The face of the world’s greatest sailor is already etched into the national psyche, and that easy smile and cool, calm demeanour have become known around the world, but in person Peter Burling could not be more humble, more unassuming, or more relaxed.
WORDS ANDY TAYLOR PHOTOS CAROLYN HASLETT / ALEX SPODYNEIKO / SUPPLIED
He is an Olympic gold medal winner with a string of international titles to boot, and of course there is that not insignificant matter of bringing the America’s Cup back to its rightful home here in New Zealand. But in the flesh, the man responsible for whipping a multi-million dollar boat through water at speeds approaching 100 km per hour is just a sweet-natured, casual, amiable twenty-something guy. He’s arguably the world’s best sailor, but at heart he is still just a boy from the Bay, unfazed and unchanged by fame and more than willing to talk with UNO. and spend some time in front of the camera.
Peter’s journey began around 20 years ago in the Welcome Bay estuary, where an eight-year-old Burling and his brother first set sail in Jelly Tip, a wooden Optimist-class yacht that had definitely seen better days. “My brother got into it first and I just kinda got dragged along,” Burling says of his earliest foray into sailing, with that trademark understatement. “My dad had been into sailing and thought it was a good skill to have. And it kind of spiralled from there.”
And when he says spiralled, he means it whirled wildly and unstoppably onto national then international stages. He won his first Optimist nationals at 9 years of age, competed in the World Championships in Texas aged 12, and scooped the 2006 420 Class Worlds title in the Canary Islands at the tender age of 15. A year later he won the Under-18 World Championship. Then he took the 49er World Champs with Blair Tuke in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, and – again with Tuke – took home silver in the 2012 Olympics and gold in the 2016 event. Then came the America’s Cup and the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Sailing. But before we go there, lets just back up the bus and get back to Welcome Bay in the early noughties.
“I have a lot of fond memories of that time,” Burling says. “Around here can be a pretty tricky place to sail, but one of the cool things about it is that you can sail in any conditions. In a lot of places you end up sailing in only one type of weather, but here, you can get out in all kinds. It means you are quite well-rounded as you’ve had to deal with a lot of different things and looked at other ways to win races — if you want to, you can sail in some pretty big swells at times here! The other cool thing about Tauranga is you have the keelboats and the dinghies, just in one group, with adults and younger ones competing. It’s unique in that there is everything from the Learn-to-Sail level right on up to the keelboat club. There are not many places around the country that have that.”
The sailing environment he encountered in Bermuda with the America’s Cup challenge also had similarities to his early escapades on the sea around Tauranga, with a relatively limited area of open water and changeable conditions. But perhaps the main thing his formative years taught him was adaptability, a decidedly Kiwi trait if ever there was one. “One of the skills I did learn here at a young age was to be able to watch other people do a sport and to learn off them. I’d notice different things about how they were sailing and have things set up, and learned to adapt things really quickly and see whether I was sailing well or not. A large percentage of success in our sport is down to how quickly you can get the boat to go. When people say someone is a natural sailor, they mean that person has an instinctive way of getting a boat to go faster than it should. And that is something learnt from hours of getting things balanced and learning about what is fast and what isn’t.”
And what ever happened to Jelly Tip? “I honestly don’t know,” Burling shrugs. “I’m not even sure if it was even my boat. Jelly Tip was bought for my brother and I ended up with it… Who knows where it is now.” Somewhere in Tauranga, someone may just have a piece of sailing history sitting in the backyard.
As Burling’s skills grew and the awards piled up, repeated questions about when the silverware outgrew the mantle piece and where they live now were all answered with a sheepish shrug and deflective smile. He also had to learn how to juggle his competitive life and the more mundane aspects of youth. Like getting an education. Having attended Tauranga Boys’ College (at the same time coincidentally as cricketer Kane Williamson), he embarked on a mechanical engineering degree at Auckland University. However, half way through, in his words, he decided to “major in sailing” instead. Competing in Europe, sailing at pretty high levels and then coming back to try and focus on exams was probably never going to work. But while he may not have come out with a degree, he is the first to admit that two years of engineering studies eventually paid off on the water.
“At the Olympic level,” he says, “a lot of it is just a seat-of-your-pants kind of thing, because today you have a single platform that you can’t really change or improve.”
This is, after all, essentially a one-design race and everyone uses virtually identical equipment, so – as Burling says – “It’s a question of how you set it up and how well you can sail it!” But in something like the Americas Cup it’s different; the variables are almost infinite and can change by the hour. And in that fast moving, high-tech environment, knowledge is power.
“I’ve always really liked the engineering side of sailing,” he says, “ever since I was a little kid and making things and trying things on the boats. I’m quite pedantic about having a really clean and well-thought-out boat, not having anything on there that doesn’t need to be there, and it all being neat and tidy.”
And he would be the first to admit that this has translated from the waters of Welcome Bay to Bermuda. “I do feel like I had a good understanding of the systems on board, and our team had a strength in the link between the sailing team and the designers, so that we knew how hard we could push it,” he says, again in an achingly acute understatement. “At the end of the day, we are the ones who have to decide whether to back off or take the risk and play the game. I’ve always loved that side of things.”
If it sounds like calculated risk, it is. Burling has described international-level competitive sailing as being a massive game of chess, and though he finesses that description a little, it is clear he still sees it that way in his mind. “It’s a little different,” he says, “in that you can slightly change your pieces from time to time. But yeah, the better you are, the less mistakes you make. And while you have to have an underlying plan, you also have to wing it sometimes.”
And just as on the board, so too on the water, it is often he who dares – wings it, but errs on the right side of the parameters – that wins. As we all saw played out on our TV screens, in this level of competition things can go spectacularly wrong. When they do, they do so at speed. Who can forget the heart-stopping minutes that stretched into hours when it seemed New Zealand’s America’s Cup challenge had nose-dived figuratively and literally. But pushing things to the limits, and recovering from the results of dancing too close to those limits, is what marks the difference between winning and losing.
“They’re incredibly cool boats that we sailed in Bermuda,” Burling says. “We were really pushing the technology with what you could and couldn’t do, particularly on the structural side of things. There are so many decisions to be made around how much risk you can take. On the windy days during the Cup, you were really looking at the loads on everything! And whether it was good luck or good management, we seemed to have got it pretty right.”
‘We’ is a very common word in the vocabulary of Peter Burling. It is not the royal ‘We’; it’s just ‘we’ as in ‘us’. And it is striking how even in his own mind he edits out Peter Burling and defaults to the team persona. It is remarkably endearing in someone who is clearly such a very competitive person; you don’t take home the huge string of awards Burling has amassed without wanting to win. But he confesses – a little apologetically – that he’s forgotten just how many World Championships or 49ers wins he has: “You’d have to look it up,” he says.
Burling had barely been back on dry land – and yes, he is aware that a huge chunk of his life is spent on the water – when he entered the International Moth Class World Championships at Lake Garda in Italy, and with almost no prep time he placed a very creditable second. Then it was back to New Zealand to continue touring the Cup. But along the way he announced that he would be joining Team Brunel in the Volvo Ocean Race, a decision that will put him up against his long-time sailing partner, Blair Tuke, who will be part of a different team in the race. The Volvo, formerly known as the Whitbread Round the World Race, demands a whole new skill set, with the crews being expected to be much more than just sailors. Medical response, sailmaking, engine and hydraulics repairs are all par for the course, and some legs of the race can last for up to 20 days. It ain’t for the faint-hearted.
But having mastered everything from the one-man Moth Class to the finely choreographed racing of the America’s Cup, it seems only fitting that he turns his talents to a new challenge. “It’s something I’ve always seen as the other side of our sport,” Burling says, “and it has been a great opportunity to jump in with a team that is going to be on the pace. But we’ll have to wait and see how competitive we are, though it will be really good fun and a great chance to develop some skills. I enjoy change. That is why I like doing other events and finding other ways to improve myself. Every day is different.”
In addition to being a remarkable success story, perhaps what we like about Peter Burling is not just the dedication, the classic Kiwi can-do attitude and the team spirit, but the ability to do it all with a composure that borders on, well, almost disinterest. The perfect antidote to the white-knuckle rides of the America’s Cup Challenge races were Burling’s pitch-perfect performances in the post-race press conferences. He was famously accused of being asleep at the wheel, but his opposition and TV viewers alike soon found that to underestimate Peter Burling was to make a grave mistake. By the final races, more than one commentator was calling Burling’s deadpan delivery on and off the water his secret weapon: a star-turn that both baffled and infuriated his opposing skipper.
“Yeah,” he says, slipping into trademark laconic post-race monotone, “the pressure of competing has always been something that, from a young age, I have enjoyed. My best comes out when I’m racing for something, rather than just going out for a sail.
But during races like the cup, you always probably looked quite relaxed because you know what is going on in the background. You know everything’s in place and obviously you have to perform really well and there is a lot of pressure, but your demeanour should keep your crew nice and relaxed. The main part of my job is to sail the boat fast, and we definitely did a good job of that as a team. We had some tough situations to overcome at times, but we pulled through those pretty well. Having to pull through some bits and pieces – some are public knowledge and some aren’t – brings you closer together and once we got past that first weekend, when we knew we were in with a chance, I don’t think we were ever going to let it go.”
Bits and pieces. Those would be the near total disaster of a wrecked boat, quite possibly injury or death, and the dashed hopes of a nation who were waiting and watching eagerly at home. But as we know now, they overcame the bits and pieces – the public and not so public – and took home the sailing world’s greatest trophy.
“The awards are not really why we do it,” Burling says, “but it is cool to be recognised for what we’ve managed to achieve.” There’s that ‘we’ again, but then – lo and behold – there is also a brief flash of just Peter Burling. “For me, a lot of it’s about having fun along the way. Win or lose, at the end of it you want to have had fun doing it,” he says.
And behind the cool, calm exterior and the laid-back public persona, behind the calculated risk-taker and the perennial team player, that is all you probably need to know about Peter Burling. It’s about having fun.
Instagram and Twitter: @peteburling