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.

Some­where in the South Island in 2000 with par­ents Heather and Richard, broth­er Scott 12 (left), Peter 10 (right)

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.

11-year-old Peter com­petes in 2002 P Class Nation­als.

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.

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