Peter Burling — Something In The Water
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.”
To read the full story, grab yourself a copy of the spring issue on sale 9th October.
Instagram and Twitter: @peteburling