Breaking the waves

Together and apart, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke boast an impressive catalogue of feats and victories on the ocean.

They form the dream team of modern New Zealand yachting.

And with the next America’s Cup challenge on the horizon, they’re on the verge of achieving the incomparable.

If the announcement that Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were to defend their Olympic title didn’t end a shockwave around the world’s 49er-class sailors, then the duo’s first result would surely have rattled the cages.  

Burling and Tuke were victorious in six of eleven races at the Oceanbridge Regatta. Hammering home their prowess even further, they prevailed over world-class competition, including crews from Australia, Germany and across Asia. 

The most telling aspect was that, by Tuke’s own admission, they felt they went into the regatta still slightly rusty; this was their first 49er race since winning gold in Rio nearly three years ago. 

“We’ve been back in the water for four months, and it’s been nice to get racing again,” says Tuke. “There’s a lot of competition, and it’s a lot different to how it was back when we started in the 49er.” 

The reality is that they became favourites for Tokyo the moment they decided it was possible to fit an Olympic event in between preparations to defend the America’s Cup. Tuke admits though, that factoring in the Cup defence meant it wasn’t a decision they could make easily. 

“We did give it a lot of thought because it’s a big chunk of your life and a big commitment. We don’t like to anything half-cocked, so we’re all in. 

“Our motivation is to win another gold medal for New Zealand. We feel we’re in a position to do that if we campaign well; that’s the primary driver. The other thing is that sailing a 49er in competition is very good for your sailing skills, which is going to help us with the America’s Cup,” he says. 

When Peter Burling talks about getting back into the two-man skiff last October, you sense it was a timely change from the complexity of helping build a Cup defence. 

“That’s been one of the great things about getting back in the small boat and just going out and having fun with your mates and doing some high-level yachting in a pretty cool little boat,” he says. 

“On the Cup side, there so much going on with the testing programme and just trying to keep the thing in one piece and keep everyone safe. It’s a lot more pre-planned and a lot more people involved to make things happen; it’s just such a massive group and a massive lot of organisation just to go for a sail. 

“With a small boat, you’ve just got to pull the sail up and away you go. It’s just the two of you, you have a bit of fun, you do a bit of racing.” 

Those last few words – “do a bit of racing” – are so typically Burling. The 28-year-old has an innate ability to make the extraordinary seem insignificant. He has been described in one profile as 

“possessing the combined traits of two of our great yachting legends – the level head and candid personality of the late Sir Peter Blake and the sailing expertise and technical wisdom of the America’s Cup’s most successful skipper, Sir Russell Coutts.”  

But given time, the reality could prove to be that he is incomparable. Both men share a talent for avoiding talk of their achievements, which means conversation circles mostly around making the team for the Tokyo Olympics and preparing to host the America’s Cup. 

Multiple world titles, gold medals and winning in Bermuda are old news. Only the Volvo Ocean Race warrants a mention, possibly because they didn’t win… yet. 

The 2017–18 circumnavigation saw the great mates become rivals, with Tuke a rimmer/helmsman on Spanish entry Mapfre and Burling in the same role for Team Brunel.

Going into the final leg, both yachts were locked in a tie with Chinese entry Dongfeng, with a tactical gamble from Frenchman Charles Caudrelier winning him the last leg from Gothenburg, 

Sweden to The Hauge, and with it the overall victory. It turned out to be the closest-ever finish in the history of the 44,000 nautical mile (85,000km) race. 

Being pipped on the final leg has done nothing to dent Burling’s passion for the event.  

“The Volvo [Ocean Race] was a pretty cool experience. Not many people have raced around the world. It was great to see new things, and new aspects of the sport and getting to know it in a broader sense.” 

The combination of personal and team challenges weren’t the only attractions for Tuke. “I love that it is still an adventure – even if you don’t win a leg – you’ve still achieved something special,” he says. 

“There are tough times on all the legs, but those tough times make the good times better. It’s what makes the race though; you go into it knowing it’s going to push you like nothing else 

you’ve ever done before, and it certainly does that. 

“Both of us would be lying if we said we loved every bit of the race, but you do love the race as a whole. You go through things with the team that are pretty hard to fathom from on-land."

The result is that Tuke is already thinking about the next attempt. “We want to do the Volvo together with a New Zealand team; the race after the America’s Cup. That would be pretty good.” 

Success would give the duo the yachting ‘triple-crown’, further cementing their place as two of the greatest competitive sailors of all time. While others have excelled in one or two disciplines, they would be the first to win the three biggest sailing prizes – and in Burling’s case, he will have been at the helm each time. 

Burling’s next boat promises to be the fastest and most challenging yet; the AC75 mono-hull in which he will fly past Auckland’s beaches at an estimated 50 knots (on land, you’d call it 92km/h). 

“The handling should be better – and the boat’s faster. We’re on the water around the middle of this year, and then the real learning starts,” he says.  

Yachting may be their career, but both stress that is a love of the sport and of the sea which provides the motivation. What downtime they have is spent in the water; spear-fishing and surfing are main pastimes. 

Further cementing their combined love of the sea, the pair are working on an as-yet-untitled project to promote ocean conservation. 

What they saw in the water in places like Brazil, China and during the Round the World race was enough to prompt them to speak up. 

“We’re passionate about the ocean and the environment and how it’s being treated right now. It isn’t right, and we want to work to slow the degradation, the declining fish stocks, climate change, acidity levels in the ocean…it’s happening pretty fast, but it’s not too late,” says Tuke. 

Saving the ocean, winning a second Olympic Gold and defending the America’s Cup. If it were anyone else, you’d say they were dreaming. But not Burling and Tuke. 

“Life has got busier, but you don’t want to lose the key things in your life, and the balance you had before as you progress in your career,” concludes Burling. “That’s that things that have helped to get us where we have. Sure, life’s a bit more complicated, but you learn to deal with it.” 

Words: Shaun Summerfield 

Pictures: Vinesh Kumaren and Supplied 

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