Kiwi star Pete Burling on the 'exciting future' of The Ocean Race – and how he's already got one eye on the 2021 edition.
Pete Burling isn’t a man who finds it easy to take time off. By the age of 27, he’d already scooped the America’s Cup and two Olympic medals (including a gold at Rio 2016 with long-time partner Blair Tuke). Oh, and two World Sailor of the Year awards.
So it was no surprise when, following his debut in The Ocean Race as part of Team Brunel in 2017-18, he launched straight into the next two projects – not just skippering the Kiwi 36th America’s Cup defence, but also defending his Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.
But even for someone as busy as this 28-year-old, the 2021-22 edition of The Ocean Race – in foiling IMOCA 60 boats – makes for a delicious prospect.
“The future of The Ocean Race is definitely exciting – especially as there’s now that design component to it again,” said Burling, speaking in Palma de Mallorca whilst racing the 49er Olympic class.
“One-Design had its perks, but I think some of the sailors who did the last race probably got a bit frustrated by some of the things on the boats. It’s going to be cool to have something a little more design-related and a bit quicker.
“I think it’s going to be a big challenge sailing with less crew – you’re going to have to be much more rounded with your sailing skills – and I think that’s really good for the race.”
As a key part of Bouwe Bekking’s Team Brunel crew last race, Burling came tantalisingly close to getting his hands on The Ocean Race trophy – a feat that would have seen him become the first sailor in history to win the sport’s ‘Triple Crown’ of prizes.
But both Burling – and Tuke, racing on MAPFRE, who also had his eye on that historic trio of big wins – were both beaten to the finish line by Dongfeng Race Team, meaning that The Ocean Race trophy still eludes the Kiwi pair. Despite that, Burling sees the Race as a learning experience, and says that doing it has changed how he approaches his other sailing campaigns.
“You’re a more well rounded sailor after competing in The Ocean Race,” he continues. “It’s definitely a challenge getting back into the small 49er boats as we haven’t sailed them for a couple of years, but it feels like we’re finally making some progress there. It’s nice to have done so many miles offshore so that you feel pretty experienced in that too.”
Can Burling see what could bring a sailor back to the Race seven times, like his Dutch skipper Bouwe Bekking?
“Well, I don’t know if I could do it seven times!” he laughs. “I was onboard with Bouwe and Andrew Cape who have each been around Cape Horn eight times or more. You look at them and think ‘you’re not quite right!”
“But I do see what brings people back to it. You see some unique things and it’s a massive challenge. It’s an incredible race and with the boats at the leading edge of the sport I think it will continue to draw the best sailors back in.”
With such a busy schedule since the end of the Race, Burling hasn’t had a lot of time to look back on his round-the-world journey – but admits that he has spent some time going back through the OBR content from the last edition.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to reflect and go through the RAW wall at some of the stuff you haven’t seen before,” he says. “It’s an incredible experience, sailing around the world. I’ve made some really good friends out of it, and it’s something that stays with you for a long time.”
What are his memories of the Southern Ocean – just how tough is it? “It’s incredibly tricky to explain what it’s like down there,” he replies. “The weather is so powerful, with snow and ice, and it’s a place that humans shouldn’t really be. Seeing Cape Horn was very cool, and not many people get to see that with their own eyes.
“But of course, The Southern Ocean was obviously the saddest part of the race for everyone involved. You have some great memories, and some terrible ones as well.”
With Bianca Cook and Tony Rae having already announced a Kiwi-flagged VO65 campaign in March, New Zealand will be represented in the 2021-22 edition in at least one class – and Burling admits that he and Tuke have their eyes on adding another campaign to the start line, in the IMOCA class.
“New Zealand has so much history in what used to be the Whitbread and the Volvo Ocean Race, and what's now The Ocean Race,” he says. “It would be a real shame if there wasn’t a Kiwi boat in the pinnacle of the race – and we’re trying really hard to get one in it.
“We have a lot on our plate right now, focusing on the 49er and the America’s Cup, which are both big challenges, but for sure it would be really cool to see a New Zealand boat on the start line in 2021, and we’d really like to be involved.”
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