a safe journey was the accurate transmitting of crash bulletins from midshipmen like Richard Meacham, whose other noticeable role was recreating the "Spiderman" image when he was hoisted up the 35-metre mast to secure the top of the sail.

The desire to cross the starting line at the precise moment when the countdown clock hits zero, makes the occasional collision inevitable. It tends to be more of a bow to stern clip than a broadside, resulting in a time penalty to the guilty party rather than the sinking of an opposing vessel.