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If there are signposts on the road to success then the first one on Peter Burling’s extraordinary journey stands out in neon… especially in retrospect.
It is 2001 at the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club in the 10 year old’s hometown. The club is playing host to the first of Team New Zealand’s road shows, with skipper Dean Barker and co. visiting yacht clubs around the country ahead of the America’s Cup defence in 2003. At each stop the host club puts up a team to race against the Cup holders in Etchells yachts – a three- or four-person keelboat painted up with all the appropriate sponsors’ logos.
It's a big deal, with some of the clubs holding selection trials to determine who will get to sail against the stars. The three man Tauranga crew turned out to be underweight, so they drafted in Peter Burling, who was already an up-and-coming Optimist sailor. Smart move. I was covering the event for Television New Zealand with renowned yachting cameraman and sailor Bruce Adams and we soon noted Peter’s nimble dexterity on the boat. Already his assured demeanour belied his years and he really was the story of the day, especially with the Tauranga team leading a race against Barker until they ran out of wind and were caught.
After the race we sought out the local hero for the first of what would be countless interviews over the years.
This is how he guilelessly summed it up: Fast-forward to London, 2012. Peter Burling and Blair Tuke take Olympic silver in the 49er class in Weymouth. Medal ceremonies are always moving, this one especially so for me after reporting on their ever-burgeoning careers for more than a decade.
I get back to my computer in the media centre and there’s an email from Peter’s parents, Richard and Heather. Attached is a photo of Bruce and me crouching down to record that first post-race chat with the little lad who is now acclaimed as the world’s best sailor.
There’ve been many significant signposts or milestones along the way. At 15 he was a world champion in the 420 class, successfully defending the title a year later and mastering the art of understatement: “Every time we were near the front we seemed to win. So it’s good.” In 2008 he became New Zealand’s youngest Olympic sailor, understated again as he described his philosophical approach: “Try to treat it as another regatta. Try to do all the little things right. We learn pretty fast.”
The learning continued as he teamed up with Blair Tuke, also a world champion, who shares the same phenomenal work ethic. Observers reckon they spent more time on and in the water than any other crew as they strove to be the best. And it sure paid off. Between winning Olympic silver in London and gold in Rio they were unbeaten in 27 consecutive regattas and garnered four world titles.
Significantly in 2015 Peter also won the world championship in the Moth, a single-handed boat that flies on foils like an America’s Cup yacht.
Racing in Melbourne against long-time rival and reigning world champion Nathan Outteridge from Australia, Peter won nine of the 14 races. The Aussie finished second to the Kiwi, as he also did in Rio and again in the final of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series in Bermuda as skipper of the Artemis challenge from Sweden.
Always a fast learner, Peter wouldn’t dwell on any mistakes he made. Instead he’d take what he could from them to improve, a skill he employed to great effect in Bermuda. But while Peter’s sailing results are well chronicled, what’s less well known is his technical nous, which has given him that extra edge over his rivals. As a mechanical engineering student he’s long been a hands-on operator. Back in his teens he was splicing ropes for now fellow Olympic champion Jo Aleh, and at Auckland University he learned how to weld and operate a lathe and could turn out his own fittings for the Moth. So it was no surprise to some to see him write a computer program for the 3-D printer and then make his own controls for the steering wheel and foot-pedals on the victorious America’s Cup yacht.
It’s a unique skill set and complements his ability to give the boat designers and builders the same high-quality feedback for which Formula One drivers like Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were famed. Included in that skill set there is also a unique style that has been evolving with the confidence bestowed by each continuing success.
In Rio I was on the lead camera boat for the Medal Races on Guanabara Bay, when Peter and Blair hove into view ahead of their 49er finale. They’d already won the regatta with two races to spare and a 43-point margin, the biggest points differential of any class in Olympic sailing’s more than 50-year history. To salute the cheering fans that had crowded onto the beach, the new champions powered close in along the shoreline on a high-speed reach, flying the Kiwi flag. At the end of the run the flag was furled and the gennaker doused in a slick flurry of movements before the game-faces went back on.
It was a stylish statement, which they then backed up on the racecourse.
At the start line they made a late call that saw them at the opposite end to the rest of the fleet. Once again their rivals would see only the Kiwi stern as they led from start to finish to take the gold medal, with Peter the youngest ever 49er champion.
In Bermuda his style, such as it is, continued to evolve into what you’d expect from a sportsman who can actually walk the talk; when he says he enjoys the pressure and has learned to thrive on it, he does just that. Whether he’s sitting at the wheel in that 'Driving Miss Daisy' pose, or standing up before executing a high-speed, g-force-straining 'Mr Whippy' turn, the look is of unfussed, controlled concentration, in which he is the master and commander of his situation.
As with the steep learning curve he often referred to, Pistol Pete climbed the confidence hill in steady increments. By the end of the regatta he’d overtaken Jimmy Spithill on and off the water, in the press box and the start box. After hooking the Oracle skipper in Race 8 on the penultimate day of the Match, and sitting him ‘both hulls in’, the Kiwi champion-inwaiting appeared to wave goodbye to his Aussie rival as Aotearoa lifted off to the start line and sped away to victory. Peter would later say the gesture was misconstrued. Every other Kiwi simply thought it was great.
For those of us who’ve followed the journey closely, it’s been a terrific ride, with the America’s Cup win a wonderful finale. Except, of course, it isn’t. Already a world sailor of the year and the youngest winner of the America’s Cup in its 166-year history, Peter Burling’s still only 26.
And now the Volvo Ocean Race beckons at the helm of Team Brunel, with the possibility of making yet more history to win the Triple Crown of Olympic gold, the America’s Cup and the legendary round the world race.
The journey has barely begun.