Fast Friends Become Rivals
Going head to head against each other in the Volvo Ocean Race, New Zealand’s most celebrated seamen, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, have their eyes on the prize but haven’t lost sight of the big picture.
It’s been said that Kiwi sailors Peter Burling and Blair Tuke go together like bacon and eggs. Sailing partners for eight years now, their natural chemistry and dynamism have propelled them to a record-breaking 27 consecutive regatta wins, silver and gold Olympic medals, an America’s Cup win and national hero status.
Now New Zealand’s supreme sailing duo has another world record in their sights, the Triple Crown feat no one has yet pulled off: winning an Olympic title, the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race. This time, however, there can be only one winner, given that the two close friends are sailing on opposing teams, Tuke for Spanish team MAPFRE and Burling for Dutch boat Brunel.
Going into the 2017–18 Volvo Ocean Race, Burling had the higher profile, as the youngest helmsman ever to win the America’s Cup. (Our very own managing director Clint Jones was on hand to witness this world first as skipper of the camera boat capturing all the on-water action.) Tuke, on the other hand, had the more diverse sailing skill set, cycling to generate hydraulic power for Emirates Team New Zealand while trimming the AC50 catamaran’s foils to raise its hulls out of the water.
With two more legs to go before the race’s conclusion in the Hague, just three points separate the top three, with Dongfeng Race Team in the lead. Team Brunel handily won leg 9 into Cardiff, another double-points round, while MAPFRE finished a disappointing fifth. Prior to that, things had been mostly going Blair’s way.
Leg 6, which finished in Auckland, was a bittersweet homecoming for Burling and Team Brunel, who came in sixth while MAPFRE squeaked onto the podium in third place. But the next leg, to Itajaí, Brazil, really turned things around for Brunel, who won this defining leg of the race as well as its double points. A heartbreaking finish to leg 8, a grueling slog of 5,700 nm, saw one best mate best the other as MAPFRE slipped past Brunel in the last 300 miles to snatch the win by the narrowest of margins, 61 seconds.
Despite all the drama, the two remain the best of friends and get together to share stories and beers in each Host City. “We’re both competitive people, and we want to try and win that trophy,” Tuke told TVNZ’s Seven Sharp. “But at the same time, we’ve both got a lot of respect for each other.”
“We are each other’s biggest supporters,” adds Burling. “We are both in a position to gain amazing experience to bring to our future sailing goals.”
Growing up in different corners of New Zealand, learning the ropes on two very different types of sailing dinghy—an Optimist for Burling and a P-class for Tuke—the two sailors became a team when Burling e-mailed Tuke in search of partner as he transitioned from the 470 to the more demanding skiff class.
“I knew this kid from Tauranga who was going pretty well, and he’d beaten me once or twice,” Tuke, a Kerikeri native, recalls. “He came back from the  Olympics and sent me an e-mail, saying ‘Shall we give London a crack?’ Straight away I said yes.”
Between training, traveling and competing, the pair typically spent more than 300 days a year together, something they expect to resume once the Volvo Ocean Race is over. Even when they’re home, you’ll often find them hanging out, paddling out to ride the waves.
“We have a lot of the same hobbies. We get on really well and we end up spending a lot of our down time together as well,” Burling says.
There’ll be no shortage of opportunities to log more hours together in the near future. Next on the horizon is a possible defense of their Olympic title in Tokyo in 2020 and the America’s Cup in Auckland in 2021. They’re also interested in turning their Volvo rivalry into a team effort, despite the short turnaround time between the two events.
“It’s something we want do together in the future,” says Tuke. “We’re already talking about a campaign for the next time around.”