15 December, 2001
PM's eulogy for Sir Peter Blake
Tribute to Sir Peter Blake
St Thomas a’Becket Church
Last Friday morning, New Zealanders woke up to hear news they could barely comprehend.
The news came from far away in Brazil that New Zealand’s most famous sailor, Sir Peter Blake, had been murdered.
Our small nation went into shock. Peter Blake was a living legend. As an outstanding sailor, he had brought great honour and fame to New Zealand. His death was unthinkable.
Yet it had happened. Over this past week we have been a nation struggling to come to terms with our grief. The sense of loss has been immense.
In that grief, our hearts went out to Lady Pippa Blake, to Sarah-Jane and James, to Peter’s mother Joyce; his sisters, Jan and Elizabeth, brother Tony, and all other family members.
While New Zealand has lost a national hero, the family has lost a husband, father, son, brother, and close relative. Our thoughts are also with all members of the Seamaster’s crew who were with Peter, and his old friends and colleagues who have backed him all these years. Many family members and friends have come from New Zealand to be at this last farewell today.
So what was it about Peter Blake which drew him so close to us and explains the enormous distress New Zealanders feel at his passing ?
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.
Peter’s achievements as a yachtsman of international fame were simply outstanding. He was first named New Zealand Yachtsman of the Year in 1982. From then on the victories and the honours flowed. On his fifth attempt he won the prestigious Whitbread Round the World race in 1990. In 1994 he won the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest non-stop circumnavigation of the world. In 1995 he headed New Zealand’s successful America’s Cup challenge, and in 2000 he was syndicate chief for Team New Zealand’s successful defence of the America’s Cup.
Along the way he was awarded the MBE, the OBE, and his knighthood for services to yachting; as well as being New Zealand Sportsman of the Year, World Sailor of the Year, and British Yachtsman of the Year.
Round the world ocean racing requires courage and stamina, which Peter had in abundance. He became a heroic figure to New Zealanders as we followed his voyages, imagining him pitting his skills and those of his crews against the world’s roughest waters – as indeed he did.
Just as Sir Edmund Hillary had inspired our parents’ generation with his conquest of Mt Everest in 1953, so Sir Peter Blake’s taking on the great oceans and winning those races inspired my generation.
In the 1990s, Peter brought his determination and tenacity to the challenge for the America’s Cup. As part of the 1992 campaign, he was not successful, but, as his Whitbread experience showed, he was not easily deterred. Under his leadership, New Zealand came back and won in 1995 in San Diego.
Peter had a wonderful ability to engage New Zealanders in the excitement around his campaigns. The country was particularly taken by the story of his lucky red socks. When the call went out to raise money for the America’s Cup bid in San Diego, Peter’s red socks were the focus of the fundraising. I will always remember seeing older New Zealanders in the lounge of a provincial rest home proudly wearing the red socks they had bought to support Peter and the team. Alan Sefton has told me of the huge public interest Peter attracted as they travelled through the country publicising the America’s Cup campaign.
When the America’s Cup came home to New Zealand in 1995, and again after the successful defence in 2000, the reception of Peter and the team was nothing short of rapturous. Wherever they travelled, crowds lined the streets in huge numbers. New Zealand basked in Peter’s success.
What I believe people especially warmed to in Peter was his humility. He didn’t blow his own trumpet. He always praised the team. He thanked everyone who supported them. He had the ability to make each and every one of his fellow citizens feel that we had a part in the success and should share in it. It is no wonder that over the past week we have all felt as if we have lost a member of our own family. He was a very special member of the New Zealand family.
As Peter phased himself out of competitive yachting, openings appeared for him to apply his passion for the sea to advocacy for it. He became captain of the Cousteau Society, before establishing Blakexpeditions to promote greater awareness of the waters of the world and the life forms they sustain.
Peter’s advocacy for our natural heritage began to receive international attention. Last year, he and I spoke at the launch in Auckland of the campaign for a worldwide sanctuary for whales. Peter spoke passionately of the way whales interacted with his yachts in the ocean, and of the affinity he felt with those great mammals.
In July this year, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme came to New Zealand to award Peter the status of being a Special Envoy for the Programme. It was on that occasion that I heard him speak about climate change and its effects on the world ecosystem. He spoke of his mission with Seamaster and of his immediate plans to sail in the Amazon region to draw attention to the importance of its waters and forests to the whole planet.
What impressed me was that Peter was dedicating this phase of his life to issues of critical international importance. Only four weeks ago, when I was in Latin America, I travelled especially to the Amazon region to see for myself the work he and his crew were doing. There we found him at peace with himself, doing what he loved, and working to build worldwide awareness of the significance of that unique natural environment. Schools throughout New Zealand and elsewhere were following his journey.
That work, that passion, came to an abrupt and terrible end last week. Had Peter’s death occurred in heavy seas, we would have understood it better. This violent death at the hands of a fellow human being has been distressing beyond belief for his family, his country, and his friends and admirers around the world.
Today we reflect on the meaning of Peter’s extraordinary life, on the hope and inspiration he gave us, and on the pride our nation took in all his achievements. We are proud that he was our fellow citizen. We owe it to his memory to encourage other young New Zealanders to realise their dreams and passions, and to follow through on his concern for our shared natural heritage.
Pippa, we also acknowledge your support for Peter, which made it possible for him to live this remarkable life.
We mourn his loss to you, your children, the wider family, and to us all.
As a courageous man, I believe Peter would have identified with the poetic words of verse four of Abide with Me.
“I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless,
Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness,
Where is death’s sting, where grave thy victory
I triumph still if thou abide with me.”
May Peter rest in peace.