Grant Dalton’s gamble to place Emirates Team New Zealand’s hopes of victory in the hands of rookie America’s Cup helmsman Peter Burling certainly paid off.
The Kiwis chief executive came under heavy fire for his controversial decision to replace Dean Barker with Burling in the wake of the team’s heartbreaking defeat against defenders Oracle Team USA at the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco after blowing a 8-1 lead.
However, the faith that Dalton had in Burling, a multiple world champion and Olympic gold medal-winner, beared fruit as the youngest helmsman in the fleet steered the Kiwis to an emphatic 7-1 triumph over Oracle.
“It was obviously a great honour to be asked [to join the team],” Burling told The Royal Gazette. “You grow up watching the America’s Cup and to be able to compete for that as a Kiwi is a cool thing to have the opportunity to do. When I first signed up it was going to be kind of a trial between myself and Dean Barker. That’s kind of what I signed up for and you definitely back your skills and ability.”
Although Barker’s highly publicised split from Team New Zealand was messy at best, Burling said he has a friendly relationship with his predecessor.
“We are really good friends with Dean and a lot of the guys on SoftBank Team Japan just like we are with the Oracle guys and the Artemis guys and everyone here,” Burling said.
The two helmsman went head-to-head twice during the America’s Cup Qualifiers, with Burling coming out on top on each occasion.
“It was just a great opportunity to test our skills against a boat that was incredibly fast,” Burling said. “Obviously we always thought [Team Japan] were going to be a similar speed to Oracle, so to be able to learn from those guys was a great opportunity.”
At just 26, Burling is now the youngest helmsman to win the “Auld Mug” as he helped the Kiwis to their first title since 2000.
“It’s obviously a pretty cool situation to be in and it’s just sinking in really,” said Burling, who steered NZL Racing Team to the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013.
“It’s obviously pretty special to be able to do that especially as a Kiwi, as our country has quite a history in the America’s Cup.”
The Kiwis’ march to victory was not without setbacks. In the Challenger Play-Off semi-final their boat nosedived during their race against Land Rover BAR.
“I think we were all surprised how little damage we had after the capsize,” Burling said. “It looked pretty bad on television but it was just the fairings and lightweight carbon structures.
“Most of the main structural components were all fine and I think we were just incredibly lucky not have any major structural issues after that.
“They [the AC50] are pretty cool boats and it’s incredible how they keep pushing the boundaries, pushing the technology and keep getting faster and faster. It’s a bit sad we’re not going to be sailing them for a little bit now.”
Burling was blown away by what Bermuda had to offer, both on sea and land. “It’s an amazing venue and spot to hang out and live in,” he said. “I think the racing showed that. It’s pretty picturesque out there on the Great Sound and really good fun.”
He also offered a bit of advice to Bermuda’s youth sailors.
“Just have fun,” he said. “Make sure they are enjoying their yachting and what they are doing.”
The Kiwis’ title defence began before Burling and his team-mates could even get their hands on the “Auld Mug”, as Italian syndicate Luna Rossa became the official Challenger of Record for the 36th America’s Cup.
Luna Rossa will now work with the Kiwis to plan the next event, which is likely to be held in 2021.
“[Team New Zealand] haven’t made any decisions yet as to what boats it will be in or what the set up will look like,” Burling said.
“But I’m sure they will do the right thing.”