The night they killed a Kiwi hero

By Catherine Masters

Sir Peter Blake. File photo / Getty Images
Sir Peter Blake. File photo / Getty Images

Pirates may have ended the life of yachtsman and environmentalist Sir Peter Blake in a shocking attack on the Amazon River 10 years ago, but, as Catherine Masters reports, his legacy lives on

On board Seamaster in the steamy South American jungle, Sir Peter Blake was deeply affected by the over-fishing he was witnessing on the Rio Negro in the Amazon basin.

He described on his log how commercial fishermen were setting gill nets up to 750 metres long across the mouth and edges of lagoons, then setting other nets to divide the water into lanes.

"Nothing escapes," he wrote. "Everything is taken. Everything. The next lagoon follows - then the next - then the next."

New Zealand's favourite yachtsman had put his ocean racing and America's Cup days behind him and had embarked on a mission advocating for the environments he so loved - while having some adventure and fun along the way.

A month before he died he wrote in the log that profit was was coming ahead of the long-term survival of "what we know of as life today", before wrapping up with: "That's about it from me today - it's sometimes hard to stop once I am on a roll. But it is easy to get really caught up in the big issues when we are surrounded by them."

The Seamaster was on what was to be her last mission with Blakexpeditions, the environmental organisation Blake set up when he retired from racing.

The aim was to not just explore the areas he called "pulse points" of the planet but to show people their condition so they would care about them too and be inspired to protect them.

He had already journeyed to Antarctica on Seamaster and ahead were expeditions to the Arctic Circle and the Pacific coral reefs, laid out in a five-year plan.

Old friend Don Robertson says Blake was just getting started.

It all ended suddenly and shockingly when the imposing Kiwi was shot dead by a band of young Brazilians who preyed on river boats. They had been quietly watching the unusual silver boat called Seamaster moored in the waters of their equatorial homeland with no idea it had been built for exploration of the icy polar regions and even less idea the skipper was a renowned seafarer.

The attack is infamous now, etched dramatically into the Kiwi psyche, carried out just as the Amazon expedition was ending.

On that earlier log Blake had expressed how vital the Seamaster expeditions would be because by witnessing and reporting back they could start to make a difference: "That is our aim - to make a difference."

The close friend

AND HE did make a difference Robertson says, in a cafe overlooking Auckland Harbour, 10 years on.

The skipper's death affected lives around the globe but though he is gone, his work continues.

In this country, a trust set up in his name is flourishing and across the world the Seamaster continues with environmental research, albeit with a new name and new owner.

Robertson has taken a long while to recover from his friend's death.

He was on board Seamaster and doesn't want to relive that night again - he's been doing that for the past 10 years.

The facts are, though, that the robbers rowed out silently and slunk on board in the dark, holding guns to the heads of the crew, including Robertson. In the confusion Blake managed to race downstairs to grab his rifle; he shot and hit one robber in the hand but his rifle jammed and he was shot in the back by another.

Chaos reigned and shots rang out; a crew member was bashed in the face and another's back was scraped by a bullet. But worst of all, the skipper was dead.

Robertson has dreamt about the night and has been through all the "what if" scenarios possible.

What if there had been no resistance? Would the robbers have killed no one, or killed them all?

The conclusion he reaches each time is that Blake died protecting his crew, that he saved everyone else's lives, and that this was the kind of man he was - loyal to the end.

You don't meet many guys like him, Robertson says.

They met on the yachting scene and Robertson was involved in the America's Cup campaigns, then the environmental expeditions.

He was struck by the friendly, tall sailor's charisma and quirky humour.

There was always a focus there, which some mistook for aloofness, though Robertson says you always knew Blake was the boss - "he'd just look down at you from 6 ft 4 and you'd go, 'oh, okay Pete, I get the point'."

But Robertson is laughing. Blake was an amazing leader, he says, but, oh dear, his jokes, "oh, man... he would tell the same jokes over and over and you laughed because it was the same joke. It was like, oh, there it is again, and some of them you fell for.

"You'd say, 'so I'll go and put the kettle on' and he'd say 'yeah, see if it fits', and man, if I heard that once I heard it a hundred times."

Robertson has many stories affectionately told, such as the morning they rounded Cape Horn three times.

This might not mean much to a non-sailor but Cape Horn, at the bottom of South America, is known for its danger and challenge. For yachties, rounding Cape Horn is like climbing Everest.

Blake had done it half a dozen times, usually racing past, but he knew the rest of the crew had not.

"Peter being Peter, we came round Cape Horn, it was beautiful, about four o'clock in the morning, fairly dark and it was fairly flat water and he said 'what do you think of that, going round Cape Horn?'

"I said 'man, unbelievable' and he said 'let's do it again'."

So they did. He laughs again when telling how Blake laughed when Robertson dressed up as Santa Claus because Blake's young son James was onboard with a friend.

Blake was a mix of fun and drive but it is his leadership ability and loyalty Robertson returns to most.

When Blake looked down from his great height, you'd straighten up a bit, he says.

He would lead by inspiration, asking you to do things you never thought you could then letting you get on and do them.

A disaster was never called a disaster but a challenge to be interpreted as "how are we going to fix it?"

He would anticipate problems, too, and solve them before they happened, such as in Antarctica when he wondered what they would do if the water-maker broke so they spent the day collecting water from a melting glacier.

Blake was a great guy, says Robertson, and he misses him.

The water rats

The Weekend Herald understands most of the six robbers who stormed the boat 10 years ago are now out of jail. Only Ricardo Colares Tavares, the one who fired the shots which killed Blake, remains imprisoned in Amapa, one of Brazil's most impoverished states.

All were found guilty of latrocinio, or armed robbery leading to death, but Tavares' sentence of nearly 37 years was the longest.

At trial the robbers claimed their actions had been in self-defence because of resistance by the crew but this was thrown out by the judge.

Sentencing them back in 2002, Judge Jose Magno Linhares told the court in the state capital of Macapa, near the mouth of the Amazon where the attack happened, that Blake had returned fire in self-defence and that the robbers were greedy young men who robbed to get something for nothing.

A source in Brazil gave this update about them:

Ricardo Colares Tavares (killed Blake) is still in jail, sentenced to 37 years.

Isael Pantoja da Costa (shot at Sir Peter who also fired, shooting off part of the robber's finger) was sentenced to 35 years but as of October last year is in semi-open confinement. He is allowed out on weekdays but must sleep at prison and stay in prison at weekends.

Josue Pantoja da Costa, Jose Irandir Colares Cardoso and Reney Ferreira Macedo all held guns at the crew and were sentenced to between 32 and 28 years, but all have been released with a 7pm curfew and are not allowed to leave home on weekends.

Rubens da Silva Souza steered the getaway boat and was sentenced to 26 years but has been free since 2008 on condition he does not commit any other crime.

The widow

The information about the robbers came after our interview with Blake's wife Pippa who is in the country for a special announcement by the Sir Peter Blake Trust on the 10th anniversary of her husband's death (on Tuesday) and to launch the book she has written about their life together.

She's doing well these days, though it has taken her a long time to get there. She doesn't want to talk about what happened, saying if you want to know what it was like for her, read the book.

She says this not at all rudely, just matter-of-factly.

In the book you will find a sense of the devastation she went through after her husband's murder and the reactions of their children Sarah-Jane and James.

Of the robbers, she says this: "I wasn't really interested in what happened to them, to be honest. Perhaps I do feel sorry that they were put in jail for such a long time, but that's me. I guess that's what they deserve.

"I wasn't angry but I was deeply upset that my life and the children's lives had to change so radically."

You will also find in the book what drew her to Blake - the tall, shaggy-haired blond, blue-eyed man who walked into the Emsworth Sailing Club in England one Friday night and left her smitten.

"There seemed to be an aura surrounding him. There was something in Peter's eyes, he often had that far-away look like when he was at sea; you could see him scanning the horizon, but he wasn't just looking at the horizon, he was looking yonder."

The book is moving and fluid and she reveals she didn't really write it as such but spoke into a tape recorder over an intense period of eight or nine days and was exhausted afterwards.

But the process was cathartic and therapeutic and she hopes people will accept that is her say and look to the future now, as she is.

She's not one for anniversaries, but this year does feel significant, she says.

She has published a book, she has a new man (who she won't say a lot about, except that he is involved in human rights, social justice and the arts and may come to New Zealand with her next year) and her daughter Sarah-Jane has married Alistair Moore who was part of the Seamaster crew.

Pippa Blake is an artist and says her painting is also going well,so life is positive once again. She will never forget her husband, she says, but she feels very strongly about moving on.

The legacy

The Sir Peter Blake Trust was launched in 2004 with a $3.8 million endowment from Helen Clark's Government. Pippa Blake had not wanted a statue or an island named after her husband but loved the idea of a living legacy based on his values and leadership style.

Each year emerging leaders are selected and nurtured - there have been 43 so far - and leaders considered dynamic are honoured with a Blake Medal.

They have included physicist Sir Paul Callaghan, Olympic gold medallist Sir Murray Halberg and scientist Sir Ray Avery.

Two of the trust's emerging leaders were elected as first time MPs last weekend; anti-drug campaigner Mike Sabin, who took Northland for National and Auckland community worker Alfred Ngaro, a National list MP.

The trust's CEO, Shelley Campbell, was an emerging leader herself and says many of those selected work under the radar - like Heather Skipworth who set up the IronMaori event and former league star Tawera Nikau who won the award for his work for employment and youth in Huntly - but all share certain leadership qualities such as a willingness to just get stuck in.

"That's what I think Peter was, he was a real doer."

The trust also has a focus on nurturing and developing young people, running initiatives including the annual Red Socks Day which encourages schools and other organisations to celebrate leadership.

The boat

In 2003 Pippa Blake asked Don Robertson to sell Seamaster, not able to see how Blakexpeditions could carry on.

But she was adamant the boat be sold to the "right person".

That person turned out to be Frenchman Etienne Bourgois, the son of Agnes Trouble who founded the agnes b fashion house.

Bourgois renamed the boat Tara and now instead of Blakexpeditions there is Tara Expeditions.

The boat carries researchers and scientists and often has a Kiwi or two on board. One of them was Grant Redvers who headed the Tara Arctic Expedition for 507 days when the boat was intentionally trapped in the Arctic ice to follow the Arctic drift and research climate change.

Currently, the boat is travelling the world's oceans studying plankton.

Bourgois told the Weekend Herald from France that he heard about the boat being for sale in 2003 when he met Alistair Moore by chance.

"Deeply affected by the death of his leader, he told me with emotion about Sir Peter Blake's unrealised dream."

Bourgois viewed the boat and met Pippa Blake and Don Robertson and realised all three shared a common vision about continuing the environmental work.

Blake tribute

A 10th anniversary tribute to Sir Peter Blake will take place at 5.45pm on Tuesday at Karanga Plaza in the Viaduct Harbour (next to the Team NZ Emirates base). Lady Pippa Blake will unveil The Legacy, a special publication featuring the Sir Peter Blake Trust's achievements.

- NZ Herald

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