He’s spent a good chunk of his life on the water racing from buoy to buoy - but it wasn’t until he sailed from continent to continent that champion sailor Peter Burling gained a true appreciation of how Earth’s oceans bind it together, refreshing and reinvigorating it in the process.
Like many elite sportspeople, Burling’s life often sees him jump on a plane in one part of the world and exit in another, ready to hit the water and compete. It’s an experience he describes as like being “teleported”.
“You get on the plane, go to sleep and get off the plane in a different environment. It’s a different temperature, a different outlook, and you don’t think it is connected at all,” Burling told delegates at Sport New Zealand’s Connections 2022 conference.
But the two locations will most certainly be connected, typically by vast tracts of ocean - something Burling only really appreciated after making long-distance journeys by sea.
“The ocean absorbs 90 per cent of the planet’s heat, it generates over half of the oxygen we breathe,” says Burling.
“It really is that life support system for the planet. For us to continue to thrive like we are now then we need to start looking after it - and it really isn’t being looked after at all.”
Burling attended the conference with Sail GP team-mate Josh Junior, who is also dipping his toes into the water of preservation and sustainability.
“We are learning more and more about the ocean and the importance of it to the planet,” says Junior. “We are learning - and we are making better and better decisions.”
And thanks to initiatives like SailGP’s Race For the Future and Live Ocean, a not for profit created by Burling and another champion Kiwi sailor, Blair Tuke, so too are many others.
“It’s exciting to be able to promote the message of a healthy ocean for a healthy planet to a vastly different audience to people we’d normally reach,” says Burling.
“The really exciting thing about having an environmental message woven into sport is amount of traction you can get connecting to a massive audience.”
The Olympic gold medallist and America’s Cup winner says there was no one moment when he realised he should use his profile to contribute to the environmental cause – however his eyes were opened at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.
“Being from New Zealand, I love the environment here where you can go and enjoy nature, go to the beach and enjoy swimming. Yeah, there are some beaches in Auckland where you get told not to swim but to be honest it is not that bad compared to some of the places we go to in the world.
“The water [in Rio] was so bad,” he said. “It is the most beautiful topography – white sand beaches inside the harbour. But pretty much the whole sewage of the city goes into the bay. Just raw sewage the whole time. You didn’t want to get into the water. You didn’t want to taste what was on your lips from the sea spray. You’d literally come off the water and have a shower in your full gear to try to make sure you didn’t get stomach problems.”
That experience – combined with some alarming insights gained in the Ocean Race - motivated Burling to start conservation-focused non-profit Live Ocean with Tuke.
The organisation has been operating for three years but is still very much in its infancy, says Burling.
“We are very much at the start of the journey. We’ve got a few runs on the board but it feels like we are only just getting started.”
When it came to environmental impact, New Zealand’s contribution globally was constrained by our small land mass, said Burling. Our biggest opportunity to make a difference was our vast ocean territory – which accounts for 94 per cent of the country.
“We do really have a massive opportunity to lead the way globally through the ocean and we do really need to step up and make some changes,” he says.