not forgotten

This past Saturday marks 14 years since Peter Blake was senselessly gunned down on his boat in the Amazon, a sad day indeed because the sailing world lost a true giant. I was lucky enough to have known him quite well even though I don’t think anyone, except his wife Pippa perhaps, really knew Peter well. He was an aloof person that led by example and inspired those around him to be the best that they could be.

I first met him in England in 1979. He was talking about returning to his native New Zealand to mount a campaign for the 81/82 Whitbread Round the World Race. My ear was to the ground because I was looking for a ride in the same race and we met again at the start; me aboard the American Yacht Alaska Eagle (known to the rest of the fleet as Alaska Beagle because the boat was a dog), and Blake on the out-and-out racer Ceramco New Zealand. Our boat had cabins. His had bunk beds. We had hanks on our headsails. The sails on Ceramco were of some exotic material and certainly did not have hanks. It was no wonder then that they got to the equator a thousand miles ahead of us but it all went wrong shortly thereafter when the boat was dismasted putting an end to their chances of victory. Back then the race was decided on time, not points.

Four years later we met again. He was skippering Lion New Zealand. I was on a sister-ship Drum with Simon le Bon and the two managers of Duran Duran as sponsors. We had the second slowest boat in the fleet. Blake had the slowest. Lion NZ was a dog and they thrashed it around the planet simply unable to keep up with the other boats. It would have made an ordinary man weep but Blake was no ordinary man. He was back in 1989 with a massive red ketch sponsored by New Zealand’s favorite beer, Steinlager and went on to win every leg of the race. Steinlager dominated and it goes down in Whitbread/Volvo history as one of the best campaigns ever mounted.

In 1993, Blake along with co-skipper Robin Knox-Johnston made an attempt on the Jules Verne Trophy only to have it all come unglued when they hit a submerged object and damaged their starboard hull. It might have spelled the end but Blake and RKJ returned the following year with a repaired and lengthened boat sponsored by the New Zealand Apple & Pear Marketing Board, but named simply ENZA. They were triumphant and smashed a full five days off the existing record.

Blake left around the world racing but not sailing and we all remember the ‘lucky red socks’ he wore racing aboard NZL 32, also known as “Black Magic”. They made a clean sweep beating Dennis Conner 5–0. Blake’s ‘lucky red socks’ (a present from Pippa) became something of a trademark and almost every Kiwi, sailor and non-sailor alike, wore red socks for the duration of the Americas Cup.

On December 6, 2001 Peter Blake and his crew were returning from a trip up the Amazon River aboard the massive expedition yacht Seamster. They had recently hosted Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and were monitoring global warming and pollution for the United Nations. The boat was at anchor off Macapá at the mouth of the Amazon when around 9 pm it was boarded by a group of six to eight armed robbers wearing balaclavas and crash helmets. One of them had a gun to the head of one of the crew when Blake came up from below with his gun. He was able to get off a single shot before the gun malfunctioned and then he was fatally shot in the back by Ricardo Colares Tavares, a petty criminal who was later sentenced to 36 years and 9 months in prison. It was a sad tragedy and a day that the sailing world lost a true gentleman. It’s my true belief that had Peter Blake not come on deck brandishing a gun he would still be alive today.

The last time I saw him was at the Southampton airport. Blake and his wife Pippa had moved to Emsworth, a small town on the south coast of England. I was sitting in the arrivals hall when the double doors burst open. There was Peter, tall, handsome with a shock of blond hair striding regally toward his waiting car and ten paces behind him there was Pippa carrying all the luggage.

Blake is buried at Warblington churchyard near Emsworth and his grave is destination for many New Zealand sailors who stop by to pay tribute to not only a great sailor but a good and very decent man. If he was still alive Peter Blake would have been 67 years old.

– Brian Hancock. Brian has a great series on information you need when thinking about buying new sails – find out here!