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  Peter Blake - Murder on the Amazon

As this was written, the sailing world - and a good part of the landbound one - was still in a state of shock over the shooting death of Sir Peter Blake. One of ocean sailing's most accomplished and revered figures, the 53-year-old New Zealander was killed by Brazilian pirates who boarded his research vessel Seamaster after dark as she lay at anchor in the Amazon River in early December.

At presstime, reports on exactly what happened were sketchy and inconsistent. All seemed to raise more questions than answers. The following account, by British yachting journalist Barry Pickthall, is the one we consider to be the most reliable.

The Seamaster and her crew had just completed a three-month expedition up the Amazon, and reached Macapa, where the mouth of the river meets the Atlantic, on December 5. Blake was directed to an anchorage off the small fishing hamlet of Fazendinha, where they dropped the pick several hundred metres offshore to await a visit from the Customs official who would clear them to leave Brazilian waters.

The sun set at around 6 p.m. leaving the yacht in the pitch dark. Her crew decided to go ashore for a meal to celebrate the end of this chapter within the expedition. The following day, they were due to leave for Venezuela and a rendezvous with the Blakexpeditions jungle team that had left the boat in November to explore the upper reaches of the river.

After dinner, the crew were back aboard, having a few beers on deck when Rubens da Silva Souza, a 20-year-old local and his band of pirates, known as the Water Rats, struck. To them, the 119-ft schooner was there for the picking, carrying a group of rich tourists. They had a long record of similar crimes and did not expect to encounter any resistance.

But this group of Kiwis and their guests were no pushover. Crewman Roger Moore squirted beer into the face of one intruder who then pistol-whipped him across the face. Sir Peter Blake rushed below to fetch a rifle and returned up the companionway to see TV cameraman Leon Sefton with a pistol to his head, and to hear the excited shouts of, "Money, money, money!" from the pirates.

Izeal Pontoja da Costa, a 27-year-old on bail for an earlier robbery, confronted Blake in the stairwell. Da Costa was also toting a gun. Blake fired first. The bullet sliced off a finger of the pirate's gun hand and passed through his forearm. As Da Costa screamed in pain, Ricardo Colares Tavares, another on bail, raised his pistol and fired twice at Sir Peter. The two bullets thudded into Blake's back, one rupturing his aorta. He died instantly.

Panic then reigned. The pirates grabbed what they could, including cameras, lenses, watches and money. One even ripped the Omega watch from Sir Peter's wrist and grabbed his rifle before they all scurried back into their boat, and one of Seamaster's inflatables, and sped off into the darkness, firing indiscriminately as they left. One bullet grazed the back of Geoff Bullock. . . .

It was a puny 'score' to exchange for the life of a man who was, by many accounts, the preeminent ocean sailor of our time.

Peter James Blake was born on October 1, 1948, in Auckland. He learned to sail at age 5, and three years later, his father bought him his first boat, a P-class dinghy. He won his first offshore race at 12, and at 18, he built a 23-ft keelboat with which he won the class championship in New Zealand. By his mid-20s, the lanky blond Kiwi (nicknamed "six-four" for his height) was a sought-after ocean racer.

Sailing prompted Blake toward a career in yacht design. After completing training as a mechanical engineer in New Zealand, he went to England to look for work. Instead, he ran into Robin Knox-Johnston and Leslie Williams who were putting together a boat for an upcoming new event called the Whitbread Round the World Race. Blake proved himself a valuable asset to the partners with several deliveries and ocean races (including the 1971 Cape Town to Rio Race on the Ocean 71 Ocean Spirit). When the 80-ft aluminum ketch Burton Cutter departed Portsmouth in September, 1973, 25-year-old Peter Blake was aboard as watch captain.

Although the program was woefully disorganized - the crew was still building the interior on the way to the starting line and the first 'helmsman's seat' was cases of Whitbread ale that fell apart as soon as they got wet - Cutter won the first leg and finished second in the last leg.

In the next decade and a half, Blake would do four more Whitbreads (despite swearing "Never again!" at the end of almost every one). In fact, it's not inaccurate to say that much of Blake's adult life was framed by this longest of all crewed races. In the crucible of the Southern Ocean, his natural leadership qualities and attention to detail were forged into a skipper of exceptional abilities. Among the lasting hallmarks of those years was the ability to choose the best man for every position, extract the best from him, and inspire in him phenomenal loyalty.

Blake was back with Williams and Knox-Johnson for the '77-'78 Whitbread with a better program and a better boat, the 77-ft Sharp 'super maxi' Heath's Condor. Though built of wood - Knox-Johnston didn't trust fiberglass and all the aluminum boatbuilders were booked up - this was a milestone yacht. In addition to being the first sloop-rigged maxi, Heath's Condor sported yacht racing's first large carbon fiber mast, which looked great on paper but snapped off above the spreaders only three weeks into the first leg. The boat pulled into Monrovia to await a replacement aluminum spar with which they finished the race. (To add insult to injury, the whole crew became deathly ill from dysentery in the Liberian port city.) The breakage cost Condor any chance of doing well overall - she came in last on corrected time - but she did show her potential by winning the second and fourth legs.

After the race, Heath's Condor was back in England getting some work done when Blake met a pretty blonde native named Pippa Glanville. Two weeks before they married in August, 1979, Blake sailed the Fastnet aboard the 77-ft maxi Condor of Bermuda. Yes, that Fastnet, the most infamous race in sailing history. In horrendous force 10 conditions, 24 yachts were abandoned, five sank, and 15 sailors lost their lives. Condor of Bermuda was first to finish, with Ted Turner's 61-ft Tenacious winning on corrected time.

Peter and Pippa spent their honeymoon delivering Heath's Condor from England to New Zealand for the Sydney-Hobart.

By the '81-'82 Whitbread, Blake had pulled together enough hometown support - from the whole country - to come to the starting line with the 68-ft Farr maxi Ceramco New Zealand, the first New Zealand boat to enter the race. And for the first time, he was skipper. In an ironic repeat of the '77-'78 race, Ceramco's mast folded in the South Atlantic three weeks into Leg I. Instead of stopping again, this time Blakey and the crew erected a jury rig and completed the leg - with at least one 200-mile day! - in time to install a new mast in Cape Town before the start of Leg 2.

Despite the setback, which in those days negated any chance of overall victory, they went on to win two legs and finish sixth overall. Blake's book about that race, Blake's Odyssey, gives readers a glimpse into his developing management and leadership skills.

After the '82 race, New Zealand's prodigal son decided to settle permanently in England. The Blakes' daughter, Sarah Jane (now 18) and son James (14) were both born between Whitbread campaigns. At the tender age of 2, Sara Jane traversed thousands of miles of blue water as her father delivered his next entry from New Zealand to England for the '85-'86 Whitbread.

That boat was the mighty Ron Holland 79-ft maxi Lion New Zealand. Though the very heavily-built aluminum sloop avoided the serious damage of Blake's rides in previous races, taming the Lion in the Southern Ocean was a full-time job for her 22 crew. Here's a description of what it was like on the third leg, borrowed from the 'History' section of the www.volvooceanrace.org Web site:

Lion was covering 260 to 280 miles a day and dodging icebergs. At one point, she was forced into an emergency gybe to avoid hitting a berg. Still, dodging ice proved to be the least of her problems. During a spinnaker change in 35 knots of wind, the crew lost control of the sail, and it flew free at the masthead attached only by a halyard. There was only one way to retrieve it - send a man aloft. Crewman Ed Danby got into the bosun's chair and was hoisted aloft. Just as he reached the top spreaders, the chair came loose, and only his quick reflexes saved him from a deadly impact with the deck below or the sea on either side. Danby hung by his hands from the spreaders until another man was hoisted to retrieve him.

That man was watch captain Grant Dalton, who then went back up to attach a line to the flogging kite so it could be retrieved when it was released. The bright silver Lion went on to finish second and correct out to seventh.

By the '89-90 Race, Blake's 'apprenticeship' was over and he was the man to beat in the Whitbread - and this time, nobody could do it. Sailing the 84-ft Farr ketch Steinlager 2, he was untouchable, even by Grant Dalton, now skippering the like-sized Fisher and Paykel. Over 23 boats from 13 countries - the largest Whitbread fleet ever - Blake won all six legs of the race, and enduring fame in New Zealand, which had not enjoyed a hero of equal stature since Edmund Hillary was knighted in 1953.

Unlike Hillary, Blake's route to knighthood came with the conquering of not one, but three 'Mount Everests' of sailing. The Whitbread was only the first. The next two were the Trophée Jules Verne and the America's Cup.

The Trophée Jules Verne was dreamed up by French sailor Bruno Peyron in 1985 and first contested eight years later. The idea was to beat the mark 'set' by fictitious adventurer Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days - with a sailboat. When a deal with Steinlager fell through to build a new boat, Blake got ahold of an old one, the 75-ft ocean racing catamaran Formula Tag. He had her lengthened to 92 feet and renamed ENZA New Zealand, for a new sponsor, the New Zealand Apple and Pear Board ('ENZA' was a marketing acronym for "eat New Zealand apples"). In 1993, he took off with two other boats, both French efforts - Bruno Peyron's 86-ft cat Commodore Explorer and Olivier de Kersauson's 90-ft trimaran Lyonaisse des Eaux. Both ENZA and Lyonaisse had to retire after hitting flotsam. Explorer went on to put the event on the map by beating the 80-day mark by only 6 hours.

ENZA, with co-captains Blake and his former Whitbread skipper Robin Knox-Johnston, came back for a second try in early 1994, and this time shaved five days off the new record, finishing the race in dramatic fashion under shortened sail and drogues in near 70-knot winds.

(De Kersauson currently owns the Jules Verne record of 71.5 days, set in 1997 with Sport-Elec, the lengthened and renamed Lyonaisse.)

Blake first entered the America's Cup arena in 1992. Syndicate head Michael Fay brought in Blake to San Diego late in the challenger series when New Zealand's house of cards was already crumbling due, in large part, to political power plays within the team. Most cupophiles will recall that the straw that broke the camel's back was the Italian protest that successfully disqualified New Zealand for sail handling techniques using their unique bowsprit. Probably not many knew that the tall, bushy-haired Blake was already setting the gears in motion for yet another major upset in the sailing world three years later.

In sharp contrast to other syndicates of the time, Blake's style of leadership opened up lines of communication between the sailors, the designers and the builders. "At the end of the day, the sailors are the customers you have to please," he said in a 1995 pre-Cup interview. "We've spent a lot of time talking and listening to each other."

The scoffers were silenced early. Blake's methods worked beautifully. In the 1995 Louis Vuitton Challenger Elimination series, Team New Zealand's 'Black Magic' boats lost only one race. In the 1996 America's Cup, they didn't lose any, handily trouncing Dennis Conner's 'mermaid' boat 5-zip.

Another significant measure of the Blake legend emerged during that series. Originally, Blake did not plan to sail aboard during 'serious' races. One of those rare (only?) sailing superstars completely devoid of ego, Blake wanted only the best sailors on the boat. On this decision, the crew - led by helmsman Russell Coutts - outvoted the boss. They wanted him on the boat. He eventually sailed the series as mainsheet trimmer.

And then there were those damn red socks. Every time Blake wore his lucky pair (which at that point was every race), New Zealand won. On the one aforementioned challenger race they lost, Blake - and his lucky red socks - were not aboard. This led to a fundraiser of epic proportions back in New Zealand, where they could hardly make red socks fast enough to sell to supporters of TNZ.

There are two measures of America's Cup greatness. One is winning the Cup. The other is keeping it. In the 1999-2000 matchup off Auckland, Team New Zealand made it stick. Once again headed by Blake, two new 'Black Magic' boats blew the polished Italian Prada team out of the water with another 5-0 series, becoming the first non-American team to successfully defend the America's Cup.

The foregoing are only highlights of Blake's amazing career. In addition to six trips around the world, he also sailed five Sydney-Hobarts, five Fastnets, the Doublehanded Round Britain Race, three Trans-Tasmans, a trans-Atlantic race and the two-handed Around Australia Race (on Steinlager I, a trimaran). In almost half a century of sailing, he had accumulated some 600,000 sea miles.

For these achievements, Blake received numerous accolades over the years. In England and New Zealand, those included two Sportsman of the Year awards and four Yachtsman of the Year awards. In 1996, he became the first New Zealander to be awarded the Prix de L'Aventure Sportive (sports adventure prize) by the French Academy of Sport. He was named both Member of the British Empire (MBE) and Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to yachting, and received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 1995. After the second Cup coup, there were those who thought he deserved sainthood, as well.

But Blake's monumental energies had already turned away from racing. In 1997, after the death of Jacques Cousteau, Blake was named the new head of the Cousteau Society. In 2000, he branched out on his own, launching Blakexpeditions (www.blakexpeditions.com), an ambitious project to educate people about the world's marine ecosystems. He was concurrently named Special Envoy of the United Nations' Environmental Programme (UNEP). He acquired the specially-built Antarctic Explorer from the Cousteau Society, renamed it Seamaster and embarked on a five-year voyage to study global warming and the effect of pollution on the world's marine ecosystems.

Last January, the boat, with her odd-looking 'icebreaker' bow, spent the first three months of her new mission in Antarctica. She departed the frozen south for the 'broiling middle' in March, making her way up the east coast of South America, eventually arriving in the Amazon in September.

Blake's body was returned to England for burial. Despite the short notice, his funeral on Saturday, December 14, was attended by hundreds, many of them former crew from the last 25 years, including several participants in the current Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread) who flew up during the Leg 2 layover in Sydney. "Blakey was a loyalty man," said friend Murray Taylor in simple explanation.

Those who could not attend (including Grant Dalton, who was hospitalized in Sydney with fractured vertebrae suffered in the Volvo) were planning to pay their respects at a large venue being planned later in Auckland. Lady Pippa and the children were expected to fly to New Zealand for the service.

Doors at the normally secret Team New Zealand America's Cup compound in Auckland were thrown open in the days following news of Blake's death. As the New Zealand and 'red socks' flags flew at half mast, hundreds came by to pay their respects, including many members of other syndicates who had raced with or against Blakey in years past. Many left flowers, almost all left tears.

The Seamaster crew planned a small but significant ceremony to honor their slain leader - pouring water they'd saved from melted icebergs into the great South American river "to symbolize the union of two worlds."

In response to the question "How should we honor Sir Peter?" the New Zealand Herald received scores of suggestions from readers. They ranged from establishing an environmental reserve, to establishing a youth sailing scholarship in his name, to renaming the Viaduct Basin in his honor. One suggested planting three million trees, another thought Blake's portrait should appear on the New Zealand $20 note. One even recommended renaming the Auld Mug itself after the man who reintroduced the concept of 'gentleman's sport' to the America's Cup. Blake would never approve of the latter, because he never sought the limelight.

Ratos de agua - water rats - is the name Brazilians have given to the waterborne robbers who victimize boats along the Amazon. They are loosely organized bands of ne'er-do-wells born by the river's edge and raised in abject poverty. Most have no education, no jobs, no money and no future. Though armed, they reportedly do not often harm boaters, but are mainly interested in items they can sell, or exchange for drugs. For them, Seamaster represented only rich foreigners ripe for another night's easy pickings. As with most night raids, they didn't expect any armed resistance.

Tragically, Blake's decision to defend his boat and crew probably precipitated his death. "If Peter did not arm himself, this maybe would not have happened," said a spokesman for the Brazilian federal police. "The robbers would have taken the objects and left it at that."

After most water rat raids, the robbers melt into the jungle and authorities give only halfhearted chase, if any at all. However, no less than the president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Silva Cardoso, ordered, "Find those men!" and within 24 hours - a speed just about unprecedented in the Brazilian legal system - seven of the eight were in custody. All will be charged with latrocino: armed robbery followed by murder. Latrocino usually carries a jail sentence of 18 years, but because these men have a history of crime, and because of Blake's stature, the sentences are expected to be much harsher.

The band claimed that they had no idea that anyone so famous would be aboard, as though that might have made a difference.

How should Peter Blake be remembered? A good father and husband. A great sailor. Those are givens. Beyond that, the man himself was extraordinary, a rare combination of near genius at what he did, yet disarmingly accessible. At heart he was just a boat guy like the rest of us, happy to talk to anyone of any skill level about their mutual passion.

It's hard to find the right combination of English words to summarize Peter Blake the man. Fittingly, a single word used by the indiginous people of New Zealand may be more appropriate than a thousand more we could write. Mana is a Maori word that describes the stature, prestige, respect and bearing that a person carries - a quality that goes beyond his accomplishments or wealth or even family. It is partially associated with how a person is perceived by others, but refers mainly to attributes which are inherent: A 'greatness of spirit,' if you will. Peter had great mana.

We had the honor of shaking hands with Peter Blake and his lovely wife Pippa when they visited the Bay Area in 1995 to give a talk on the ENZA adventure. Though we can hardly say we 'knew' him from the brief couple hours we spent at a special dinner, there was no doubt we were in the presence of greatness. Even then, he was bigger than life.

As he departs this life, we close with an excerpt from the Seamaster log, written by her master on December 4, the day before the pirate raid. . .

"Again I raise the question: Why are we here? . . . We want to start people caring for the environment as it must be cared for. . . We want to make a difference.
Kind regards,

This story was reprinted from the January 2002 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with photos in living black & white), use the subscription order form, and specify the 1/02 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

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