Remembering Peter Blake, "Seafarer with a Conscience"

Christopher Clarey
International Herald Tribune
December 12, 2001

As a competitive sailor, Sir Peter Blake navigated the world's most dangerous oceans: competing in seven round-the-world races and fearing for his and his crew's lives in 1994 when they found themselves amid icebergs, 70-knot winds, and huge waves.

He survived that harrowing experience and others during his exemplary offshore racing career. He also survived and thrived in the Byzantine subculture and spymaster mentality of the America's Cup, leading New Zealand to its first victories in yachting's most prestigious competition in 1995 and 2000.

But the tall, mustachioed, and often-rumpled Aucklander did not survive a straightforward journey down the Amazon River on an environmental research vessel that was in no particular hurry; that was running no great risks; that was moored peacefully for the night off the small Brazilian town of Balneario da Fazendhina.

A week ago, at approximately 10 p.m., a small band of robbers pulled up alongside Blake's 120-foot (37-meter) sailboat Seamaster in a dugout canoe. They boarded it with guns drawn. According to initial police reports, the charismatic 53-year-old yachtsman was shot twice and killed after he charged up from below decks to confront the assailants and protect his 10-member crew. Two crew members were wounded in the assault.

"Such a shock and such a waste of an important life," said Tom Schnackenberg, who was part of Blake's triumphant America's Cup teams and replaced him as head of the New Zealand syndicate that will defend the Cup in 2003.

On Friday, the Brazilian police arrested seven men suspected of killing Blake. The men, all Brazilian, were detained in a dawn raid in the town of Macapa, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the site of the attack near the mouth of the Amazon. According to news agencies, a police spokesman said, "For the time being, we call them 'suspects,' but they have confessed to the crime." The police said that the robbers were unaware of who they were attacking, thinking they were boarding a tourist vessel.

"The tragedy is that they ran away after taking a 15-horsepower Yamaha motor and watches, and this man's life was wiped out for that," said Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand, who visited Blake and his crew in Brazil last month.

Trademark Red Socks

Flags were flown at half-staff in New Zealand last Friday and many New Zealanders donned Blake's trademark red socks in a posthumous tribute. The socks—a new pair was given to Blake by his wife, Pippa, before every major regatta—became the symbol of New Zealand's America's Cup campaign. Hundreds of thousands of pairs were purchased to help fund sail design and mast construction in a country where sailing borders on obsession and where even taxi drivers sometimes enjoy debating windward leg tactics.

"He was our Hillary of the seas," said Clark, a reference to another New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest.

Blake broke through barriers as well. He began sailing at age five in Auckland's vast and inviting harbor. His first boat was an abandoned dinghy that washed up onshore: His mother made him a squaresail on her sewing machine.

When he was eight, his parents bought him a P-class dinghy and Blake began racing and sailing with his three siblings to Rangitoto Island off Auckland to climb the volcanic crater. There would later be family cruises to Tonga and Fiji.

His appetite for adventure had been whetted, and in 1973 he competed in his first Whitbread, the multiple-leg round-the-world event now called the Volvo Ocean Race. After finally winning aboard Steinlager II in his fifth and final attempt in 1990, he turned his attention on the Jules Verne Trophy, the extreme challenge, conceived by the French, in which competitors race nonstop around the planet.

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