Salt of Earth And Ocean America's Cup hero and environmentalist Sir Peter Blake is murdered by Brazilian pirates

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Wearing only shorts and sitting at dusk on the bow of his schooner Seamaster-anchored off Macapa at the northern mouth of Brazil's Amazon river-Sir Peter Blake typed his log entry for Dec. 4 in an agitated mood. Referring to his crew, he asked himself: "Why are we here?" The emphatic answer soon followed. "We want to restart people caring for the environment. The hardest part of any big project is to begin. We have begun. We are under way. We have a passion."

But the New Zealand national hero who knew all about big projects-from the America's Cup to his arduous environmental missions of recent years-has tackled his last one. The day after he made this entry, at 10:15 p.m. local time, seven hooded bandits boarded the Seamaster while the crew were relaxing after dinner and demanded money and valuables. Blake, 53, was below deck at the time, but soon came charging up the steps with a rifle. After wounding one intruder in the hand, he was shot twice in the back. He died instantly.

News of the killing caused shock and grief in the world sailing fraternity and throughout Blake's New Zealand homeland, where he's regarded as the man most responsible for one of the country's great sporting achievements: winning the 1995 America's Cup off San Diego. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who had chatted with Blake on the Amazon only last month, called him "an inspiration to all New Zealanders" and said, "I am appalled that murderers have taken away Sir Peter's life when he had so much to give through his passion for the waters of the world and the life they nurture."

Many who knew Blake are convinced that bad men have killed a great one. That greatness was based on more than his superlative sailing ability. Fascinated by boats since boyhood-he once ruined the family bath by using it to cook up molten lead for a homemade keel-he won the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race aboard Steinlager 2, which despite severe technical mishaps took line, handicap and overall honors. In 1994, Blake sliced four days off the record for circumnavigating the globe, accomplishing the feat in a 28-m catamaran, ENZA, in just under 75 days. Then came 1995's "Slaughter on the Water," when Black Magic beat its American rival in five straight races, prompting jubilation throughout New Zealand. Blake, who was knighted that year, helped give New Zealanders "a sense of self-worth," says Australia's John Bertrand, who in 1983 captained the first non-American yacht to win the America's Cup. He also gave his crew a sense of common purpose. "He understood how to combine the wills of some very talented people from disparate backgrounds and give them stability and direction," Bertrand says-"a huge contribution at a time when New Zealand yachting had so much talent and so little leadership."

It is for leadership-humble, plain-speaking yet inspirational-that Blake will be remembered. He was the syndicate leader of that 1995 Cup challenge, and paid the $75,000 entry fee from his own pocket, but he left the skippering to Russell Coutts, choosing the lowlier job of controlling the mainsheet traveler. His campaign gimmick was to wear bright red socks, which he said brought luck. That was enough for the people back home: a population of 3.5 million snapped up 100,000 pairs in a few days. "He was an incredibly modest man," says Peter Taylor, commodore of the Auckland-based Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. "After we successfully defended the Cup in 2000, he and I and a bunch of Team NZ people took the Cup on a country-wide tour, and in Dunedin there was room on the vehicle for only one of us. Peter, who had made it all happen, turned to me and said, You do it-it's your Cup,' and hopped off. That was typical of him."

Soon afterward, Blake turned away from sport altogether, and toward the next "big project": as a special envoy to the United Nations Environment Program, he began a five-year mission to draw attention to the world's most environmentally sensitive areas. It took him first to Antarctica, then to the muddy brown waters of the Amazon. "Peter brought to his last and greatest adventure the same qualities he brought to all the rest," said friend Alan Sefton, who headed his company blakexpeditions: "determination, charisma, passion and integrity." This master of the sea never stopped taking on new challenges-or steering his own course. Inspired by his life, a new generation of adventurers may now set sail.

-With reporting by Leora Moldofsky/Sydney