New Zealander yachtsman
Sir Peter Blake, perhaps more than any other sailor, was responsible for changing the public perception of ocean yacht racing from a daring adventure sport practiced by a few foolhardy souls, into an avidly followed professional sport whose top players are internationally acclaimed. Blake first made headlines in 1993, when he set a world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe under sail (in about 75 days). Then, in 1995, the New Zealand sailing team that he headed bested the Americans at their own game in the 144-year-old America's Cup race. This was only the second time in the history of the race that the trophy had been won from the Americans. In 2000, Blake led the New
Zealand team in a successful defense of the trophy, forever changing the tenor of the event, and firmly establishing Blake as an international celebrity.
Blake retired from racing following Team New Zealand's second America's Cup victory, and founded blakexpeditions, an nonprofit organization whose purpose is to help protect the world's oceans through scientific sailing voyages and educational programs. In 2001, while captaining one of his organization's first voyages, Blake was shot and killed by pirates off the coast of Brazil.
Knighted in 1995, Blake was a national hero in his homeland of New Zealand, on a par with the great New Zealand mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, who, along with his Napali guide, Tenzing Norgan, was the first to scale Mt. Everest. Blake was known for his fairness and his straightforward desire to avoid politics and simply enjoy his chosen sport for its own sake. After Blake's death, his friend and frequent sailing partner, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, told the Independent of London, "Peter will be remembered as a giant in sailing over the last 20 years. He was a consummate seaman, excellent tactician, brilliant organizer, a natural leader and great company. He will be sorrowfully missed by all of us who had the pleasure to know and sail with him."
Raised on the Seashore
Peter James Blake was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on October 1, 1948. His father worked as an advertising salesman, after having served on gunboats off the British coast during World War II. Blake's childhood home was on the seashore, and his introduction to sailing came at the age of five, when he first took to the water in a dinghy that had been constructed especially for children.
Blake attended Takapuna Grammar School, and it was there that he learned to sail, aboard a P Class dinghy. He was just 16 years old when he entered his first long-distance sailing race, sailing from New Zealand to the Pacific Islands—a distance of 1,200 miles. At 18, he built his first boat, a 23-foot keelboat.
After high school, Blake attended Auckland's Technical Institute and studied mechanical engineering. Although this schooling would later help him build racing boats, he told the Times of London that he "hated every minute of it." When he was 23 years old, he relocated to England, planning to design yachts for a living. But he soon found that he enjoyed sailing more than engineering.
A Life at Sea
In 1973, the first Whitbread Round the World Race was launched, and the race gave Blake, then 25 years old, his chance to realize his dream to race yachts professionally; he was invited to join the crew of Less Williams, the captain of one of the racing yachts. The ship was a British boat, 80 feet long, called the Burton Cutter. The boat's interior was still being finished as the boat launched on its first leg of the race, and it began to fall apart on the second leg.
Although the ship lost the race, Blake had set firmly forth in his chosen career, and for him there was no turning back. Whitbread races followed every four years, and Blake eventually sailed in a total of five consecutive Whitbreads, becoming the first person to do so. The next race was in 1978-79, also aboard a ship commanded by Williams. On this voyage, Blake served as a watch leader. This boat was called Heath's Condor, and Blake and Williams were joined by Robin Knox-Johnston, with whom Blake was to have a long-standing friendship and partnership. Built with a new-type carbon-fiber mast, the ship ran into trouble during the second week of the race, when the mast collapsed.
After the race, Blake and his crew pulled into the port town of Emsworth, on the south coast of England, to have their boat refitted at the sailing club there. While they were there, Blake met his future wife, Pippa Glanville. Emsworth was Pippa's hometown, and as she later told the Sunday Telegraph of London, "I was in the club having a drink when Peter walked in. I'd never met anyone from the Antipodes before, and he was very tall and very striking, with very, very blond hair and blue eyes. I thought, 'Wow!' No one had ever made such an impression on me."
World Champion Yacht Racer
Less than three months later, Blake asked Pippa to marry him. They were married the same year, 1979. "He proposed to me in a marina in Miami in Florida," Pippa told the Sunday Telegraph, "and I just said yes straight away. I didn't hesitate. I think I'd passed a test. I knew right from the start that I was sort of sharing Peter with the team. Right up to the moment he was killed, there was always a team around Peter. For our honeymoon we sailed from here [Emsworth] to New Zealand—me and seven guys!"
In 1981-82, Blake competed in the third Whitbread race, this time as captain. The boat was called Ceramco New Zealand, and this one, too lost its mast during the race. But Blake and his resourceful crew managed to build a make-shift mast and get underway again within 24 hours of the mishap. They made it to Cape Town, where they put in a new mast, and went on to finish second in the race.
|1948||Born in Auckland, New Zealand, on October 1|
|1956||Given his first boat, by his father|
|1968||Builds his first boat, wins New Zealand Junior Offshore championship|
|1970||Finishes degree in mechanical engineering, moves to England|
|1971||Competes in his first major race, the Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro race, aboard Ocean Spirit|
|1973-74||Competes in the first Whitbread Round the World race as a crewmember aboard Burton Cutter|
|1978-79||Competes in the second Whitbread Round the World race, as a watch leader on Heath Condor|
|1979||Marries Pippa Glanville|
|1979||Wins Fastnet race on Condor|
|1980||Wins Sydney-Hobart race aboard Ceramco New Zealand|
|1981-82||Competes in the third Whitbread race aboard Ceramco New Zealand|
|1985-86||Competes in the fourth Whitbread race, as captain of Lion New Zealand|
|1988||Wins the Two-man Round Australia race aboard Steinlager I|
|1989||Wins Whitbread Round the World Race as captain of Steinlager II|
|1992||Competes for the America's Cup|
|1993||Wins Trophee Jules Verne by setting a world record for sailing around the world in 74 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes, and 22 seconds, aboard ENZA New Zealand|
|1994||Becomes Chief Executive Officer, Team New Zealand Ltd, New Zealand's America's Cup racing team|
|1995||Head of New Zealand team that wins America's Cup, taking the trophy from the American team|
|1997||Asked to head the management of the Cousteau Foundation|
|1998||Heads ecological expedition in the Caspian Sea|
|2000||Leads New Zealand in its second victory in the America's Cup|
|2000||Steps down as CEO of Team New Zealand to found blakexpeditions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ecological research and education through ocean voyages|
|2000||Named special envoy to the United Nations Environment Program|
|2000||Makes first ecological voyage to South America|
|2001||Killed by pirates near Macap, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River|
Blake entered the fourth Whitbread race in 1985 as captain of the Lion New Zealand, and again did not win. But the fifth Whitbread race, in 1989, was a charm for Blake; his boat, Steinlager II, won all six legs of the race, winning the overall race by only minutes.
Blake described life aboard the Steinlager II, on which there were no showers, and few changes of clothes for the crew of 15, to the BBC: "You don't notice the smells or whatever that develop because everyone's the same. But when you get into port and you go away for 24 hours and come back, well you see the look on people's face when they come down below for the first time, they just about fall over backwards, the stench is just terrible. You don't wash, see, in the southern ocean, you might not change your underwear for three weeks, and you get a bit of a layer of grease and goo that builds up over you, and you seem to be just fine."
In 1993, Blake sailed around the world with crew-mate Robin Knox-Johnson. The voyage broke the record for the fastest non-stop voyage around the world, and the pair won the Jules Verne trophy for sailing around the world in under 80 days. They circled the globe in 74 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes, and 30 seconds, in 1993.
Wins America's Cup—And Keeps It
Blake and Knox-Johnston again teamed up in 1995 in New Zealand's bid to wrest the America's Cup from the United States. In charge of the New Zealand America's Cup team in 1995, Blake had only a limited budget to work with. It was his outstanding leadership and organizational skills that won the race for Team New Zealand, not superior financing. Blake started by breaking his team into five groups, each responsible for a separate specialty: sailing, boatbuilding, design, administration, and public relations, and he mortgaged his house to pay for the entry fee. At the end, when funds ran dry, Blake and his team were supported by the proceeds of sales of Blake's trademark red socks, a pair of which Blake wore throughout the race, and which New Zealanders bought by the thousands.
Blake and his team won the America's Cup on the doorstep of defending champion, Dennis Connor, when they finished the race off San Diego. Team New Zealand dealt the Americans a humiliating defeat, winning the race 5-0, and the New Zealanders returned home national heroes. (The Americans had kept the Cup for 132 years, from the first race in 1851 until 1983, when it was finally won by a team of Australian sailors. However, the Americans won it back in the next race, in 1987.) Both Blake and Robin Knox-Johnston were knighted that same year, 1995, for their contributions to the sport of yachting. Team New Zealand, again with Blake in charge, though not as his ship's captain, went on to successfully defend the Cup in 2000.
Blake told the Herald of Glasgow about preparations for the 2000 race, "We have had a tight budget—but I believe firmly that if you have too much money you look at aspects of research and development that do not matter. Having to mind the dollars makes you focus on those areas likely to be the most productive. Money does not buy the America's Cup. In the final analysis you have to get all the little things right, and that comes down to the talent and commitment of the people on the team."
Blake cited small improvements in every aspect of the design, construction, and sailing of the boat as the contributing factors to winning the race. "Every damn thing matters," he told the Herald, "and if you add up the seconds here and there you end up with the difference between success and failure."
In 2000, Blake founded a nonprofit organization called blakexpeditions, whose purpose was to sail around the world in the cause of environmental conservation, and to, according to Blake's statement on the organization's web site, "convey our experiences, and what we find, through inspirational television, an exciting web site, stimulating educational programmes and informative media and publishing agendas."
Killed by Pirates
Blake was 53 years old when he was killed by pirates in 2001. At the time, he was exploring the Amazon River in Brazil with his yacht Seamaster and crew. Their purpose, specifically, was to study global warming. The attack came as Seamaster was anchored off the Brazilian coast, near the town of Macapa, at the mouth of the Amazon River. Blake and his seven crewmates were relaxing before a planned sail the next day to Venezuela. They were playing Scrabble when a row boat pulled soundlessly beside Seamaster. and several armed men wearing masks climbed aboard.
Origin of the America's Cup
One of the oldest and most prestigious prizes awarded in international yacht racing, the America's Cup was originally an 100-guinea silver trophy offered by the Royal Yacht Squadron to the winner of a race around the Isle of Wight on August 22, 1851. John Cox Stevens, a wealthy New Jersey real estate broker and founder of the New York Yacht Club, organized a syndicate of five other club members that commissioned William H. Brown in 1850 to construct a yacht "to race against the best the British had to offer." Following the design by George Steers, Brown finished America in 1851, in time for Stevens to accept an invitation from the Royal Yacht Squadron to enter its race around the Isle of Wight. Pitted against seventeen seasoned British boats, America started poorly but finished with a commanding lead and won the cup. In response to the win by America, the Spirit of the Times observed that "old England was no match for young America." Stevens accepted the cup, naming it after his yacht, and kept it on display at his Annandale, New Jersey estate. After his death in 1857, it became a trust of the New York Yacht Club "as a permanent challenge cup, open to competition by any organized yacht club of any foreign country."
Blake's crew dove to the deck, but not Blake. Determined to defend his ship, he went below deck to retrieve a rifle he had stored there for defense against wild animals. By the time he came back on deck, one of the pirates was pointing a gun at the head of one of Blake's crew. Blake shouted at the pirates to get off his boat, and the pirate holding the gun began to back away, now aiming his gun at Blake. Shots were fired, and Blake's rifle jammed. Before he could bring it to bear again, he was shot two times in the back by the fleeing pirates, and killed almost instantly. One of Blake's crewmates was grazed by a bullet, but the rest escaped unscathed. The pirates were arrested in the hours following the attack, and each of them was sentenced to up to 37 years in jail.
Blake was buried in a simple grave just steps from the ocean in the small English hamlet of Warblington, where he and his family had made their home since the 1970s. The prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, spoke at the funeral, saying, according to the BBC, "Peter Blake was a living legend. I believe that Peter was held in high esteem for many reasons—for his achievements, for his courage, for the causes he espoused, and for being a decent human being."
Blake is survived by his wife Pippa, their daughter, Sarah-Jane, and son, James. "He had this amazing strength," Blake's widow told the Sunday Telegraph of London. "He was 6ft 4in and he had this amazing strength. Yes, we've lost a husband and a father—but it's like we've also lost the backbone to our whole existence. You were always safe with Peter. And that could be at home or at sea."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1983||Named MBE (Member of the British Empire)|
|1988||Two-man Round Australia race|
|1989||Whitbread Round the World Race|
|1990||New Zealand Sportsman of the Year|
|1991||Named OBE (Order of the British Empire)|
|1993||Awarded Trophee Jules Verne|
|1995||British Yachtsman of the Year|
|1995||Named KBE (Knight of the British Empire)|
|1995, 2000||America's Cup|
|2001||Olympic Order, International Olympic Committee|
|2002||Lifetime Achievement Award, Laureus World Sport Awards|
|2002||Sport for Good Award, Laureus World Sport Awards|
|2002||SeaKeeper Award, International SeaKeepers Society|
A consummate sailor, a man admired for his kindness and sense of fair play, and a loving husband and father, Sir Peter Blake will perhaps best be remembered as the man who was most responsible for transforming ocean yacht racing into a sport avidly followed by millions of people around the world.
Alexander, Stuart. "Obituary: Sir Peter Blake." Independent (December 10, 2001): 6.
de Bertodano, Helena. "I'm Not Angry, Just Sad." Sunday Telegraph (June 30, 2002): 3.
Gold, Scott. "The World; America's Cup Winner Slain by Pirates in Brazil" Los Angeles Times (December 7, 2001): A1.
"Obituary of Sir Peter Blake." Daily Telegraph (December 7, 2001): 29.
"Sir Peter Blake." Times (December 7, 2001).
"Sir Peter Blake; Yachtsman Who Masterminded New Zealand's America's Cup Wins and Broke Round-the-World Record." Herald (December 8, 2001): 14.
blakexpeditions. http://www.blakexpeditions.com (October 1, 2002).
"Hillary & Norgay." Time.com. http://www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/hillary_norgay01.html (October 3, 2002).
"Laureus Sports Awards—Winners 2002." Laureus Sports Awards. http://www.laureus.com/awards/winners/index.php (October 1, 2002).
"The Life of Yachtsman and Ecologist Peter Blake." Agence France Presse. (December 6, 2001).
"More About the History of the Americas Cup." Official site of the America's Cup. http://www.americascup.com/historymore.aspx (September 27, 2002).
"Mourners Pay Tribute to Blake." BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/sailing/1710559.stm (December 14, 2001).
"Sir Peter Blake." BBC. http://newssearch.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/1695000/video/_1696261_blake_vi.ram (October 1, 2002).
"Sir Peter's Final Log." BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/sailing/1710559.stm (December 14, 2001).
Sketch by Michael Belfiore