America’s Cup: The long road to legendary status for Peter Burling and Blair Tuke

One of the first times that Peter Burling and Blair Tuke went sailing together on the Hauraki Gulf, the Waiheke Island ferry had to be diverted to check if they were okay.

It was back in 2008, when they were taking their first steps in the 49er class, trying to master the difficult skiff.

After capsizing in strong winds, the teenagers spent some time sorting out their sails. Someone in the hills above the eastern beaches had spotted the pair, which eventually prompted the courtesy call by the passing ferry.

How times have changed.

This month Burling and Tuke etched their names into sporting folklore on the same body of water, key figures in Team New Zealand’s historic America’s Cup defence.

And while there is a focus on Grant Dalton for the decision around the next Cup edition, the 31-year-old from Kerikeri and the 30-year-old from Tauranga will have a massive say.

They are recognised – already – as arguably this country’s greatest sailors and are among the most powerful people in New Zealand sport.

But their partnership had humble origins, and behind all their success is a relentless appetite for hard work.

“I tell a lot of guys coming through now; they didn’t just jump in and start winning world championships,” recalls former coach Nathan Handley. “They had to serve their apprenticeship.

“They did a lot of hard training to get to where they did. They had their moments; I remember early on practising gybes and Peter would miss the wire and he would be falling out of the back of the boat, it would be all sorts.”

Their partnership began in 2008, soon after the Beijing Olympics. They had come up through different paths but competed together at the 2007 Australian Youth Olympic festival and clicked, on and off the water.

“I remember Pete telling me during the [2008] Games,” recalls Handley. “He had always wanted to do the 49er and he had this guy Blair lined up.”

According to Heather Burling, it wasn’t a complicated decision for her son.

“When Peter was looking around, Blair was pretty much the only one on the list,” says Heather. “He got heaps of offers from more experienced sailors but wanted someone his own age.”

The 49er class was a daunting proposition. New Zealand lacked the residual knowledge, as no one had managed Olympic qualification since 2000.

“We didn’t have a benchmark,” says Handley. “I was last to go and that was Sydney.”

It was a steep learning curve, but Handley was struck by their persistence, passion and precociousness.

“Peter was really quiet, didn’t say a lot,” says Handley. “Blair was the other way, quite a cheeky young fellow. But they liked to have a laugh and enjoyed their sailing. They were really keen.”

It was slow progress, mastering the difficult technical aspects.

“I remember them saying early on, ‘what do you think Nath?'” recalls Handley. “I asked them for a black marker pen, and they said, ‘why do you want that?’ Because I am going to put a big L on the back of your boat for your learning plates…. they had to serve their time.

“I remember Blair finding it pretty tough, then I would chuck my wetsuit on and I would sail with Pete on and off, mix it around. [But] every so often they would show something special, and you thought, ‘these guys are looking promising’.”

Burling’s father Richard remembers them learning in a “crappy old boat”.

“They did a fair bit of swimming, which everyone does,” says Richard. “Because they are not easy boats to sail.”

There were some hairy moments on the Waitematā Harbour.

“A few times they were sailing the old boat out there and getting going in the strong wind,” says Heather. “With the current and the waves it can get pretty snotty. Sometimes they would have a capsize and have to wrap up their sails, which means they are sitting in the water for a while, sorting out their sails, out there by themselves.

“There must be a few old fellas up at Kohimarama with binoculars on the ocean. They never needed a tow home, but I think there were a couple of times when the Waiheke Island ferry was diverted to look at them and make sure they were okay.”

Their famed on-board chemistry, evident again during the America’s Cup, is a product of years of toil.

“They had to work on their communication,” says Handley. “Pete was so quiet. I remember Blair saying he needed to get more information from Pete, he didn’t know what he was going to do coming into marks. They have worked hard on that, getting their heads out of the boat, knowing what each other is thinking.”

Long stints training with Australian Nathan Outteridge were vital to their development.

“Nathan was very good for them, in terms of competing against the best,” says veteran sailing commentator Peter Lester. “You know the benchmark; you know the level.”

But there wasn’t instant success.

They finished 26th at their first 49er world championships in 2009 in Italy, outside the cut for high performance funding, which meant more European campaigns on a shoestring.

In 2010 they achieved 17th in the world champs, followed by two seconds then Olympic silver in 2012.

It’s been first ever since, with six successive 49er world championship triumphs and Olympic gold in 2016.

“They are really good for each other,” says Richard Burling. “There is mutual respect and understanding. If something doesn’t go right, you don’t blame the other person. They can have really honest debriefs because they are after the same thing.”

Lester has followed their career since 2010, commentating on most of their major regattas, from Olympics to world championships to America’s Cups.

“They are really good friends and they complement each other,” says Lester. “The differences are quite marked in terms of their personalities, but the compatibility obviously works.”

Their athleticism is another strong point, highlighted during the 2019 49er world championships in Auckland.

“Peter fell off the trapeze and took the tiller extension with him,” recalls Lester. “But Blair leaned over the side and plucked him out of the water. With normal people you capsize. But with abnormal people, with that amount of skill, you recover from that and go on to win. That was really defining.”

Lester also lauds their intellect and understanding of sailing science, design, engineering and physics.

“They have got the full package,” says Lester. “And probably if you haven’t got those attributes, it’s going to be pretty difficult to match their level.

“They expect to win, they are not hoping to win, because of their track record. That’s a hell of a powerful position and the opposition are thinking, hell, there is an avalanche coming at us.”

Comparisons between eras are always difficult and New Zealand has produced many wonderful yachties, from Peter Mander to Chris Bouzaid to Russell Coutts. But Lester, twice named New Zealand sailor of the year, has no doubt where Burling and Tuke rank.

“I actually think they are the best yachties we have ever had in New Zealand – just because of the variety,” said Lester. “They’ve sailed the Volvo Ocean race, Olympic dinghies, single handed foiling moths, A-class cats, America’s Cup boats.

“The comparison would be Coutts. Russell would not have had that variety available to him and it’s a different generation, so it’s hard to say who’s best.

“[But] the variety of boats they sail, whether by themselves or together, is a massive strength. They are probably our best, that we have ever seen.

“And you would have to say they are the best yachties in the world, not just here. And at a relatively young age. They have a lot left in them yet.”

Source: Read Full Article