Sir Peter Blake

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter James Blake, yachtsman: born Auckland, New Zealand 1 October 1948; MBE 1983, OBE 1991, KBE 1995; Chief Executive Officer, Team New Zealand Ltd, America's Cup 1994-2000; Captain, blakexpeditions 2000-2001; married 1979 Pippa Glanville (one son, one daughter); died off Macapá, Brazil 6 December 2001.

Peter Blake's achievement was to be at the forefront of the move to turn ocean racing from an adventure into a professional sport.

With winning ways and style he grabbed from the Americans the top prizes in sailing; he set a world record for sailing non-stop round the world; and he moved easily between the roles of sportsman and statesman. He was one of the great heroes in his home country, New Zealand, and more than one person felt that, if he had stood to be Prime Minister, he would have won by a landslide. He stood alongside the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary as a man who brought both national pride and identity to a community of less than four million people, many of them at the opposite ends of the world to where they have their roots.

Blake was also one of the boys. His shambling, almost self-effacing, gait was countered by a steely air of authority. He could be awkward when forced to make small talk, yet lyrical when sending long, descriptive messages back from the furthest reaches of the ocean. A man at one with his environment, he loved sailing in some of the wildest, most remote stretches of water and described "albatross territory" as one his greatest delights. He loved to sail with his friends, or people who would become his friends, to have a party and a gossip with them. He was fiercely loyal to his own team, and he inspired the kind of loyalty that generals dream of. But he also knew when to turn off the familiarity and become, once again, the boss.

Born in Auckland in 1948, as a boy at Takapuna Grammar School, Auckland, Blake had learnt, like so many children before him and since, to sail the P Class dinghy which has been the nursery for so many great sailors. As a 25-year-old, he was invited by Les Williams to crew on the British 80-footer Burton Cutter in the first Whitbread Round the World Race.

It was to be the first of five, one every four years, which continued in 1977-78 with Williams, this time joined by Robin Knox-Johnston, on Heath's Condor. The third, Ceramco, in 1981-82, came out of New Zealand, as did the fourth, Lion New Zealand (1985-86). But it was the fifth, Steinlager, that was to sweep Blake to success. He won every one of the six legs in the 1989/90 race. Although one was by only minutes, the overall victory was emphatic.

He then threw himself into a project with Robin Knox-Johnston to beat the French at their own game and lift the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest non-stop circumnavigation of the world. The first attempt ended with a run for cover to South Africa after one hull of the catamaran Enza was damaged. The second ended in 1994 with a new record of 74 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes and 30 seconds. In 1995 both he and Knox-Johnston were knighted, although Blake never really became an establishment figure.

The next peak was the America's Cup, an arena in which he felt far less comfortable, not just because it involved short, sharp races rather than the long, ocean legs he loved but also because of the incessant politicking. He loved racing but insisted that it had also to be enjoyed. Blake was nothing if not a straight man, approachable, uncomplicated, and one with whom everyone knew where they stood. As on so many other occasions, he did his talking on the track. The black boats of Team New Zealand first swept aside all the other challengers and then, on the backyard Pacific swell of San Diego which was home turf to the defender, Dennis Conner, crushed the Americans 5-0.

Blake was proud that a tightly run, no frills, low-budget campaign, for which he had mortgaged his house to pay the initial entry fee, could be so successful. He was astonished at the way the New Zealanders watching back home latched on to the idea of his trademark red socks and bought them in their thousands to provide much-needed, last-minute financial support.

Australia had been the only other country to beat the United States in 132 years but they, in turn, had been beaten at their first defence. Blake, perhaps a little reluctantly, took on the task of organising New Zealand's defence in 2000. Though not on the boat this time, the scoreline was the same against the ultimate challenge from Italy, 5-0.

Peter Blake will be remembered by his rivals not only for being a fair and honest competitor, but also for the generous way in which he would then give advice on how to run their own campaigns in competition with him. "Just jump in and swim like hell," was one of his favourite tips. He was respected by every stratum of New Zealand society, was at home in each of them, and, in return for New Zealand's support, he delivered a decade of feel-good factor while laying the foundation of support for future generations of racing yachtsmen.

Blake was just 53 when he was shot dead doing the job at which he excelled, skippering an ocean-going yacht. He had switched his attentions to the study and protection of the environment, and had been leading an expedition to explore the Amazon with his company, blakexpeditions, when his vessel, Seamaster, was ambushed by pirates.

Stuart Alexander


I first met Peter Blake in Cape Town in 1971 when he had joined my yacht for the first Cape Town to Rio Race, writes Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. A young, tall, New Zealander, he was the right person, it was quickly appreciated, to lead a watch in the race, and so it proved. We got together again for the 1977 Whitbread and my abiding memory is of his tall figure, standing on the weather rail, pointing astern and explaining to 40 French journalists that Eric Tabarly was "forty miles back there"!

Some years later, when we were walking out from a Whitbread Around the World Race Committee meeting we were discussing the Jules Verne idea of sailing around the world in under 80 days. Both of us had plans, but we decided to pool them. The result was Enza New Zealand, and a record time. Within a year Peter was winning the America's Cup for New Zealand and he went on to defend it successfully, the only person to achieve this.

Peter will be remembered as a giant in sailing over the past 20 years. He was a consummate seaman, excellent tactician, brilliant organiser, 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.