Blair Tuke and Peter Burling together with Russell Coutts

Peter Burling & Blair Tuke: “It will be a busy next year”

New Zealand’s hottest sailing duo, Olympic gold medallists and America’s Cup winners, Pete Burling and Blair Tuke are the latest big ‘box office’ signing for SailGP. As Co-CEO’s of New Zealand SailGP they will put together a Kiwi crew – entirely separate and independent of Emirates Team New Zealand – for what will effectively be SailGP’s Season 2 starting in April. Campaigning to defend their 49er Olympic title in Tokyo next year, the pair look set to have a busy, carefully structured 2021. But before all that there is the matter of the America’s Cup defence in home waters. Tip & Shaft spoke to Pete and Blair this week…

First off, why SailGP?

Pete: I think that in the first season of SailGP we watched on from the sidelines like everyone else and from our involvement in the America’s Cup and especially the more recent one in Bermuda we had a relationship with Russell and we also did the Youth America’s Cup before that, it seemed like a really good opportunity to get a New Zealand boat into the League.

Who asked who?

Pete: It was both ways. We were chatting a lot to Russell a lot over the years about how it was all unfolding and keeping our fingers on the pulse. I can’t recall how it went in terms of who asked who, but COVID brought us a change in the sporting calendar and gave us the opportunity to try and fit it in and so we are really excited by the opportunity.

This will give you quite a demanding schedule next year, how does it fit together?

Blair: Going ahead it is full focus on the America’s Cup until March. We have the Olympics which we are still planning for full-on for July August and SailGP kicks off Mid April in San Francisco so that is the first event we are looking at at the moment and that can take us to between and ten different places around the world. It will be a busy next year but we have put a lot of thought into it, but we are really excited about the opportunities that are in front of us.

What is the net impact on the 49er programme, will it be compromised?

Blair: It is one of those things for us that we have not been putting in a lot of time on the water into the 49er but that is not say we are not 100 per cent focused on trying to win a gold medal for New Zealand. Some of that is going to depend on how that time after the Cup will look and we are really confident that we can put in the time needed in the boat. And we have some time coming up in the 49er shortly and we are really lucky to have a great training group here in New Zealand to enable us to race against good boats when we have time on the water. The plan is to give it our best shot next year and we are really focused and think we can do that to win another gold medal.

After the Cup do you see potential convergence back towards the SailGP type boat in terms of the what you would like to see in the Cup in the future?

Pete: We don’t have an agenda there at all to be fair. I think they are completely different sides of the sport, Sail GP is one design class in very high performance boats but in essence you don’t sail the boats very much but go and have some very high level racing at venues and put on a really good show. The Cup is about development and technology and that is something that brings different elements to each and allows them both to co-exist. I think it is always hard to set limits in the Cup environment. When the rule was written this time there were a lot of things written in to try and restrict the costs that a team would incur but you are still ultimately running under a rule which was written a very long time ago so there are a lot of limitaitons within that. You still have to build the boat in the country of origin. You still have to go through a lot of things. Look at Formula 1 and they put in huge measures to contain costs but teams still find ways to spend money. I think the Cup has proven in the last while that it is not how much money you have but how you spend it, but it is something we do want to see, more teams in the Cup.

So you are Co-CEOs Who does what?

Blair: That is something that we are quite excited about to be leading this New Zealand team, we have our on water roles, Pete driving the boat as helmsman skipper and me being the flight controller so that is not too dissimilar and to be honest leading the team is not a very different situation to us normally running our 49er campaign as we divvy up roles and responsibilities and to the Cup stuff. The ins and outs of it we are trying to figure it out, we don’t want to be saying ‘you do this and I’ll do that’ because we want to see how it works out. We know our strengths. We have done a lot of campaigns together from planning phases all the way through to competing and winning events and that helps, but it is a new realm in terms of bringing in funding and supporters around us. Building the rest of our team around us is new but we are lucky we have some advisers around us to help us in these early stages.

And how is the SailGP team funded, we understand there is a drive to have teams self funding within a defined period of time?

Blair: As part of SailGP our deal is underwritten by the League in the first instance. That is something which allows us to build the team and find partners and sponsors to fund it for the long term. It is something that anyone who has run a campaign knows it is very hard to get that initial funding to get the thing off the ground so you can start to build it up. That is probably one of the really attractive parts of SailGP to Blair and myself is you pretty much don’t have a massive amount of risk and you can build something. It is great the way the League has created a pathway to get people into it.

So turning to the Cup what is it like to preparing to defend at home right now, very different to being in Bermuda, perhaps feeling a bit more under the microscope?

Blair: It is pretty exciting to have American Magic sailing now and Luna Rossa and Team UK are not too far away. We have been sailing right through winter having had the calendar flipped upside down and so it has been a good time here and right now it is only building. We are excited to have what is ahead of us. We are going reasonably well with the team but there is lots more work to do.

And do you feel like you have caught up for the time you lost at all?

Blair: We have managed to restructure and re-prioritise quite well. Obviously we lost the big boat overseas for a big chunk of time but we have had the small test boat which enabled us to keep going on the water for us. But now some of the other teams are taking that hit now so it has all swung around and in the end will be pretty even. It is bit of a change around but it has been all about how you dealt with the changing landscape.

Have you learned anything specific from seeing American Magic actually on the  water?

Pete: “t has just been cool to have another boat down here in New Zealand. It is equally exciting to know the Brits are coming and Prada won’t be too far behind and then it is going to be an incredible spectacle down here in a few month’s time. There is a real desire for sport here following the lack of it in the current COVID environment and it will be amazing to see four teams of the calibre of the Cup teams at the moment coming together and competing.

We have not seen a Cup style race yet for obvious reasons, what do you think the Cup races will be like, will there be more match racing plays for example or just a speed race?

Blair: Any sailing race is a speed race. The boats are pretty cool this time round and a step up from what we raced in Bermuda in terms of speed, the manoeuvrability is pretty good.

So we will see engagement at the start, something closer to traditional match racing perhaps?

Blair: We are still figuring it out exactly how that will work. No two boats have lined up yet and so we know that the racing with how the boats manoeuvre will be close and as we saw in Bermuda the tack losses and gybe losses are not massive, it comes close and so we will just have to see how the relative speeds of the boats are.

And The Ocean Race does the postponement impact on your plans or ideas? 

Pete: It is a pretty tricky time for The Ocean Race. It is probably the most unfortunate timing of COVID, being a few teams were in the middle of builds and a lot more were trying to find funding. I think they made the right call to push it back. Blair and myself have a massive passion for The Ocean Race and got incredibly close to winning it for separate teams on the last edition. And so at some stage in the future we would love to take it on and try and win it for New Zealand.

But no definitive plans at the moment?

Both: No.

But next time we would see you on the same boat ?

Blair: We would love to. And if we do it again that is how we would do it and we want to do it again, but as Pete said we will do it at the right time for us. We loved the last race. It taught us a lot about ourselves and improved our sailing skills and we loved the whole experience. We would love to do it again but the time has to be right and put a real decent Kiwi campaign together for it.

Does the IMOCA appeal to you especially?

Pete: Yes it is cool the direction the sport is heading in, going faster. It is an interesting boat sailing it crewed, and a step in the right direction, there is a bit to work out how that will look and the feel of it but one thing is for sure the 65s are not the boats for the race for the future, that is the right call for sure.

You’ll be watching the Vendée Globe? 

Pete: That is one the cool things about our sport, there are so many disciplines and that is one event that is right at the top of it, it is cool.

Does it appeal to either of you?

Pete: Not overly. You have to be a special type of person to take that on. I have not looked really at the detail to see how much communication they have back to shore and how much time you spend on the Sat Phone. It looks pretty interesting.

And the Ultimes what are your thoughts?

Pete: I think some of the crewed Ultimes are epic. They are really pushing the boundaries in terms of speed and there are some pretty cool races. I have been out with the Gitana guys a while back and obviously we have really strong relationship with Guillaume (Verdier) who designs for Gitana and the IMOCAs and so we keep in touch with him to see what is going on. But it is pretty incredible to see the speeds they are doing in a seaway especially, you’d take a Cup boat anytime for the speed around a course on flat water, but to see the miles these boats clock up pretty effortlessly on open oceans is pretty ridiculous. They are cool boats.

Photo : SailGP

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