When “Pistol Pete” Burling drives Emirates Team New Zealand’s sleek black catamaran into the opening race of the America’s Cup on Sunday, the cool young helmsman will be on the cusp of becoming the greatest sailor New Zealand has known – although plenty believe he is already there.

When an eight-year-old blonde kid named Peter Burling first turned up to the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club on Sulphur Point, the old salts swiftly recognised that there was something different about the boy.

As Gary Smith, a former commodore and a stalwart of the club, explains: “He always had the X factor.

“He could look at the same patch of water as the rest of us and see something different about it.

“And he was a super competitive young guy. It didn’t matter if we were sailing, going for a walk or playing tiddlywinks, he would never give up until he’d won. But he was never one to slap you round the face and say: ‘I beat you!’ He always had a wry smile on his face when he won.”

And that, says Smith, hasn’t changed at all.

Today, the 26-year-old man, who walks barefoot through the Emirates Team New Zealand base wearing a helmet with his nickname “Pistol” emblazoned in red, remains modest in the face of victory, and unruffled in the face of defeat.

Burling is poised to go head-to-head this weekend with his new nemesis, Jimmy Spithill – the guardian of the America’s Cup; the skipper behind arguably the greatest comeback in modern sporting history. An Australian who relishes needling Kiwis as much as he loves winning.

It may be the greatest test yet of Burling’s coolness and composure, which has been a talking point in the Atlantic archipelago of Bermuda these past three weeks.

While it may not be obvious to the eye of the everyday America’s Cup fan, Peter Burling is one out of the box. Still in the relative infancy of his sailing career, he’s described as possessing the combined traits of two of our great yachting legends – the level head and candid personality of the late Sir Peter Blake; and the sailing expertise and technical wisdom of the America’s Cup’s most successful skipper, Sir Russell Coutts.

“His sailing résumé is second-to-none. He’s ahead of where Ben Ainslie [the four-time Olympic gold medallist and British America’s Cup skipper] was at his age,” says Craig Monk, himself a two-time Cup winner.

“He’s certainly well ahead of anyone we’ve seen in New Zealand before.”

A vintage class

As far as friendly rivalries go, the Tauranga Boys’ College “Class of 2008” had a doozy. The head boy was Kane Williamson – now captain of the Black Caps, and one of the great batsmen in world cricket. The school’s sports captain was Burling – a two-time Olympic medallist, a seven-time world champion and now challenging helmsman for the America’s Cup. For years they competed for the school’s sports prizes.

Two other graduates from that incredibly fertile year, Sam Meech and Jason Saunders, also sailed at last year’s Rio Olympics.

In his final year of school, Burling somehow managed to balance his study and exams with an increasingly-demanding international sailing agenda. It was that year the 17-year-old sailed a 470 dinghy at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – the youngest member of the New Zealand Olympic team, and the youngest sailor to ever wear the silver fern at an Olympics.

Burling was also a stellar academic, sitting university papers while still in Year 12. When he left school, he began studying for a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Auckland (the same engineering school that Coutts, now the America’s Cup supremo, graduated from after a marathon seven years).

Not only did he love to sail boats, he also loved to understand how they worked. But the love affair wasn’t always obvious.

A New Year’s Day baby, born in 1991, Burling was the second son of a doctor mother and a teacher father.

A quiet and sometimes shy boy, Burling grew up in Tauranga and spent his summers on the water – in the family fizz boat on the Rotorua Lakes, or outside his grandparents’ home in the Bay of Islands.

Unknowingly, he was straight across the Kerikeri inlet from a young boy named Blair Tuke, who he would one day share an Olympic gold medal with and race alongside in the America’s Cup. Tuke, 18 months older than Burling, was learning to sail in an iconic P Class yacht that his parents had bought him for Christmas when he was 11.

Burling was introduced, with some indifference, to sailboats at the age of six. His father, Richard, had bought a well-worn wooden Optimist dinghy for $200, named Jellytip, for Burling’s older brother Scott. Richard took the boys out on to the Welcome Bay estuary, where they got just as much joy from swimming under it as sailing in it.

Within a couple of years, the boys joined the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club, at the foot of the city’s harbour. “I got dragged along,” Burling says. But once he started racing, his attitude to sailing dramatically changed.

“I was inspired by the people I saw competing for New Zealand.”

Gary Smith doffs his cap to Richard Burling for nurturing his son’s sailing talent. Burling senior was far from a “tiger parent” who pushed his son forward at the expense of others.

He ran a learn-to-sail programme at the yacht club. “His whole regime was finding other talented kids to push Pete as far as they could,” Smith says.

“He found the Saunders, the Meechs and the Kennedys, and built a really strong team around them. Their ethos was ‘let’s have fun on the water – train together, race hard, get back on the beach and talk about how we could improve each other’s boats’. There were never any secrets between them; it was a team effort.

“And because of that, Tauranga is now the most successful yacht club in the world.” In Olympic sailing at least. At the Rio games last year, TYPBC sailors won gold (Burling), silver (Molly Meech) and bronze (Sam Meech), and had a fourth placing (Jason Saunders). “That didn’t happen overnight – it was 15 years in the building,” Smith says.

Richard Burling has helped his son and Tuke run their 49er campaigns over the past eight years. He is still his son’s biggest supporter, waving a giant New Zealand flag outside the Team NZ base whenever “Pistol Pete” leaves the dock or returns.

Burling doesn’t recall having idols as he grew up. “For me, it was more about having my own goals and ambitions. I’m quite competitive and I really enjoyed taking it out on the water, racing against my mates, striving to be better than them. We were pushing each other, and getting stronger and stronger as a group,” he told me a few years ago.

“I was inspired by the people I saw competing for New Zealand, and wanting to be one of them.”

Peter Burling (R) on the water with Carl Evans during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Photo: Getty Images

A lot has been made of Burling being the youngest helmsman in the America’s Cup fleet in Bermuda. But age has never been an issue to him. “I always ended up sailing in a class earlier than kids usually would, because I’d just jump into whatever boat my brother was sailing,” he says.

At the age of 11, he made his first big splash in a pool of much older teenagers. He went to the Optimist nationals, where most competitors were 14 and 15 years old, and finished second. Later that year, he flew to Texas to sail in the world Opti championships; 11 years old, and already travelling the world to go sailing.

At 12, he won his first national title. By 15, he was a world champion – sailing with Carl Evans to win the 420 world championships in the Canary Islands. They were the youngest crew to ever do so.

He was just 23 when he signed up to bring new blood to Team NZ’s assault on the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda; and 24 when he was named to replace the unwanted Dean Barker at the helm.

Team NZ’s fighter pilot

Craig Monk, who through sailing has become a friend of Burling, describes him as highly intuitive, and a leader in the new generation of sailors who have mastered apparent wind sailing – boats sailing so fast they create their own wind.

“He’s cut from just the right cloth for this kind of ‘flying’ America’s Cup – short, focused racing where you can’t afford to make a mistake,” Monk says. “He is a fighter pilot. And he looks the most relaxed when he’s holding the wheel doing 48 knots.”

Burling has an instinctive feel for a boat, which he admits plays a major role in his ability to eke more speed out of boats.

“Feel is a big part of it. Being able to feel if the loads are increasing or decreasing, how the boat is moving forward and knowing what to change,” he told Boating New Zealand two years ago.

“I like to have the boat in really good shape, really neat and tidy and all the ropes being nice. I don’t think there’s anything that would frustrate me more than going out there and not winning a race because something small broke that shouldn’t break.”

He brings that same care and attention to detail to Team NZ’s race catamaran Aotearoa New Zealand. And when the boat pitch-poled on that wild afternoon on the Great Sound a little over a week ago, a wrung-out and bruised Burling publicly shouldered the blame for one ruinous manoeuvre.

Those who know him well say that although he’s made errors on the Great Sound, as he comes to grips with these new class of foiling cat and the knack of match-racing – he owns his mistakes, and learns quickly from them.

A case in point: when Burling and Tuke worked through the nuances of a 49er skiff, they were unbeaten in 27 consecutive international regattas leading up to their gold medal in Rio.

“From his experiences, he has learned how to size up a situation and make good decisions quickly,” Gary Smith says. “He has a better decision-making skill than your average sailor, and maybe that’s because of the speed with which he makes those decisions.”

In recent weeks, Burling has copped criticism from rivals for not “communicating” enough with his crew. It is true that you rarely hear his voice through the TV mike during a race. The latest gibe came yesterday when Oracle tactician Andrew Campbell claimed Team NZ had been “vulnerable in certain positions on the race track in terms of their playbook and their communication”, and Oracle would pounce on those weaknesses.

“I’d be suprised if I saw another quite like him in my lifetime.”

Craig Monk recalls that Coutts barely said a word at the helm of Team NZ’s triumphant black boats in 1995 and 2000. “You don’t have to say a lot when the guys around you know what they’re doing,” he says.

And Monk believes it’s unlikely Burling will let the intense pressure of the Cup match, starting on Sunday, get to him. “He may get disappointed, but he won’t crack up or blow up. Jimmy Spithill won’t be able to get under his skin. And he might just put Spithill under pressure; I think Pete will be the best sailor he will have come up against.”

When Burling and Tuke first began to make headlines, around the time of their silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, Tuke did most of the talking. There was a quietness, almost a reticence, to the boy from Tauranga.

But Gary Smith has been impressed by his evolution from “quiet, shy kid” to capable spokesman of an America’s Cup campaign. “We used to get him to stand up and talk to the club after he’d been sailing somewhere in the world in the Optis or 420s, and you would only get ‘yes and no’ answers out of him. So, we spent time working with him, and explaining ‘You’ve got to give us more, tell us about the boats and the way you sailed them’. Then he was in his comfort zone, and he was off and away,” Smith says.

“It’s fascinating watching his TV technique now.”

Even though the experienced Glenn Ashby was anointed skipper of this Team NZ campaign, to relieve pressure off the young helmsman, Burling has fronted at every skippers’ press conference in Bermuda. To pinch one of Burling’s often-used phrases, “full credit” to him.

He lists his hobbies outside of sailing as kiteboarding, surfing, fishing and, ironically, cycling (considering he is one of only two men who doesn’t pedal Aotearoa to victory).

Whenever Burling returns to Tauranga to visit his parents, he heads down to his home yacht club. Commodore Nick Wrinch says Burling is comfortable mixing with and talking to young sailors; many of them, surely, have made him their idol.

Wrinch expects a new wave of kids signing up to their Learn to Sail school after watching Burling and the Team NZ crew pit their skills against Oracle over the next fortnight. “We hope Pete will bring home some silverware to show us,” he says.

And while a new generation of promising young sailors tack and gybe their way through the ranks, Wrinch wonders if he will see one with the same prodigious talent as Burling. “Pete has always been an extraordinary sailor, and I’d be surprised if I saw another quite like him in my lifetime.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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