World champion sailor Blair Tuke has represented New Zealand at the Olympic Games three times, winning two silver medals and one gold medal for his country. Tuke has been a member of Emirates Team New Zealand for two America’s Cup victories, and is joint CEO, along with Peter Burling, of NZ SailGP. Tuke is also a passionate advocate for marine conservation and is co-founder (also with Burling) of Live Ocean, a registered charity that supports and invests in marine science, innovation, technology and conservation projects ( www.liveocean.com).
The ocean has always been a big part of my life. Growing up in Kerikeri in the Far North, my childhood revolved around the outdoors. My family, my three brothers and I, were always wakeboarding or water-skiing, kayaking or fishing, As a family we loved cruising around the Bay of Islands on our yacht and when I was 11 we had an epic adventure sailing to Fiji.
I didn’t really gravitate towards sailing as a sport when I was younger, and I definitely didn’t see it having such a big presence in my life. I was more into rugby. We used to play in places like Opononi, Kaikohe and Kaeo, where the sheep would be taken off the fields on Friday night for Saturday’s game. Sometimes they’d just be moved to one side, so there’d be sheep poo all over the field, and at that age we played in bare feet.
Kerikeri will always be home to me. I did the majority of my schooling there but in Year 11 my family moved to Auckland. We lived on a boat in the Viaduct Marina and I went from catching the school bus outside Kerikeri and travelling 20 minutes to school, to walking to Britomart to catch a bus to St Kentigern College in Pakuranga. I wanted to leave school at the end of Year 11, but my parents wouldn’t let me leave unless I got a job. That’s when I met Brett, he’d been working on our boat doing some electrical work and he gave me a job for a few months. I really enjoyed the work so I started my electrical apprenticeship when I was 16. Going straight from high school and into the real world, I learned a lot of life skills that year.
I learned to sail at the Kerikeri Yacht Club when I was 11 years old and by 14 I was sailing more and playing rugby less. I remember the responsibility I felt, looking after my first boat, Dingo. The first thing my coach taught me was there’s more to it than just racing or sailing, and a well-maintained boat is a big part of it. Those early sailing days also gave me a huge sense of freedom. The first time you’re out in a boat by yourself and making decisions, it is so exhilarating.
I teamed up with Pete (Burling) when I was 19. He was from Tauranga, we had raced against each other as juniors. We sailed together for the first time in 2007 when we were in the NZ team for the Youth Olympics in Sydney. By the time Pete came back from the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I had become more serious about sailing and we teamed up with the goal of winning a medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Back then we had no idea where our journey would take us but we fully committed to standing on the podium in London. Winning that silver medal and the four years leading up to it, that’s what our partnership is built on.
Pete and I were not an overnight thing. The steady build in pace has allowed us to grow into our leadership roles and the increased responsibility that comes with that. From our tight-knit Olympic team, to being one of 100-plus people at Team New Zealand, to joining the Ocean Race community, then starting a SailGP team from the ground up – you do your best and learn how to get the best out of the people around you.
The past couple of years have been challenging for athletes. Having the Olympics postponed was tough as we’d physically and mentally prepared for Tokyo in 2020. As a result, we had a massive 2021 schedule, going straight from defending the America’s Cup, to quickly shifting focus to Tokyo. Despite the intense schedule, nothing beats representing your country at the Olympic Games and we are proud of the silver medal we won for Aotearoa in Japan. But we couldn’t come back and share it with our families or the country and we carried on to the Northern Hemisphere to join the NZ SailGP team for the rest of the European leg. We’ve been based offshore most of this year due to MIQ restrictions. I’ve probably had 100 Covid tests since April.
Well before the Olympics or the America’s Cup, I’d always wanted to do The Ocean Race, and I had an opportunity after the America’s Cup in Bermuda to sail with Mapfre, in 2017/18. Sailing around the world, to the most remote parts of the planet, when you’re in the middle of the Southern Ocean you’re closer to the people on a space station than you are to people on land. But it’s tough. It’s cold and windy and wet but it’s awesome sailing when you’re pushing that hard in those types of conditions.
I love ocean racing. Aside from the adventure and the competition, the sailing is like no other and no two days are the same. You’re always seeing different waves, different weather and different sea life and you’re in parts of the world hardly anyone has been to, and that’s really special. That race was the catalyst for our charity Live Ocean, it was also the inspiration for our first conservation project getting behind the Antipodean albatross. Both Pete and I felt a strong connection with the albatrosses. They were effortlessly gliding around above us, making it all look so easy while we were being smashed by these huge waves and big winds. The albatross was also a reminder of home, because they’d come from the same place we had.
The Ocean Race taught us many things and one thing that struck us was the things we didn’t see. We’d heard stories from the old sailors who told us what the oceans used to be like, about the vast numbers of seabirds and whales, and it was disheartening how little wildlife we saw. You also see how everything is connected by oceans and currents, because there are no boundaries between countries, so what we do here in New Zealand matters. That race opened our eyes to the power of sport and what you can do when you have a platform, so we returned home knowing we wanted to do more than just sail boats and win races. We wanted to have some big wins for the ocean.
Live Ocean’s vision for New Zealand is to be a world leader in ocean health. We are responsible for more than four million square kilometres of ocean, and what we do here matters globally. We have this clean green image but that’s more because we’re fortunate to be an isolated group of islands in the middle of the South Pacific with a low population, rather than anything we’ve actually done, and we’ve been taking that for granted for too long.
We launched Live Ocean two years ago. We’re not the doers, we generate funds that facilitate the work of marine scientists, innovators and communicators. We use our platform to raise awareness of important issues facing the ocean. The first project we invested in was supporting Antipodean albatross research. GPS Trackers have been put on these birds, and we know they’re dying at alarming rates when they come into contact with fishing fleets, so we’re pushing for better commercial practice. We’re also supporting Dr Emma Carroll’s work with southern right whales around the Auckland Islands. It’s a positive story with numbers bouncing back from whaling times, although they’re still facing challenges from climate change, and their feeding grounds and migration routes need protecting. We’re also supporting local projects around the Hauraki Gulf, like coastal area seafloor mapping and the effects of kina barrens on kelp.
As a team we are committed to telling the climate and ocean story while we race around the world. The future is all down to us and how we treat the ocean. How we take things out of it and what we put into it. Globally, we are so far behind the rest of the world in this area, and we have to do better because our ocean is at a tipping point.
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