Dean Barker: He sees a different game

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The AC72 is the fastest America’s Cup Class yacht ever designed, and it’s also one of the most chaotic. As the wing sail speedster rounds a leeward mark, television viewers might notice the crew grinding away or the water arcing off the daggerboard as it slices up San Francisco Bay.

Ever wonder what the helmsman sees? Here’s a sampling from Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker: “You’re looking at all the different factors. You’re obviously looking to sail the least amount of distance that you can, so you’re focused on the mark out of one corner of your eye. And you’re looking at the instruments and where the boat’s positioned and balanced, so that’s foil settings and wing settings and everything else; where we are in terms of trim and angle and everything else; you’re also focusing at the same time on how far it is to the boundary. There’s any number of different items that you’re focused on at any given time, so being able to take in that information and process it and send it out in the right direction is the most important thing.”

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Barker sees all of that, and more. While some in the world can’t chew gum and walk a straight line at the same time, Barker can instantaneously take in the position of the mark, the instrument data that tells him the flight of his wing sail catamaran, the wind conditions coming down the course, the position of his speedster on the racecourse with regards to the boundary and his competitor, and the action being performed by each crewmember.

Barker has a recognition ability that allows him to take in large amounts of data in snap shot instances, process it all and make split-second decisions. More than just great hand-eye coordination, Barker has an ability that was discovered during an eyesight check for Team New Zealand’s 2003 America’s Cup defense.

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“We did a bunch of different eyesight testing, different things testing eyesight periphery, your ability in snap-shot glances to take in a large amount of data or information, being able to process that, memorize it, read it back, all sorts of split-second decision making,” said Barker. “A lot of those skill sets which are probably, as it turns out, quite useful to a match race sailor; being forced to make split-second decisions, a lot of those skills were useful.”

According to Barker’s eye doctor, Dr. Brett Howes, the ability is known as “visual memory” and is common among successful, high-performance athletes.

“It’s not a thought process; if you have to think about it the moment has passed,” said Howes, an optometrist based in Auckland, New Zealand, who’s been researching the topic for some 30 years. “It’s recognition of one instance in time, one picture.

“Say a baseball player faces a certain pitcher a number of times. He’ll go to that section of the library in his brain with pictures of what the pitcher has thrown before. A certain pitch comes, bang; he hits it out of the park. He might not even know he’s swinging at the pitch. He does it because his brain has a library of instances in time that recognizes it’s time to swing,” said Howes.

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During the eyesight test, Barker was shown a series of six numbers for 1/100th of a second and he could recall them without hesitation. Howes said that good athletes usually get four or five of the six numbers, but Barker was getting all six without trouble. So Howes increased the amount of numbers and Barker continued to nail it.

“Anyone walking down the street might have the ability, but they’ve never tapped into it,” said Howes. “Dean has an extraordinary ability to take in images quickly and make a decision a lot faster than others; it’s taking the thought process out of reacting.”

Howes is an optometrist and not a neurologist, so he’s not sure which part of the brain is being tapped for Barker’s ability. “Possibly it’s the mid-brain, but it’s not in the thinking process because when you’re thinking it’s too late.”

Barker often looks calm and relaxed on the helm. And Emirates Team New Zealand’s success under his guidance has been great. He’s very nonchalant about the ability, saying he was surprised more than anything when he learned of it.

“It’s one of those things you don’t really think too much about. You’re eyes are your eyes and you see the world in a certain way. The ability to capture a lot of information very quickly in a snap shot is something that has been a huge benefit to the sailing that I do.”

—Sean McNeill

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