It is not easy going back over my notebooks from Sir Peter Blake’s last voyage. One of them has a bullet hole through it, but the problem is not the detail of the ambush by pirates or the events that followed. I have very clear images of that night. That is all straightforward.
One image: Blake roped to a litter, his body caught by searchlight as it balanced on the bow of a pilot launch tossing and rolling in the swirling chop of the Amazon. The crew, lifelong friends, forming an honour guard. The smell of diesel exhaust. The pilot launch gone in the night with its cargo. The last I saw of him.
The problem with the notebooks is about another kind of memory, the way they record the unfinished beginnings of a friendship. On watch with Blake at the bow of Seamaster. Hours of sharing ideas and enthusiasms. Mad games of Scrabble. For a newcomer it feels like an intrusion to write about that. But New Zealanders haven’t heard what happened on Blake’s last voyage. And it can’t be left that way.
This story was to have been an examination of environmental issues set against a lazy exploration of the Amazon. It was to have been about getting to know Blake, bringing back a picture of him that was more than just the gung-ho skipper. Despite the tragic ending, it is still about that.
To start with, I knew very little about the man. An image somewhere of the yachting hero, possibly a bit aloof, perhaps one-dimensional. But his shift away from the commercial world of yachting to push environmental awareness intrigued me. Was there more to Blake than New Zealand ever realised?
Joining him was spur-of-the-moment stuff. I was stuck behind a desk on a contract in Wellington when I read of the Amazon expedition. A few phone calls and a few weeks later, I was on my way to Brazil.
That first morning in the Amazon I walked into the jungle at dawn. A squadron of birds I couldn’t see greeted my every movement with a disproportionate klaxon alarm: “Eeeek! Eeeek! Eeeek! A thousand eeeks to you, sir, and so say all of us and my goodness don’t we sound a treat!”
I followed a track to the river shore, a sharply tilting hundred-yard swathe of pure white sand. For the first time I gained a sense of the size of this land. I noted from a retaining wall that the river level rises a good 15 metres during the wet season—and this is a river where the opposite shore is barely visible. Every year the great onrush of water floods large chunks of jungle. Then fish flit through the tree-tops like butterflies, pink dolphins twist among the trunks and the settlers raise their cattle on rafts.
I sat for an hour. Brilliant bumblebee hummingbirds hovered and darted from flower to flower, systematically dipping their beaks, precise as tiny robot welders. On the uppermost branches a stork, like a heron working a reef, inspected the foliage for signs of life to pick at. A teacher at uniform parade. Among the leaves there was the flittering twitchy movement of smaller birds. Every so often, like a Faberge-jewelled paper dart, one swooped in a headlong dash across the exposed danger of a clearing. Reaching safe haven it cried: “Yes-I-made-it! Yes-I-made-it! Yes-I-made-it!”
Further down the beach I spied on a building some inscrutable tribal scrawlings—a feature I noticed throughout the Amazon. It is not just spray-can tagging that has arrived in the jungle. That night there was break dancing on the beach and a lip-synching Michael Jackson impersonator. Girls ran screaming into the arena to kiss his cheek. Beatlemania on the banks of the Rio Negro in the heart of the Amazon.
Manaus (population 2 million) is bigger than Auckland. It is the Amazon’s principal port, a citadel of consumer delights for the hard-scrabble jungle settlements beyond. The streets were choked with every possible gee-gaw and drowned in two-dollar-shop dreck. Prices were much the same as in New Zealand, as they are, no doubt, the world over: the cost of manufacture in China, freight and local mark-up. There was the incessant chirruping of cellphones.
At the downtown docks, scores of multidecked riverboats were nosed into a sewage-crusted beach. Passengers, lounging in their hammocks, watched as the vessels slowly filled with cargo. Along narrow gangplanks, sweating porters staggered like circus strongmen. Picking among the trash were not seagulls but vultures, shuffling about in their noisome cloaks.
To reach Seamaster, I took a small plane north-west across an ocean of forest. The route followed the Rio Negro, which in the dry season has the bare clay banks of a mismanaged hydro lake. Sitting next to me was a young American woman who told me she was on her way to join her pensioner parents, who had spent months at a luxury river lodge fishing striped bass—this in the wilderness I thought I was going to explore.
I looked out of the window. The black water of the river had an anodised sheen. Here, as in Fiordland, it gets its colour from leached humus. Sharp against the black were daubings of pure white sand composed in spits, cays and beaches. In the shallows, shoals of sand had been ruffled and plumped like eiderdowns by the current, which flows over them the colour of Coca Cola.
The village of Barcelos, about the size of Ngaruawahia, emerged from the jungle like a Cook Islands atoll. Lining the road into town from the airstrip, the bougainvillea, hibiscus, palms and architecture all confirmed a Pacific connection. So did the sun-struck lassitude.
At the village beach, below the church, two Seamaster crew were waiting for me. My plan from the outset was to become a useful and unobtrusive member of the crew. Arriving alongside the yacht anchored downriver, I reached up from the inflatable to haul myself aboard. I had a vision of achieving this in one limber jack-knife. But I ran up against a forgotten surplus of mass and a shortage of moment. Crew literally had to drag me aboard. I looked up from my belly-flop on the deck to see Blake barely suppressing a grin.
I was introduced to the Brazilian crew—the pilot, Bosco de Lima, and Paulo Matos, the chef. Among the Kiwis I spotted a considerable twinkling of eyes. I learned that the two Brazilians, who had only just farewelled Helen Clark’s entourage, had been told by Blake to expect the king of Spain.
At lunch, served at a long table beneath a canopy that shaded most of the boat, I met the rest of the crew.
Three were successful semi-retired Auckland businessmen. One had been joined by his wife. Two young men were the immaculately mannered sons of family friends from Blake’s English home, on their gap year. The delivery skipper was a schoolmate from North Shore days. Blake’s wife, Pippa, had been aboard just a few weeks. Leon Sefton, a former TVNZ colleague of mine, was on board, too.
Fish steaks were being grilled on a barbeque. There was that special brand of bluff Kiwi banter, edged with a nice eccentricity—a quality Blake valued. I had joined a weekend cruise on the Hauraki Gulf, anchored in a bush-clad bay on Great Barrier.
Going ashore the next day, I realised the bush did, in fact, feel familiar. New Zealand jungle lacks only the 40°C heat and the pestilence, and that’s easily fixed. Find any overgrown tangle of privet, cutty grass or runaway ginger plant, pour a pitcher of vicious biting ants over your head and then thrash around in small circles wearing a wetsuit in midsummer and you’ll get the picture.
Returning from several hours in the blazing heat I became obsessed with the idea of diving from Seamaster to cool off. The idea was that the piranha, anaconda, leeches, fresh-water sharks, electric rays, electric eels, caymans—and most important of all the tiny catfish that swim up your penis to tear your bladder apart—would not get the chance to zero in, so long as I was quick.
Plunging into the river, I discovered my mistake too late. The Rio Negro, with its 30°C acidic waters, is as refreshing as a soak in an over-chlorinated paddling pool full of hot horse urine. (On the subject of pools, the Amazon state of Para was once famous for the quality of its rubber.)
The Rio Negro, the second largest Amazon tributary, doesn’t visually resemble any Kiwi notion of a river, either. As we motored downstream it felt more as if we were traversing an endlessly unfolding lake.
If the river was impressive, the bush on its banks was disappointing—and there’s a reason for that. A whole tradition of literature has told us that foreign tropical lands are magically and exotically different, which of course they are if you’ve just come from London to write a book. And brought up reading those books, we’ve absorbed that English view of the world as our own. We lap up these stirring tales of impenetrable foliage, soaring jungle giants and soul-refreshing, untouched isolation without realising all of that applies to New Zealand. If you’ve come from New Zealand there’s nothing foreign about any of it.
The only real difference is one of size. New Zealand may have a boutique selection of mini-wildernesses individually far more impressive than the Amazonian jungle, but no matter how dramatic or inspiring each experience, there is always a sense that just across the next hill there’s a dairy with a Tip Top sign.
I first twigged to this in Africa. Despite the scale of the place, I realised that the jungle itself was no more than the Waitakeres with a few elephants, monkeys and buffalo thrown in. Not that you ever really see much of a wild animal in the actual wild. The same is true in the Amazon. A flash of pink dolphin dorsal fin at 300 paces, a smudge of monkey fur in the canopy, a glitter of feathers swooping through a clearing—I can understand why the old naturalists shot everything. It was the only way to get wildlife to hold still.
I joined Seamaster after she had dropped off a team to travel in smaller craft along a channel between the headwaters of Rio Negro and Venezuela’s Orinoco River, its direction of flow dependent on the season.
In the planning stages, Blake seriously considered trying to squeeze hundreds of tonnes of Seamaster along this shallow waterway. “I checked it out, the water level, any bridges. I discovered there were rapids. But were there any roads or tracks past the rapids? There was a track. Could we get the masts down and portage it? Any way to winch the boat through that part? The problem was organising a winch.”
At the time, he hadn’t heard of Fitzcarraldo, the film about an obsessed German industrialist who tried a similar feat elsewhere in the Amazon.
Seamaster would have to retrace her route to the mouth of the Amazon, travel up the coast and collect the second team on the Orinoco. The schedule allowed for an unhurried return to Manaus, where I was due to leave the boat. On the way we would be stopping to film location shots for a documentary.
Blakexpeditions had already produced a television special on its Antarctic voyage, and another was being prepared on the Amazon trip. Just as with the America’s Cup, the publicity planning was meticulous. A daily log added to the Blakexpeditions website encouraged people to imagine they were members of the crew. Blake’s profile had seen him appointed an honorary envoy for the United Nations Environmental Programme.
With Seamaster anchored for lunch, Blake sent me with a crew member to scout ahead an hour or two for film sites and to check out a rumoured village. We found the village and identified a narrow twisting section of river, complete with an intriguing lagoon. The following morning Blake skippered the boat through this section half a dozen times as we shot it from different angles. Although the current made this a tricky exercise, it was worth it. Carefully framed, Seamaster appeared to emerge from the jungle itself.
We anchored overnight. Close on dusk, Blake and Pippa set off to explore the lagoon by kayak. They were excited and happy. It was seldom they were together like this. Sefton and I paddled into another river and drifted downstream. From time to time there was a poultry-shed cacophony of furious gabbling and squawking. In the trees around us an unseen parliament of jungle fowls was busy with its pecking orders.
After dark, Blake took us cayman spotting in the inflatable. As we paddled beside the river bank, eyes like glowing coals blazed back at the torch. Blake was delighted, and we paddled about for hours.
Next morning we reached the village. Walking quietly around the homes with some of the crew, I saw that this was hard country. While a few shacks had flowering gardens, most were surrounded by sullen yards of bare dust. In the corner of one was a fireplace with a rusty bike frame serving as a grill.
We ducked into an outhouse to watch a woman frying manioc in a huge wok-like dish. Our smiles didn’t win much response. Sefton offered aeroplane rides to the children who were shadowing us. He was beseiged by kids, all wanting just one more. It was the easy Kiwi approach that made me proud of our peacekeepers in Bosnia, bringing cheer to children.
I gave a geographic poster of the Waikato River to a child with deformed feet who had been lagging behind the others. She was very clear about what she saw: the Geographic tuatara logo was a cayman. As she held on to the poster for grim death and scuttled off from the others like a crippled seagull, I realised she had engaged in me that Kiwi instinct that makes sure the least able gets a share.
Among the crew there was considerable sympathy for these pioneers of the new settlements. Blake was taken by the almost total absence of medical care. “There’s one doctor to serve thousands of square miles, and it can take these people weeks to reach him,” he said. “They’ve just been left here to do the best they can.”
From the adults a blank response was the norm. Some villagers appeared nervous. That may have had some‑thing to do with Seamaster. At one point two young men were hauling in a net mid-river. They didn’t just ignore Seamaster as it slid past but gave no sense of having even seen it. What boat? What flying saucer? With its ice-breaking bow and raw grey aluminium hull there was a whiff of gunboat about Seamaster, and in these parts that’s as good a reason as any to keep your head down.
And what about the name? I had been wondering why Blake had not thought of a name a little more simpatico with an environmental mission. Seaspirit? Seapartner? The boat, of course, is named after an Omega watch.
For jungle settlers, nothing computes when group of white men emerges from such a boat to walk through their village. Grown men giving children aeroplane rides, scratching the ears of mangy curs, smiling and waving? There has to be a catch.
The diffidence is also cultural. Brazilians are used to a carefully calibrated and unforgiving class structure. In any context they can find the Kiwi approach baffling. The Brazilian crew members, despite being fully included in the on-board social life, never quite got over their anxiety at being welcomed to the dinner table.
A captain pitching in with the dishes or bringing them a cup of tea out of the blue was an idea from a different planet. A kinder planet.
As we motored back to the Rio Negro I was winched up to the crow’s nest, from where I could see interlocking lakes extending into the jungle. I stayed there for hours until we made landfall—at a village sited in an area of white sand lagoons sprinkled with massive chocolate boulders.
Seamaster had already stopped here on the voyage upriver. The crew revisited a threadbare school to present exercise books and pencils. The visit was filmed. I left a bundle of Geographic posters.
The Blakes kayaked up a creek. The inflatable followed with cameras. We stopped at a small waterfall. The river, shaded by trees, was refreshing. In that oven heat the slightest dip in temperature was pure luxury. Blake and Pippa swam together out to the centre of the pool. A neon-blue butterfly with wings the size of slices of bread drifted by. A fish leaped from the water to escape a predator and landed clean on the bank.
Back at the village, some of the crew joined a local soccer game. On the sideline, a girl offered me a dry leguminous pod half a metre long. Blake showed me how to suck the creamy marshmallow cocoon that wraps the seeds inside.
At the final whistle the locals didn’t linger. They appeared to have pressing business elsewhere. Ten minutes later the village generator started up, and inside every but people were glued to their televisions. Xena goes down well in the jungle, smiting her foe while exclaiming in badly dubbed Portuguese—the sweeping drama of Auckland’s ironsand coast on television in the middle of the airless Amazon. In the ad breaks, football star Pele sold arthritis pills and young women licked Magnum ice-creams with absurd ecstasy. There was even The Simpsons.
This tiny village—a couple of dozen shacks with a school, football ground, church and generator—seemed reasonably well established. Elsewhere, river settlers were starting from scratch. Like exhibits at a pioneer museum, thatched homesteads set in small patches of cleared land appeared alongside the river. There was a sense of brave hope in the air, the kind that helped build New Zealand. The work just begun.
We stopped at a larger, older settlement that had clearly once benn prosperous but was now an Indiana Jones ruin. I walked to the cemetery and was reminded of failed New Zealand settlements like Martins Bay on the West Coast—of settlers arriving in New Zealand buoyed by dreams. I realised how favoured New Zealand was as a colonial destination. Portuguese settlers wrote back home in desperation, complaining that the swathes of sweaty jungle grandly “granted in leagues” could only be “claimed in inches.”
Certainly the sandflies of Martins Bay are much easier to deal with than Amazonian insect life. As I studied the headstones there was a furious buzzing around my ears. I moved in reflex to slap it away and then stopped. A gigantic laser-striped creature roared past. The problem with swatting anything in the Amazon is the risk of some microscopic parasite tunnelling into your skin and eating your liver out in 10 years’ time. Or your brain. Then there is the tiny candiru catfish that swims up your penis to lodge in your bladder, thinking that it has arrived in the bowels of a fish. I may have already mentioned that particular threat.
You learn not to lean against any tree. Many are protected by king-like spines that break off in your flesh. Nor do you trust insect repellent. One day, marinated in Deet, I watched smugly as crew members, one by one, started scratching at bleeding forearms. Then I realised a swarm of no see’ems, no feel’ems and no hear’ems had been busy my way as well. Like a horde of airborne piranhas, they had incised a hundred cuts in my own arms. Locals are not immune to any of this.
Walking through the river settlements I started to reexamine the idea that urban migration is a social curse. Why should a wooden shack in a steaming jungle be picturesque but the same but in a city be an affront? Rural life may offer postcard surroundings—gratifying for the tourist—but in objective terms life in the cities is often the rational choice.
Brazilian cities—like those in most developing countries—generally have half the rural infant mortality rate and there is better access to education, medical clinics and some kind of employment. They also have less disease. In the concentration of urban poor there is also some hope of a voice being developed at a political level. Your children don’t die alone and unheard along a malarial backwater weeks from help.
We had a few days to kill in Manaus so I took Yves Miserey, a French journalist who had been travelling with us, to a bar where day-porters were drinking through their hard-won dollars. As we pushed through the roaring, weltering stew of people, young men lurking on the sidelines scanned us with a beady prison-yard eye for weakness. I felt reassured by the 50-dollar note in my top pocket that I would whip out faster than a flick-knife.
Over some beers Miserey told me that France understands very well why Blake, chosen by Jacques Cousteau as his heir, might have found it difficult working with the Cousteau family. Cousteau, with an estranged son and complicated family dynamics, did not leave a happy campground behind him.
He also told me how highly regarded Blake was in France. With a proud oceanic tradition reaching beyond Jules Verne, France took Blake aboard as a national hero. I realised Blake moved in exalted company. There was a suggestion that Omega would fly Pierce Brosnan—another in their stable of stars—into the Amazon.
Blake could easily have succumbed to the temptations of the high life on the tiara circuit of the Riveria. But there were no counts or playboys on board Seamaster, just a bunch of Kiwis—people who, disinclined to flaunt such wealth as they possessed, embodied the culture that he clearly felt most comfortable with.
Miserey told me the French were much taken by the fact that Blake seemed so “ow shall I put it, so shy. ‘e is not as a star. ‘e is like a simple man.” I explained that in New Zealand the first qualification for herohood is a dislike of pomposity.
As I thought about it, I realised that the qualities of Kiwi herohood are essentially anti-English. They have everything to do with expressing a down-to-earth egalitarianism. I wondered how Blake reconciled the carefully constructed caste system of his English home—one that had received him into its upper echelons—with the virtues Kiwis hold dear.
One day, in the inflatable with Lady Blake and Charlie Dymock, the son of a neighbour of the Blakes, I gained a small glimpse of the Englishness of Blake’s other life. As he opened the throttle, Dymock declared it was time to give it “some welly”—as in gumboot. With the boat bucking beneath us, I lustily responded with “Yaas, telly ho!” Dymock caught the Monty Python mimicry in my voice. But Pippa, lost in the moment—the onrush of boat and wind—squealed a reflex blood-curdling “Yoicks!” First time I’d heard it off the page.
I thought of Blake’s well-reported decision to select only pupils from an elite Auckland school as delegates to an all-expenses-paid Paris youth conference. It was one of the many things I wanted to discuss with him.
But there was another side. The night before we left Manaus I joined Blake and some of the crew ashore along a river esplanade that throbbed with dozens of outdoor bars. Our table was pestered by a throng of shoeshine boys. The response to insistent poverty in the raw is always a good test: Blake ordered an endless stream of chips all round for the boys. Written across their hungry, pinched faces was disbelief that all this food was for them. And iced Coke!
They ate until they could eat no more, then just hung about, glad to be near this surrogate bunch of kindly uncles. In a land where street urchins are routinely murdered by police death-squads, these boys were overwhelmed by the Kiwi welcome. Their delight was infectious. The crew was soon busy swapping different high-fives and checking out the design of their shoeshine boxes, which were hand deco‑rated with Nike logos and, in perfect ballpoint lettering, the Coca Cola swirl.
Blake and I struck up a conversation with one bright spark. We learned he went to school but was working to help his family. He said his favourite subject at school was animals—”but not to make meat! The biology.”
As the crew left, I saw Blake quietly palming something into the boy’s hand. If I’d blinked I would have missed it. With the shine of tears in his eyes, Blake shook the boy’s hand.
I stayed ashore. Presently I saw the boy pull a $50 note from his pocket. Then he and his friends all went back to work beneath the tables, polishing the tassled loafers of diners who drank and ate and made merry with utter indifference.
I joined the river of bodies pouring through the bars. In one corner I saw an elderly Japanese man sitting among the sweaty press of rum-guzzling flesh. He was wearing a forage cap and looked for all the world like one of those lost soldiers in the Philippines jungle. But then he was joined by his daughters—somewhat longer in the leg—who whisked him off to the floor, where he danced a perfect salsa. I remembered that Brazil is home to millions of Japanese who arrived there in the 1920s. Seeing father and daughters dancing gave a hint of New Zealand’s cultural future.
Later I found myself at an outdoor arena where a musical extravaganza with a pungent political message was being staged. Semi-naked dancers paid homage to the jungle and its creatures, throwing their bodies in front of Nature to protect it. The crowd was entranced.
Watching the pageant, I figured Western eco-groups could do worse than sponsor this dance troupe to take a home-grown message for a year-long tour of jungle areas at risk.
The action segued into the arrival of the first Portuguese. The invaders two-stepped through the jungle, a whirl of breeches and stockings, before their classical dance became a goose step that trampled the prostrate Indians. Resplendent in their colonial finery, they finished with a massed Nazi salute.
In no small way is the endemic violence of Brazil a reflection of the country’s history, and that history’s continuing legacy of inequality. It is a link Brazilians are starting to explore. A nation barely 15 years out of a military dictatorship is beginning to find a healthy voice of dissent.
New Zealand gained a small glimpse of that dissent following Blake’s death. A number of Brazilians wrote to New Zealand newspapers. Nirlando Beirao of Sao Paulo wrote to the Sunday Star Times: “You cannot conceive the width of my shame over the murder of Sir Peter. Our president in an Armani suit rushed to tell Helen Clark how sorry we all are. He has not the right to say this .. . The last country in the world to abolish slavery, Brazil is still a nation of exclusion. This informal apartheid means: they [the pirates, vilified by the Brazilian media] are Huns and Barbarians and we are Renaissance courtesans dancing our minuet of necklaces; they are beasts, we are gentlemen. Since they are guilty we can wash our suave hands of techno-fashionable up-to-date Pontius Pilates. Violence here is a daily routine in which we, the elite, the children of white privilege, ashamed of the richness of our native background, walled into the citadels of our social insensibility, have become accomplices.”
We were motoring non-stop for Macapa, and Blake had put me on his watch. We talked about his midlife change of course. “People say, ‘Why aren’t you doing the next Round the World?’ Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve done that. We’re talking 17 years of my life. I’ve already climbed my Everest. Now it’s getting too clinical with sponsorship pressures. The best race we did is when we didn’t win. The Cup? The politics—it’s not for me any more.”
Listening to Blake recount his voyages, I realised the endurance required of an ocean racer. The captain of a rugby team has to perform in just two halves of a game. The captain of an ocean racer must hold focus for three grim, stressed months at a time, with death a very real penalty.
We talked about this at length: “There are whole weeks where you think, ‘What the hell are you doing this for?” It’s the worst time in your life, days on end the crew saying nothing to each other because we are right on the edge. Right out there in the middle of the night, on the Southern Ocean, you can’t call mum. In those storms it is just so awful thinking you are all going to die.
“One storm, the wind is pushing us 10 knots on poles [without sail] into 20-metre waves with a thousand kilometres to Cape Horn. Nobody on board knows if we’re going to live through the night. You go to the bunk and put a pillow over your head and seriously hope it’s a nightmare. And I mean seriously.
“Fastnet in 1979. We finished first, but that was a hollow victory because 17 died. Pippa and I were going to get married that week, and then we heard the news that Pippa’s cousin was among those who’d died.”
We all took turns on look-out duty at the bow. Our course on the Amazon, fixed by global positioning, was tracked on a computer monitor, but Blake liked to work the charts the old way as well. The look-out kept watch for floating logs, unlit boats and 44-gallon drums used as net floats.
At times our eyes smarted with the smoke of rainforest burning, and at night there was a glow of flame. It was the smell of pioneer New Zealand—of both migrations, Maori and European.
New Zealand has lost 70 per cent of its forest cover since man arrived, the Amazon about 14 per cent and climbing. One way of preserving Third World forests is for wealthy countries to compensate for the loss of cutting income. Maybe a delegation from the West Coast should go and explain how it works.
Downstream from Manaus there was more habitation. I started to frame my pictures to record the river’s Kiwiness. The church against the backdrop of rainforest could be a misson in the murkier reaches of the Hokianga. The house with its Cooper louvres on a patch of paddock with outbuildings was from the Kaiparawith hump-necked zebu in place of Freisians. A Bay of Islands bach nestled in a cove of white sand was missing only the pohutukawa. But those images were lost when the gunmen took my camera.
I gained a new perspective on New Zealand: the sense that the oceans around us are as much a wilderness as any jungle is. If the fabled Manaus opera house, plonked in the middle of an ocean of jungle, appears exotically incongruous, then what of Larnach Castle or the grand basilica of Timaru or all our other architectural wonders perched on the edge of the Southern Ocean?
One afternoon there was a sudden, drenching rainstorm. The smell of steam filled the air. “Isn’t that just the smell of Rangitoto after rain,” said Blake. And it was: the smell of water on hot rock.
Blake clearly loved skippering, the stuff of navigation. He brought to the wheelhouse (for that matter to everything) a focused energy that had me imagining him still at the helm of a round-the-world yacht racer—or back all those years ago off the beach at Devonport in a P class.
I told him of my petty satisfaction in accurately plotting a course to Great Barrier for the first time in an old long-liner I used to berth at the Viaduct, in the days when it was a fishing wharf. “Absolutely!” he responded. “I was raised with a sextant, and if you found your way across the ocean with that it was a real thrill. All this gear, it’s not the same.”
On the Amazon, Blake, whose father served in the Royal Navy as a gunboat captain during the Second World War, observed a fastidious wheelhouse ritual.
I watched him snapping charts shut precisely along the folds, thrusting instruments into their holders, aligning dividers in perfect parallel. It’s the way an earlier generation used to go about the important business of reading a newspaper—with a kind of practised, exact flourish of the folds.
Radio communication between wheelhouse and bow inclined towards the serious, with seaspeak say-agains, wheelhouse-to-bows, messages copied. On one occasion I chanced my arm with a bit of Lyn of Tawa Pak’n Save Kiwiana: “Raylene to the till! Raylene to the till! Price required!”
Blake may have retired from ocean racing, but the allure of the grand project—and of being centre-stagewas still very strong. At one point I asked him about it. He replied that he had a yacht in the Mediterranean and could have just gone cruising but felt the need to do something more with his life.
“Over a period of time out on the ocean you start to say, ‘This is quite neat,’ and yet you realise a lot of people haven’t seen what you’ve seen, and will never have the chance to. So I want to show them. If we can get Japanese children to love whales the way I do, maybe the Japanese will change their minds about killing them.
“I want to put people in touch with places of beauty and significance, but without the heavy message. Nearly half the world lives in cities and has no interaction with this reality. We’re trying to use adventure to bring their attention to it. If we got all serious—doom and gloom—they’d switch channels, but adventure is different.
“You don’t have to study something to admire it. We keep it simple. I enjoy being out here, and it means something when somebody says, ‘I am here. This is what I see.”‘
But alongside Blake’s simple message of communicating beauty was also uncritical repetition of the ecoArmageddon vision that was popular in the 1970s. He often claimed—in his gruff, no-nonsense voice, moustache bristling with concern—that billions would die through the collapse of the world’s fisheries. “What we are facing is bigger than all the world’s wars put together, and no-one seems to care. The world is facing a future where about two billion people will be depending on fish, and if the fish stock collapses that’s a lot of people dead. We must learn . ..”
The facts suggest no such prospect. According to a recent report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, fish accounts for less than one per cent of calories in the human diet. True, some communities rely heavily on wild fish, and some stocks have been mercilessly exploited, but the global per capita consumption of fish is in fact higher than it has ever been owing to the growth of fish farming. The UN predicts fish farms will soon supersede wild fisheries as mankind’s primary source of fish.
Blake often quoted a questionable statistic about the Amazon: “Of one breath in five that the world takes, that we breathe in New Zealand, the oxygen comes from the Amazon.” The Amazon may make up a third of all tropical forest, but natural forests, through the process of decomposition, consume the same amount of oxygen that they produce, which in any case amounts to far less than one per cent of the world’s oxygen supply.
Blake asked for my honest opinion about the Blakexpeditions message. I said I thought it was crucial to provide totally accurate information and to resist the temptation to overstate the environmentalist case—or Blakexpeditions’ potential contribution.
When most 11-year-olds—at least in the Western world—are already well versed in eco-spiel, it takes a singular focus to imagine that a schedule of whistle-stop tours with a television camera is going to give a wake-up call to a world unaware of environmental issues.
And as any travel writer knows, when tourists now ski to the South Pole it is seldom possible to bring home a genuine tale of discovery and exploration. On this particular voyage we were following in the footsteps not only of Greenpeace, Cousteau and countless scientists and dedicated wildlife film crews, but also of thousands of ecotourists who have any number of package tours to choose from and who passed us in their air-con charter launches with reasonable regularity.
I suggested to Blake that he might want to pull back from hyperbole and concentrate on the wonderfully clear message of the need to protect beauty for its own sake.
We anchored near Macapa midmorning on December 5. After a day of provisioning in a dusty town swept by a humid wind, some of the crew gathered at a ramshackle beach café. The promenade was deserted, but at a tree-shaded table we drank beers, downed chilli shrimps and finished off with caipirinha, the Brazilian national cocktail of lime and firewater.
Although 300 km from the sea, the river here was many miles wide, with the choppy, muddy feel of the Firth of Thames. Towards nightfall we motored out to Seamaster, where the party continued for some hours: a close-knit team of men, comfortable with each other, feeling free to let their hair down just a little at the end of a long mission. Next day it would be onward to the freedom of the open sea.
What happened next is indelibly imprinted on my mind. I was about to go to bed when I saw shadows coming from the rear of the boat and realised we were in trouble. There were maybe half a dozen men wearing balaclavas and helmets and wielding pistols. There was an altercation involving a crew member. He had tossed a glass of beer into the face of one of the gunmen, who had then bludgeoned him to the deck.
Blake came past me, saying, “This is for real.” He disappeared through the wheelhouse door. I thought he was going to radio for help and warn those below—about half the crew.
With the gunmen shouting and brandishing automatic pistols I felt an extraordinary rush of emotion. A numbness, a flash of my daughters’ faces. Then an instant focus. This has to be kept calm—nothing sudden, no panic, no alarm. We’re walking a razor edge. If this goes wrong, they won’t hesitate to kill.
I moved towards the gunmen with my hands up. It was like tiptoeing on the crumbling edge of a huge hole in the ground. One false move and we all tumble in.
But then things started to fall apart. I saw a senior crew member challenging two gunmen and refusing to move. One of them had his pistol in both hands, pointing it at him, and was screaming in Portuguese. Both were getting very agitated.
This can’t be happening, I thought. I am going to get back alive. I grabbed the crew member and bundled him off to where the others were huddled on the deck.
No sooner had I got him down than he jumped up and ran towards the gunmen again, shouting and waving his arms. The gunman was now levelling his pistol at the crew member’s head.
Although the Brazilian police later commended me for acting to save the crewman’s life, it was very clear to me at the time that I was acting to save my own.
I remember thinking, He’s going to be shot, and then it’s going to go from had to worse. One dead and suddenly the risk for us all just gets madly out of control. I could die because of this. I may not make it home.
I wrestled him back to the deck, but he didn’t stop struggling. I started punching him, shouting, “For the sake of my children, shut up and stop this.” Some of the others helped me restrain him. With the crew member subdued, I indicated to the nearest gunman that I was handing over my watch. A gesture, a sign of compliance. My watch was a valueless thing, the sort I always wear in those kinds of countries, but some of the crew had Omega Seamaster watches worth thousands—gifts from the expedition sponsor.
While others handed over their watches, the same crew member refused. Agitation. Panic. Alarm. Pistols at our heads again, more screamed commands in Portuguese. I grabbed the man’s right arm while the others tried to get his watch off.
There was a sudden fusillade of shots from down below. I saw my life teetering on the brink again. Who were these people with pistols at our heads? How jittery were they? How ruthless? What did they think was happening downstairs?
I didn’t know about Blake’s gun. I thought the shots meant the same chaos and shambles had got out of control below decks, and that the gunmen were killing people. There is a bloodbath below and soon there will be a bloodbath on deck.
I rolled through the railing and hung there, ready to drop into the river. There were more shots. I remember looking at the brown, churning waters and at the gunmen’s boat downstream, and thinking I would have to hold my breath a long time. I can still see that current swirling past.
But the gunmen didn’t shoot immediately. Only as they took off in their boat did they pour shots into the group huddling on the deck. A bullet grazed the back of one of the crew members directly behind me, giving him a crease wound that required 14 stitches.
With the gunmen gone I ran to the wheelhouse and saw that Blake had been hit. Some of the crew were giving him CPR. I helped make a Mayday call in fractured Portuguese. I couldn’t understand the rapid babble of answering calls, but at least the message was out.
In the morning a police forensics team came aboard, but their examination seemed cursory and haphazard. I searched one area they’d missed, a grating, and recovered a bullet. Later, under the stairs, I found a complete fingernail. It was a perfect fit with one of the men the police subsequently arrested. It had been torn from his finger by Blake’s rifle fire. One of my notebooks, recovered from the deck, had a bullet hole in it. To this day I have no idea how it got there.
On my first night ashore after the killing, I phoned my daughters. I told them the words “I am alive” were the most important words in the world.
Flying into Auckland at dawn, the plane floating low over Coromandel and the crystal waters of the Gulf, it felt safe to be back in New Zealand. In short order, I discovered that three people had died in a robbery at an RSA a few days earlier. Having just been in similar circumstance myself, the news hit me very hard.
In the days ahead I became aware that although Blake was being hailed as a hero who had died protecting his crew, many people were also asking questions. Was drink involved? Why did he go for a gun?
It was assumed that Blake’s was an isolated rash action, but the facts are otherwise. He was not the only one who decided to mount a resistance. Indeed, he may have thought he was acting in support of a general resistance that kicked off when that first beer was sloshed into the face of a gunman. Nobody will ever know.
So why did he act the way he did? I have asked myself the question many times; and I’ve asked the same thing about other crew members. While alcohol was involved, I don’t believe it was the decisive factor. For any yachtsman—but especially for a skipper—the emotional connection with a boat is enormous. There is a very personal sense of violation when somebody threatens your vessel.
But there is evidence to suggest Blake’s response was more than instinct; that armed resistance may have been a predetermined strategy. An international yachting magazine, Asia Pacific Boating, reports that Blake had told a friend, Patrick Buteaux: “Nobody will get this boat off me. If anyone tries to come, they are in for a hard battle.”
“Our conclusion from assorted case studies,” writes the magazine, “is never do what Blake did, for the simple reason that a surprised yachtie has no idea what firepower pirates may have, and if they’re already on board, charging [at them] with a gun sadly invites exactly what happened.”
The question of team responsibility still arises. There is little doubt that crew were aware of the guns on board, and some were aware of Blake’s avowed response. Why did they not stop him going for a weapon?
The right response is not simply to be wise after the event. The rules of dealing with armed men in a position of dominance are the same in Brazil as they are in New Zealand: there’s nothing heroic about resisting. Every tourist guide to Brazil gives clear warnings. The Lonely Planet Guide notes: “Brazil is the second most violent country in the world. Thieves tend to work in gangs and are capable of killing those who resist them. Do not wear expensive watches. Do not resist, there have been reports of tourists shot dead whilst resisting—an absurd price to pay for the loss of valuables. Don’t carry weapons, it could make matters worse.” Every one of these rules was broken on Seamaster.
I raised this point with the crew, including the man I had punched. He allowed that my “decking” him had possibly saved his life, but equally thought that if we’d all just rushed these guys we might have been able to overpower them. He was not alone in this view. But among other crew there was no doubt that what happened was a disaster from start to finish, and that it could have been averted.
It now appears that the gunmen retreated from the cabin after the first exchange of shots, in which Blake scored a hit, seriously injuring one gunman’s arm. They seem to have then decided to go back down to put Blake out of action—whether as revenge or to protect their retreat or both it is impossible to say.
Although some have suggested the whole episode was an organised hit by anti-environment forces, it is clear that the gunmen had come just for the loot with no intention of killing those on board. Business as usual in Brazil.
Attending Blake’s memorial service in the Auckland Domain wasn’t easy for me. There was powerful eulogy from crewmates and friends like Doug Myers, which fitted perfectly with all that I had come to know of the man. But there was also the sense that the full story hadn’t been told to the New Zealand public.
There was mention of Blakexpeditions’ future. Alan Sefton, Blake’s business partner from America’s Cup days, spoke about the importance of keeping the organisation going, but “packaged differently,” as a tribute to Blake. The prime minister suggested there might even be a way for the government to support that.
And there was the question of how Blake would be remembered. Many, from Helen Clark down, have described him as akin to Sir Edmund Hillary. It was a comparison Blake himself made. But commentators miss the difference between being a hero and being an icon.
Hillary didn’t become a national icon because as a hugely driven young man he climbed Everest or went to the South Pole. It wasn’t even because of his achievements in building hospitals and schools in the Himalayas. He became an icon because for many years he spoke to the very core of what it means to be a New Zealander: the enduring values of humanity, of concern for others, of compassion, of humility. He stood for a fair go for everybody when those words meant more than just the showmanship of a television programme.
In one sense, the tragedy of Blake’s death is that he was a man in transition. He was a champion yachtsman who had helped transform the Auckland waterfront, and now was on the threshold of something new.
It was clear he regretted the way things had turned out with Team New Zealand—the questions about money, the demands of sponsors.
In time, Blake may have come to express the same vision of humanity that for 40 years Sir Edmund has consistently stood for: a vision of a New Zealand where there is room for everybody, those at the top of the ladder and those at the bottom. The man who, with tears in his eyes, quietly slipped $50 to a shoeshine boy for his education, was a man with heart, a man on a journey. The man I had begun to know.