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Amazon pirates kill famous yachtsman

Assailants rob and shoot Peter Blake, a two-time winner of the America's Cup.

©Associated Press
December 7, 2001

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Peter Blake, who headed the New Zealand crew that won the America's Cup in 1995 and 2000, was shot and killed by pirates during a robbery of his boat on the Amazon River.

Blake was killed late Wednesday during a holdup aboard his 119-foot yacht, the Seamaster, anchored on the Amazon in the jungle state of Amapa, about 1,600 miles north of Sao Paulo, state police chief Rosilene Martins de Sena said.

Three or four assailants approached the Seamaster in a rubber dinghy commonly used by pirates on the Amazon and shot Blake, 53, when he tried to resist the holdup, Sena said Thursday.

Two members of the crew were treated for minor injuries in the hospital in the nearby town of Macapa.

According to local media, the killers took a spare engine and several watches.

Alan Sefton, one of Blake's friends and a spokesman for his organization, blakexpeditions, said the crew spent two months in the upper reaches of the Amazon and Rio Negro and had encountered nothing but "friendly, warm, hospitable people."

"And as soon as the boat gets back into so-called civilization, something tragic happens."

Sefton said Blake's boat was anchored off Macapa in the mouth of the Amazon, awaiting customs clearance to leave Brazil after a two-month expedition as part of a program to monitor the effects of global warming and pollution.

Seamaster was scheduled to sail up the coast to Venezuela to meet blakeexpedition's jungle team.

Brazil's foreign ministry said the "government deeply regrets the tragic death of New Zealand's renowned explorer, yachtsman and scientist." President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, it said, "has ordered that the criminals be promptly identified and arrested."

In March 2000, Blake said he received letters from someone threatening to kill him and harm his family.

"We've always got crank mail, but it has been going beyond that recently," Blake said at the time. "So we have taken all the precautions we were advised to take."

In November 2000, Blake went on a three-month study of wildlife in the South Pole. He then traveled to the Amazon for several months of sailing.

Dennis Conner, a three-time America's Cup winner who was beaten by Team New Zealand 5-0 in 1995, said he was impressed with Blake's determination.

"He was a hero and role model for the New Zealand people and obviously a winner that was focused and accomplished his goals, whether it was winning the Round the World Race or the America's Cup," Conner said.

After Blake won in 1995, Governor General Dame Cath Tizard said it was the country's proudest day since Auckland native Edmund Hillary became the first man to climb Mount Everest in 1953.

The America's Cup was the only major sailing trophy the self-proclaimed "Nation of Sailors" hadn't won, and Team New Zealand beat its archrival with one of the most dominating performances in America's Cup history.

"It's only the second time in history that it's left America," Blake said at the time.

"I think that's pretty damn good. I think the Americans are going crazy. It'll be a very popular win everywhere."

Bruno Trouble, an organizer of the America's Cup and a friend of Blake, told France-Info radio that Blake "went through life like lightning. Peter was an extraordinary leader of men. He had an amazing charisma. I think that he was actually hiding his shyness."

In July, Blake was named a goodwill ambassador of the United Nations Environment Program. Before that, he headed the Cousteau Society, an environmental group founded in 1973 by undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau.

"I can't accept it. It is so brutal. It is a shock," said a tearful Francine Cousteau, president of the Cousteau Society. "There are very few people like Peter on the planet."

Earlier this year, Blake, born in Auckland, relinquished control of the New Zealand syndicate.

Blake, who began sailing at age 5, won the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989 and took the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994 by sailing nonstop around the globe on a catamaran in 74 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes, 22 seconds. The record fell three years later.

He was the only person to compete in the first five Whitbread races, each taking around nine months to complete.

Last year, he became the first non-American entry to retain the America's Cup in 149 years after beating Italy 5-0.

He is survived by his wife, Pippa, and two children.

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