HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) - Opposites both on and off the water, New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling and U.S. skipper Jimmy Spithill are set for a showdown which could see the Kiwi pretender wrest the America’s Cup from his rival.
Burling, who at 26 has been the youngest helmsman in the 35th America’s Cup, is the epitome of understatement and outwardly unruffled by going 3-0 up against the U.S. holders in the first phase of the first-to-seven final last weekend.
Thin and gangly, Burling says little while calmly steering Emirates Team New Zealand’s 50-foot foiling catamaran at speeds approaching 50 knots (92.6 km per hour).
He does not waste words when dealing with questions from the media onshore, always responding but giving little away.
The contrast with Spithill, known affectionately by some as the ‘pitbull’, could not be starker. The straight-talking 37-year-old Australian sailor chats constantly with his Oracle Team USA crew while racing on Bermuda’s Great Sound.
Spithill started sailing young and at the age of 20 was named skipper of Young Australia for the 2000 America’s Cup, becoming the youngest helmsman in the history of the event, which is the oldest trophy in international sport.
With years of experience behind him and a confidence which has seen him win the “Auld Mug” twice, Spithill is not afraid of getting into a war of words off the water, with a reputation for making pointed jibes at his opponents.
Both teams were out practising on the water on Thursday, preparing for racing to restart on Saturday.
The pressure is on comeback specialist Spithill to repeat the magic he conjured up in San Francisco in 2013 when his team staged a spectacular recovery from 8-1 down to win 9-8.
Now, with five rest days to tweak their high-tech flying machines, which lift up on their foils and skim across the water at breakneck speeds, the teams have been working round the clock in their bases and out on the Great Sound to find extra speed.
While the America’s Cup is as much a design as a sailing race, with tens of millions of dollars invested in the racing boats, psychological games are also crucial.
The charismatic Spithill has more expertise in match racing, the sailing equivalent of a boxing contest, and the benefit of nearly two decades of America’s Cup experience.
But none of this seems to have rattled the low-key Burling, despite a capsize in a semi-final race which nearly ended the Kiwi dream of avenging the 2013 defeat that still haunts New Zealand.
Before he and the crew went out for their shake-down on Thursday, Burling sat casually with his feet dangling over the edge of the dock pulling his shoes on.
The New Zealander’s face was covered as usual with a ghostly mask of sun screen, eyes hidden behind dark wrap around glasses.
With huge home interest and support behind them, the Kiwis’ every move is scrutinised by the New Zealand media as well as Oracle Team USA, who are watching closely to see what they can learn from their opponent’s set-up.
Editing by Ken Ferris