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Unflappable Burling puts New Zealand in control at America's Cup

© AFP / by Rebecca BRYAN | Emirates Team New Zealand, with helmsman Peter Burling (R) and skipper Glenn Ashby (C)

HAMILTON (BERMUDA) (AFP) - 

Team New Zealand's confidence in Peter Burling to helm their America's Cup challenge is proving well placed as the 26-year-old shows himself more than a match for Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill -- on the water and off.

Burling's impressive resume includes seven world titles -- including four straight in the 49er class with fellow Kiwi Blair Tuke.

The duo claimed 49er Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro last year in dominant fashion, clinching victory with two races to spare and winning by the most points of any sailing class in the Games in more than 50 years.

Still, there were questions as to whether Burling would be up to Spithill, who at 30 became the youngest skipper to win the America's Cup when he steered Oracle to victory in 2010.

Spithill then skippered Team USA's stunning comeback from 1-8 down to a 9-8 victory over a Team New Zealand skippered by Dean Barker in San Francisco four years ago.

Doubters feared that Spithill's match racing experience, and his talent for psychological battle, would prove too much for Burling.

Spithill's taunts clearly wore on Barker four years ago, and some wondered if the switch to making post-race press conferences mandatory for helmsmen was a bid by the defenders -- who largely set the rules -- to rattle Burling.

If so, it hasn't worked. The Kiwi has slipped the tough-talking Spithill's verbal jabs as smoothly as he's slipped past him on the startline.

Those starts were a source for concern for New Zealand during the challenger qualifying, but Burling has honed his technique in that area.

His ever-improving skills and eerily calm demeanor were on full display on Sunday when New Zealand overcame daggerboard trouble in the start box before race four to beat Spithill to the line en route to their fourth win in four races.

Their sweep of the opening weekend has New Zealand -- who started with a one-point deficit -- up 3-0 in the first-to-seven points series.

Characteristically, Burling downplayed his individual role, crediting the whole crew for the dominant first weekend.

"They (Oracle) pushed us hard in the pre-start but we are really happy with the way the guys on board kept finding ways to sneak out of the situations," Burling said.

Burling has used that focus on crew and Kiwi pride to keep the pressure of the Cup challenge at a minimum.

It's a young team, with skipper/wing trimmer Glenn Ashby the only holdover from the heartbreaking defeat in San Francisco four years ago.

"The guys on the boat know each other really well and it just feels like we are getting tighter and tighter as a group and performing better and better the more pressure we get put under," he said.

"That's what you have to do to win yacht races -- you have to perform under pressure."

by Rebecca BRYAN

© 2017 AFP