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Burling and Tuke outline ambitious plan for 2021 America's Cup, Olympics and SailGP

by Richard Gladwell/ 16 Aug 2020 06:33 PDT 17 August 2020
49er Rio Olympics - Burling and Tuke (NZL) with Outteridge and Jensen (AUS) - NZSailGP team will come up against several old rivals in SailGP © Richard Gladwell /

Widely considered to be the hottest property in sailing, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke took a significant step in their professional sailing careers, with the announcement of their entry into the SailGP circuit.

SailGP is contested in identical 50ft foiling wingsailed catamarans (F50's) derived from the AC50 used in the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda.

Their first event in the Larry Ellison backed SailGP circuit, is scheduled to take place next April in the software mogul's hometown of San Francisco.

Burling and Tuke will join two other headline acts - Great Britain's Ben Ainslie and Australia's Tom Slingsby.

All three share the rare distinction of being Olympic Gold medalists and America's Cup Champions. Burling and Tuke are the current America's Cup champions.

Ainslie is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and Slingsby, won his Gold medal at Weymouth in 2012 in the Laser class. Both were part of the winning Oracle Team USA crew in the 2013 America's Cup, also sailed in San Francisco.

Ainslie has drawn his Great Britain SailGP team from the ranks of the INEOS Team UK America's Cup team. Slingsby has no current America's Cup involvement. However, the AustraliaSailGP team is the 2019 SailGP champion - taking out the $USD1million winner takes all purse - which was decided on the last race of the series.

Live Ocean linked with race team

Burling and Tuke come to SailGP via a different pathway.

Last November they launched their ocean conservation charity, Live Ocean.

Their just launched race team, Live Ocean Racing, is described by the team as "a conduit between the pair's ocean conservation charity Live Ocean and their sailing endeavours. The ambition for Live Ocean Racing is for it to be a powerful platform to take the message of ocean restoration and protection to the global stage through world-class sailing"

The pair also have their Olympic 49er program which in the 2019 and 2020 World Championships attracted sponsorship from IT multinational, SAP and Mastercard.

While provided with substantial funding assistance for the first year on the SailGP circuit, teams are expected to find their own sponsorship for the second year.

In many ways, Burling and Tuke are following in the footprints of Sir Peter Blake, who also combined a series of very successful professional sailing projects, with a strong ocean health program.

Racing on the SailGP circuit offers Live Ocean Racing's sponsors access to a worldwide audience of 1.8billion, in more than 100 territories - based on Season 1 media impact. To date, SailGP has sailed in six major cities - Sydney, San Francisco, New York, Cowes and the final in Marseille. SailGP attracted over 130,000 shore-based spectators, in their first season.

"We already have several amazing brand partners who support us in our Olympic endeavours", Burling says in response to a question on how they will work their current sponsorship commitments into the considerable opportunities afforded by SailGP.

"In the beginning, like the majority of the teams, we are underwritten by the League, which is helpful to get us up and running. SailGP gives us a secure platform to go out and bring in partners so we can be a financially independent team.", he added.

COVID-19 created opportunity

Burling and Tuke are Co-CEO's of NZSailGP. "From a management point of view we will work to bring like-minded partners and sponsors around us to build this team," Tuke explains.

The SailGP program will kick in after Burling and Tuke's America's Cup commitments are satisfied in March 2021. Also on their schedule is a defence of their Olympic title in the 49er class at Tokyo2020 to be sailed in mid-2021. They may also be part of a team in The Ocean Race, now postponed until September 2021, at least.

"The good thing is that SailGP starts after the America's Cup, so right now we have a little setup to do, but our focus remains on the Cup," Burling told Sail-World. "We have also put a lot of planning into how the Olympics integrates with SailGP. Our priority also remains to try and win another Olympic medal for New Zealand, next year - COVID dependant", he added.

It seems that COVID-19 was the catalyst for the Olympic 49er and America's Cup champions to join the SailGP sailing league.

Burling says they have been talking seriously with SailGP CEO, Russell Coutts for about some time now.

"It's always been Russell's ambition to have a Kiwi team represented in the League. It just happened that COVID-19 shifted the League dates and it lined up with our schedules, so it was a great opportunity for everyone," he adds.

"We've known Russell a long time and have a lot of respect for him," Tuke comments. "We made it clear to him that we were interested in the League. Things just progressed from there."

"SailGP is something that has excited us since its inception," Tuke says.

"Season 1 was something we followed closely and enjoyed watching like everyone else. It offers close racing in boats that are very similar to what we raced in Bermuda. We have been thinking about the opportunity for a little bit, but more so in the past few months."

"We've got a plan now as to how it will all work best, and we're looking forward to going out and executing," Burling says.

Aim to bring young sailors into sport

Part of that plan is to expand sailing in New Zealand and particularly to attract and keep young sailors in the sport. That's an objective they share with Russell Coutts, also an Olympic Gold medalist and five-times America's Cup champion, who has set up and financially backed several projects aimed at young sailors.

Burling and Tuke are products of Yachting New Zealand's Youth and Olympic programs. The golden glow of their achievements on the world sailing circuits helps to generate self-belief in young sailors, currently in those same YNZ programs.

"COVID-19 has put a spanner in the works of world professional sport. But this has been a great opportunity that has come up, and we are looking forward to growing the sport in New Zealand," Burling explains.

"There is going to be a lot more professional sailing showcased on TV which is going to give inspiration and create pathways for young kiwis interested in yachting to keep coming through the sport - that is super important for us as leaders of the team.."

An intriguing aspect of Burling and Tuke's entry into SailGP is that it is a way for members of Team New Zealand to spin-off into other professional sailing events, without detracting from the primary focus of the America's Cup team.

"Dalts and Shoeb have been incredibly supportive, they see it as us taking the next step in our sailing career, we've put together a plan as to how it is all going to work seamlessly," Burling explains. "They have been over it right from the beginning - so it has been a cool journey."

"This is completely independent of Team New Zealand", Tuke emphasises. "We have had full support from the team. They see it as a great opportunity obviously for us personally, but also to push the sport of sailing within New Zealand."

"It has been great to have the support of Team NZ. Dalts and Shoeb have been across this since early on in the discussion, which is important."

Competing against 2017 America's Cup rivals

There is some overlap between SailGP and the preliminary America's Cup World Series regattas - also an initiative of Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison in 2011/12 ahead of the 2013 America's Cup and continued for the buildup into the 2017 Cup.

In Bermuda, Burling and Tuke competed against Ben Ainslie (then Landrover BAR) in the 2017 America's Cup, and also Tom Slingsby (Oracle Racing) and Nathan Outteridge (Artemis Racing). They are respectively competing in the Great Britain, Australia and Japan SailGP teams.

"It's going to be cool racing them again in one-design cats," Burling says. "Being able to go and test our skills against some of the world's best sailors is one of the drawcards of SailGP."

Olympic Gold and Silver medalist Nathan Outteridge (AUS), now resident in Auckland, is a long-time training partner and competitor in the 49er class. Outteridge's Olympic crew Iain Jensen is now with INEOS Team UK and sails with skipper Ben Ainslie on the SailGP and America's Cup circuits.

"We haven't talked with Ben, Tom or Nath yet," Tuke adds. "We've kept it quiet and have just been dealing with Russell and his team at the League to get all this organised. We'll get on the phone later today and have a bit of a chat. We are looking forward to racing against them again, along with some of the best sailors in the world. Hopefully, we can go in and give it a good crack."

America's Cup champions will put new edge into SailGP

Burling and Tuke's entry into the SailGP circuit will be watched with great interest given the dominating performance by Tom Slingsby and friends in the first (2019) SailGP series. But that was eclipsed in January 2020, Ben Ainslie, in his SailGP debut, lifted the bar to a new level with a superlative performance in the opening event of the 2020 SailGP in Sydney.

Can the kiwis go one better than Ainslie and lift the SailGP bar to new levels? Or will SailGP level out to become a very keenly contested event with plenty of lead changing on the water and on the daily leaderboard?

"Yes, he went alright at the last event," says Burling - understating Ainslie's dominant performance in Sydney.

He expects that the Australians and the other teams that really stepped up in the first season will be doing a lot of practice and finding out ways of getting better between now and the second round of SailGP set down for San Francisco in early May.

The two business and sailing partners say they have not made any decisions on a crew or the whole NZSailGP sailing and shore squad - expected to number about 17 people.

"As we get closer to the season restarting, we will confirm the rest of the roles from shore crew to the sailing team," Burling explains.

Many of the initial squad of NZSailGP sailors will likely come across from Emirates Team New Zealand. The need for a foiling experienced crew is more acute, given that only limited training time is available in the F50's. San Francisco is renowned as a challenging heavy air, strong tide racecourse.

But once the team established it is likely NZSailGP will reach out to the large 49er fleet in Auckland, and other high-performance classes and talent development programs.

"We are so lucky NZ has a lot of great sailors which makes it a lot easier when we jump into one of these events," says Burling looking beyond the immediacy of the first regatta in San Francisco.

Tight schedule for San Francisco

"One of the things with SailGP is that you can't do much training," he adds.

"The one-design boats shared service, shared logistics that travel with the event means there isn't a lot of training time At this stage it is looking like there will be a small familiarisation period before San Francisco for all the teams."

Racing in the SailGP San Francisco gets under way May 2-3, 2020 less than six weeks after the conclusion of the 36th Match for the America's Cup.

Burling admits that San Francisco will be a blind date for the NZSailGP team, and he has no F50 experience.

"Last time I was on an AC50 was on the last race of the America's Cup - there's definitely going to be some special memories when we get back out there," he says.

"From talking with the others who have sailed the F50's they are very similar to what we sailed in the Cup.

"It will be interesting to see how the F50 has changed from when it used to be the AC50.

AC50 and AC75 similar but different

"The AC75 is impressive in terms of the scale of the boat and the presence they have when you sail them and how quick they are," Burling says.

"A lot of the sailing skills cross over," says Tuke comparing the AC50 with the AC75. "You are going really fast on both boats. The tacking and gybing angles are all quite similar. You've got a soft sail on the AC75 and hard wingsail on the AC/F50 so there are some differences."

"You are always trying to get whatever boat you are sailing going as fast as possible. We're looking forward to learning how to do this on the F50's which are slightly different from what we raced in Bermuda.

"It is going to be incredible to race a fleet of these high-performance boats (F50's) which is one of the exciting aspects of the SailGP."

"The F50 is a modified, one-design version of what we raced in Bermuda. They are super-charged now," Tuke explains.

"The foils are designed to operate at higher speeds, going over 50kts now. The boats are awesome, and the people racing them are amongst some of the best sailors in the world," he adds.

"It makes for tight racing, and we're looking forward to jumping into it."

Mention of the magical 50kt mark prompts the question as to whether they have seen 50kts in the AC75's?

"You'll have to wait and see until the races are on TV and you can see the speeds we are doing. The boats are going fast, and they're not going to be any slower going into the Cup," Tuke says.

SailGP regatta in NZ?

On the horizon is the prospect of hosting a SailGP regatta in New Zealand?

"That is something we would definitely love to see," says Tuke. "But first we have to launch the team - so those discussions are about to happen. But we would love to showcase SailGP in New Zealand if that is that is a possibility."

Then there is the minor matter of unfinished business with The Ocean Race formerly the Volvo Ocean Race.

"We'd love to do another TOR," Tuke says. "We've got a massive passion there, and there's some unfinished business from the last edition!

"We'll just have to see how the world of sport shapes up with COVID and when the next edition of the TOR happens."

Meanwhile there's the small matter of an America's Cup to Defend.

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