Incident in a Nowhere Place
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IT WAS JUST ANOTHER QUIET BRAZILIAN EVENING, IN JUST ANOTHER PORT. THE BOAT WAS JUST ONE MORE SLEEK YACHT, bristling with electronics and expensive gear. The pirates were just another band of small-time water rats. And after the shoot-out, there was just one man dead on board the Seamaster. But when the news broke that sailor and environmentalist Peter Blake—New Zealand’s national hero, and the greatest ocean racer of his generation—had gone down fighting, with a rifle in his hands, it became more than just another nightmare at sea.
Fazendinha is a long brown river beach nine miles southwest of the Brazilian town of Macapá. Here, close to where the muddy Amazon meets the Atlantic, its waters are tidal. When the tide is high and the sun is out, Fazendinha can look almost resortlike: Bars and cheap restaurants line the beach road. At night local people fill tables on the sand and eat grilled shrimp, drink Antarctica beer, and listen to live samba bands.
When the tide is low, there’s a different look: Children who live in nearby shacks play soccer on the flat, sticky mud-wrack that stretches a long way out to the tumbling river. It’s fun for a kid. You run and slide and roll in the mud, and get so covered with it that the mosquitoes don’t bite, and the only thing on your mind is scoring another goal before the incoming tide drowns the playing field. But when you get too old to spend your afternoons playing soccer, there’s nothing left but mud.
On the afternoon of December 5, 2001, three local men—Ricardo Tavares, 22, Reney Macedo, also 22, and José Irandir Cardoso, 25—sat drinking beer on the beach and staring across the muddy shallows at a yacht that had anchored a few hundred yards offshore that morning. By any measure, it was a dazzler: 118 feet long, with two towering aluminum masts and rigging filled with radar sweeps, satellite navigation transponders, and radio aerials. Awnings were rigged over the boat’s decks; in their cool shadows were the silhouettes of outboard engines, dinghies, anchors, thickets of marine hardware. The men on deck looked like tourists in shorts, but the boat didn’t look like a tourist boat. It was ugly, bulbous, purposeful. Along the bow of its discolored, bare aluminum hull, the boat’s name, Seamaster, was painted in electric blue; amidships, in lowercase, was a single enigmatic word: “blakexpeditions.”
Yachts rarely appear off this coast. Tourists don’t come here either. There’s nothing for them in Macapá. The town is the capital of Amapá, the least populated state in Brazil after the remote mountain fastness of Roraima. It is inhabited mainly by public servants who facilitate the government’s lumber and mining interests in the region. Tourists enter Amazonia through Belém, on the Rio Pará, at the southern edge of the great Amazon delta. The few yachts venturing into the river also go by way of Belém, where they can find supplies, hardware, and better communications. Nobody sails to Macapá.
The three young men could not have been more astonished by this apparition. They watched the yacht’s crew come ashore to drink and make phone calls at the Bar du Bizerra, a hole-in-the-wall like the others along the beach, with tables and chairs spreading over the road and onto the sand. Just before dark, the crew returned to the yacht. They came and went in a black inflatable propelled to high speeds by a large outboard motor.
Tavares, Macedo, and Cardoso went and found three other men in the nearby village of Santana: Isael da Costa, whose 27th birthday was the next day; Isael’s brother Josué da Costa, 29; and Rubens Souza, 20. A criminal indictment would later list their occupations as bricklayer’s assistant, general laborer, electrician’s assistant, laborer, sailor, and fisherman, but all were unemployed, with little education and fewer economic prospects. Several had records as part-time petty thieves. “Sandal thieves,” the local police call young men who rob in their T-shirts and flip-flops; or “water rats,” when they take to the water in small boats and rob fishermen.
In Macapá, there is almost no twilight. Night falls fast. Since the yacht looked like it was staying put for the evening, they decided to head out to it in a catraia, a small fishing boat with an outboard, and stick up the crew. They disbanded and went to their homes to eat dinner and to collect what they needed.
When they rendezvoused at the river’s edge just before 9 p.m., four of them pulled on motorcycle helmets and the other two donned balaclava-like hoods. Tavares, Cardoso, and Isael da Costa carried handguns. They got into the catraiaand motored out into the river, then paddled noiselessly as they neared the boat. They later said music was coming from it.
THE NEXT DAY, DECEMBER 6, news broke around the world that New Zealander Sir Peter Blake, 53, the most accomplished ocean-racing skipper of his generation, had been murdered by pirates on the Amazon. Six suspects were quickly apprehended. Brazilian authorities announced that they had confessed. The story appeared straightforward: A famous yachtsman had been tragically and senselessly killed.
Although Peter Blake had lived in England for many years, his stature in New Zealand was unrivaled, and that entire small country was gripped by a paroxysm of grief that reminded many of Britain’s after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Thirty thousand people, including New Zealand’s Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright and Prime Minister Helen Clark, attended the memorial service in Auckland on December 23. That day, a fleet of 8,000 boats took part in a “sail past” in Auckland Harbour as 100,000 New Zealanders watched on live television. “AN OCEAN OF TEARS FOR BLAKE,” went a headline in the Wellington Evening Post.
In New Zealand, yachting is everything. An oceanic country of two narrow islands, it has produced a heavy crop of Olympic sailors, boat designers and builders, voyagers, and an entire populace that understands marine weather forecasts. Blake, born in 1948, grew up on the water—mostly in Waitemata Harbour, Auckland—in a family that built, sailed, lived, and breathed boats. He came of age at a time when yachting was looking for a new ideal, and he grew to embody it—becoming not only his country’s champion, but the ultimate thoroughbred racer of big, fast, globe-circumnavigating sailboats.
The world that Blake conquered began taking shape in 1968, when Englishman Robin Knox-Johnston capped an era of heroic, one-man voyages by becoming the first person to sail alone and nonstop around the world. That feat accomplished, ocean racers began to look for a new paradigm, and they found it in big-boat sailing. The emphasis shifted from the lone man to the machine, from heroism to technology: How fast could a giant “maxi” yacht, driven day and night by a crack crew, cross an ocean or sail around the world? In 1973 this quest found its expression in the Whitbread Round the World Race, a six-stage, go-for-broke circumnavigation—the ultimate spectacle in terms of noise, visibility, and sex appeal, an eight-month circus of logo-plastered boats, crews, shore teams, money, and media that moved around the world taking over whole harbors and, in New Zealand’s case, a whole country. It was the race that Blake made his own.
His first two outings, in 1973-74 and 1977-78, were as watch leader and mate on Robin Knox-Johnston’s boats, but Blake proved to be his own best skipper. For his third Whitbread, in 1981-82, he organized an effort sponsored, designed, and crewed by New Zealanders. Ceramco New Zealand galvanized the island nation; millions of listeners tuned in to hear Blake’s regular radio interviews from sea. But his boat lost its mast in the first leg of the race. In 1985-86, Blake’s Lion New Zealand was also a disappointing performer, but finally, in the 1989-90 race, he got it right. Backed by New Zealand’s premier brewer, his Steinlager 2 won all six legs and overall victory.
Alongside what became a full-time career as a yachtsman, Blake made ample room for a family. In 1979 he married Pippa Glanville; they spent their honeymoon delivering a yacht from England to Australia for the Sydney-Hobart Race. They eventually settled near her parents’ home in Emsworth, England—close to Southampton, the hub of the Whitbread world—and raised two children, James and Sarah Jane.
In 1994 Blake teamed up again with Knox-Johnston to go after the Jules Verne Trophy, established by the French in 1992. They screamed around the world in a 92-foot catamaran, the
, racing a French trimaran in an attempt to better the 80 days taken by Verne’s fictional adventurer Phineas Fogg.
won in just under 75 days, recording the highest speeds ever traveled by a sailing ship until that time. It was pure boat, pure seamanship, and a matchless voyage Blake reveled in.
In 1995 Blake’s Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup, the world’s most prestigious (if perhaps dullest) sailing race. The bright red socks Blake wore during the qualifying rounds became a personal trademark and a badge of Kiwi solidarity; when TNZ ran low of cash, a “Red Socks Fund” drive prompted New Zealanders to buy 100,000 pairs in three weeks to boost the team’s finances. After his decisive win in San Diego, Blake was knighted in England by Queen Elizabeth. In 2000 Team New Zealand, with Blake in command again, took the America’s Cup a second time.
His success was the result not of an outsize personality—although at six-foot-four, Blake was a commanding figure—but rather of his unswerving drive and, most of all, his leadership. “He was a natural leader,” says Knox-Johnston.
Blake made a career out of sailing into danger with gusto, but never without the most meticulous preparation. And he had a gift for bringing the right crew. “His great skill was picking, integrating, and managing the right mix of people for any job—the Shackleton method,” says Angus Buchanan, who sailed around the world with Blake on
. “The old cliché is not to meet your heroes, but Peter was the embodiment of everything I’d imagined a hero would be.”
It is also a cliché that heroes die young. And after Macapá, New Zealanders hotly debated whether Blake’s heroics might have cost him his life. When the pirates climbed aboard Seamaster with their guns, several crew members attempted to resist; one was pistol-whipped in the face and fell to the deck. Blake rushed below and emerged with a rifle. There was an exchange of gunfire. The Brazilians claimed that they had not set out to kill, but had fired only when attacked.
The picture of Blake, the larger-than-life captain charging the intruders with a rifle, was a compelling image, but it raised a disturbing question: What would have happened if Seamaster‘s crew had just handed over their watches and cameras? Could the whole episode have been merely one more theft in a rough port? Would Peter Blake, New Zealanders asked, still be alive?
MOST MODERN PIRACY is practiced against commercial vessels plying regular routes in the Far East, especially the waters of the South China Sea, around the Philippines and Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca, where police and military patrols are few. The International Maritime Bureau, which formed the Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur in 1992, reported 335 incidents in the region last year, but these received no more attention in the press than truck hijackings on far-flung back roads. Elsewhere in the world, piracy is defined as sporadic, unplanned attacks on yachts. It resembles petty street crime, except that the distance from shore gives it a special, ugly menace. Between April 1999 and February 2001 there were at least 13 attacks by pirates on yachts in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, resulting in the hijacking and theft of one yacht and the murder of a British crewman on another. In March 1999 in the Caribbean, off the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, a Dutch family was attacked, their son shot in the abdomen—the third such incident off the Honduran shoreline in five years. There were about 14 other attacks in Caribbean and Latin American waters between March 2000 and March 2001. Worldwide, 56 attacks occurred on yachts in 2001, according to Klaus Hympendahl, a German maritime historian writing a book on modern-day piracy. The “pirates” are usually local men, in local fishing boats; their weapons range from machetes to Kalashnikov rifles.
Anyone with a rowboat can paddle out to an anchored yacht. The boat will generally be out of earshot of help, and the crew will be lightly armed if at all. Moreover, the blitheness, the unconscious ease, the sense of entitlement with which American, European, and Australian sailors will moor a quarter-million-dollar boat off a village in Asia, South America, or Africa and step cheerfully ashore to look for a beer only make it that much more remarkable that piracy is not a thousand times worse.
“Piracy has been a tradition in places like Indonesia, the South China Sea, and the Red Sea for thousands of years,” Hympendahl told me, “but not in Latin and Central America.” As long as sailors remain rich and locals poor, he says, “The situation is going to get worse.”
Voyaging aboard a yacht, you step off the grid of normal travel, with its reassurances and safeguards. The very nature of such travel is to seek out remote, unspoiled places. You don’t know what you’ll sail into, but everything will depend on you alone, and what you carry with you.
I lived aboard my own small wooden boat in the late 1970s and early 1980s, sailing it between Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean. In those years there were numerous attacks against yachts, and fearing pirates and drug smugglers, sailors headed in droves to U.S. gun stores. Stainless-steel weapons were favored for their resistance to the corrosive saltwater environment. Ruger made a stainless-steel semiautomatic rifle, the Mini-14, which acquired considerable vogue in yachting circles. It fired a bullet with “armor-piercing” capability at great velocity and accuracy over a long range, and was thought an ideal weapon for stopping a boat making for you at a distance; whether that boat was full of pirates or fishermen hoping to sell you crayfish was another matter. In Fort Lauderdale in 1980, after my wife and I watched one night through our portholes as bales of cocaine were unloaded from a boat at the marina where we’d docked, I went into a store and came out with a stainless-steel pump shotgun, a stainless .38 revolver, and armfuls of ammunition.
The pros and cons of carrying firearms on a sailboat can become a more heated topic of discussion among sailors than keel shape or anchor design. Armed, you might protect your property. You might save your own life and those of your loved ones; you might be able to prevent your wife’s being raped before your eyes, as a Swiss woman was in a pirate attack off Venezuela in 2000. A warning shot might dissuade pirates from approaching your vessel at all.
Those who oppose carrying weapons point out that a pistol, a shotgun, even an AK-47 is no match for the sort of large-caliber automatic weaponry favored by pirates. Traveling with guns invites major hassles with officialdom when clearing into port; declaring a weapon often means that port officials will confiscate it for the duration of the boat’s stay. To not declare a weapon and then have it discovered invites even more trouble, ranging from heavy fines to the seizure of your boat. And having a gun aboard can escalate a bad situation: You invite the possibility that it can be used against you in an attack.
Most crucially, how many sailors—mainly people from law-abiding, middle-class backgrounds—have the lethal cool to kill? In time I realized that I did not, and I got rid of my guns.
Two large-bore rifles were carried aboard Seamaster, as a precaution against polar bears for an upcoming voyage to the Arctic. They were stored, unloaded, in Peter Blake’s cabin.
RUN THROUGH BY THE EQUATOR, Macapá lies at the northern mouth of the Amazon delta, on the true Rio Amazonas. Here it is always hot and humid, except immediately after it rains or when the wind blows in from the east off the Atlantic. When it’s not raining it’s getting ready to rain, with towering castles of gray thunderclouds building against pale pink skies over the brown water of the delta.
The town has that look of fast-developing Third World river towns at the edge of nowhere, although the center of Macapá looks prosperous for a backwater, with a university, a small concrete multiplex movie theater, and a growing middle class driving late-model Volkswagens. Only at its edge does Macapá grow visibly poorer, with ramshackle wooden houses, garbage-filled streams, and uninviting brothels, an inter-woven and self-perpetuating matrix straggling down the coast toward Santana and the beach at Fazendinha.
When Blake dropped anchor here last December, he was still in the early days of a new career as an environmental crusader and educator. In 1997, after the death of Jacques Cousteau, Blake had been invited to become the Cousteau Society’s new figurehead and roaming explorer. After six circumnavigations and 30 years at sea, he had seen the decline of ocean ecosystems firsthand, and his decades of navigation through the riptides of politics, business, and promotion made Blake seem the logical choice to rescue the dissent-ridden Cousteau Society and restore its legacy.
But his nose for a well-run organization led him to split with the Cousteaus, and in 2000 Blake decided to strike out on his own. With his new yacht Seamaster and sponsorship from Omega watches, he formed blakexpeditions and resolved “to undertake voyages to the areas of the world which are key to the planet’s ecosystem.” The United Nations made Blake a special envoy for its Environmental Program, and Seamaster flew the UNEP flag. In late 2000 Seamaster sailed to Antarctica—the first leg of an extended world voyage—to film a three-month exploration of the effects of global warming on the polar waters, ice cap, and life-forms.
From Antarctica, Seamaster headed north to Brazil for a further three months of filming and environmental study on the Amazon. Part of the crew left the yacht upriver, at the mouth of the Rio Negro, to proceed down the Orinoco to the Venezuelan coast, where they planned to rendezvous with the boat. By early December, Blake and his crew had completed filming and were ready to head out to sea and steer north to Baffin Island and the Northwest Passage.
Seamaster was a happy boat. The crew, which varied as people came and went, had a steady core of four or five paid hands to handle the ship and five or six of Blake’s longtime sailing mates as additional crewmembers and filmmakers. The number aboard on the Amazon ranged between 10 and 20 people, including Australian Rob Warring, 48, Blake’s second in command; old friend Don Robertson, 62, an Australian who’d settled in New Zealand and was Seamaster‘s communications specialist; Kiwis Geoff Bullock, 58, and Rodger Moore, 55; Charlie Dymock and Robin Allen, 18-year-old sons of friends of Blake’s in England; and Leon Sefton, 32, a TV director and cameraman and the son of Blake’s longtime New Zealand business partner, Alan Sefton. Blake ran things with a no-pretense Kiwi style: They were all friends, and all enjoyed Blake’s irrepressible humor. The only outsiders were Paolo Matos, a Brazilian cook, and Mark Scott, a New Zealand journalist who had joined the boat for a couple of weeks to write an article for New Zealand Geographic magazine. With the Orinoco group upriver, there were ten men aboard Seamaster on December 5.
That morning, they anchored Seamaster off the Porto de Santana, about 13 miles southwest of Macapá, to await immigration clearance. The local port authority radioed that there was danger of robbery at their present position, and advised them to anchor instead off the praticagem, the pilot station at Fazendinha. They did so, and cleared customs. The crew was set to sail early the next morning for Venezuela. They’d certainly thought about crime, maintaining a 24-hour watch throughout the trip up the Amazon, and had never felt in any particular danger. They spent the evening celebrating the completion of a difficult voyage.
THE PRATICAGEM IS A WOODEN SHACK at the edge of the Amazon where river pilots wait for vessels going upriver. In front of the shack a long wooden pier extends far out from shore, far enough beyond the mudflats at low tide to float the pilot launch in deepwater at its end.
In early January, when I came to Macapá to look into Blake’s murder, two of the first people I met were Ozimael Mendes and José Mamede, who both work at the praticagem, handling the lines of boats, maintaining the shack, and watching traffic on the river. Through a translator, they told me they’d both been on night duty on December 5, and that they heard the gunfire.
“Pop-pop-pop!” said Mendes, with great animation. A man in his thirties, wearing only shorts, he was sitting in the shade of a great tree at the base of the pier. He stood as he spoke and spread his finger and thumb in the air like a pistol. “Four shots, very fast,” he said.
“That’s three shots,” I said.
Mendes corrected himself. “Pop-pop-pop-pop!” “All the same sound? Or were the shots different?”
“Different. One series of shots from the thieves’ pistol, and the other from Peter’s rifle. Pop-pop-pop-boom!“
Mendes described how paramedics from the fire department came to the pier about 20 minutes later, and he took them out to Seamaster in a small motorboat. When they got there, Blake was near death. There was nothing they could do.
“You saw Blake alive?” I asked Mendes.
“Yes, he was alive,” he said. “He was lying on his back, crying out in despair.” Mendes said he couldn’t understand what Blake was saying, and blood was everywhere. He leaned back and moaned, demonstrating.
“What time was this?” I asked.
Mendes said he heard the shooting at 8:30 p.m. and reached the boat with the paramedics about 20 or 30 minutes later.
Mendes excused himself for a moment and went into the praticagem shack. He came out holding a page ripped from one of Seamaster‘s logbooks, showing the assigned hours the crew had stood watch one night. It was speckled with blood.
“Peter’s blood,” said Mendes, pointing.
I asked where he’d gotten it. It was in the trash brought ashore from the yacht the next day, he said. How could he possibly know the blood wasn’t someone else’s, I asked. Mendes shook his head. No. He was sure it was Peter’s blood.
MORE THAN ONE PERSON had left the boat bleeding that night. Alu’zio Botelho da Cunha Jr. is the local police detective who led the hunt for Blake’s killers. Junior, as Botelho is called, looks like a tough cop: short, stocky, with several-days’ growth of beard neatly contouring his face. His tight T-shirt shows off a powerful torso; his thick, hairy arms taper surprisingly to small, manicured fingertips, the nails lacquered with an opaque pink varnish. We met over coffee in a café, and I asked him how he had caught the killers.
“That was easy,” he said. One of the assailants, Isael da Costa, had been wounded: The tops of two fingers on his left hand were shot off and his right arm was laid open by Blake’s bullets. As soon as they got ashore after the robbery, Ricardo Tavares called a friend who had a taxi. They gave the driver Blake’s rifle, which they had taken from the boat, as payment, and the three of them drove around to hospitals and doctors’ offices looking for treatment. But Isael, who was out on parole for another robbery, wouldn’t tell the doctors what had happened or fill in the forms, so no one would treat him. The cops caught him the next night, about 24 hours after the shooting. Shortly afterward, they caught Ricardo getting out of a taxi at his house.
That same night, the police arrested Cardoso and Macedo. Isael’s brother Josué and Rubens Souza were caught a few days later on one of the jungle islands out on the Amazon. Somebody had spotted Seamaster‘s stolen dinghy on the shore.
On January 7, I visited the defendants at the Complexo Penintenciário do Amapá, where the men awaited trial. Charged with latrocinio, armed robbery resulting in murder, all six prisoners had confessed to taking part in the crime. (As this article went to press in early March, Tavares’s lawyers, who’d previously argued that their client had been on drugs or drinking when he shot Blake, claimed that Tavares was mentally ill. The judge in the case announced he would consider the new medical evidence, and was expected to deliver verdicts in the nonjury trial by late April.)
Above the guarded entrance to the older of the prison’s two concrete buildings, a braid of small Christmas lights still read, “Copen Feliz Natal.” My translator, Francisco, and I were shown into a small, hot room. All six men were sitting at a table. I recognized Isael da Costa: The two middle fingers on his left hand had healed to purple stubs; a large scab covered his right forearm. He looked stunned by the enormity of it all.
Tavares, with the good looks of a bratty young actor, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of a little girl—his daughter, he said, age one. Hunching over the table, he did most of the talking. The others sat quietly, responding simply to my questions. The guards got bored and left.
Tavares had seen the yacht anchored off the beach, he said, and readily admitted that he, José Irandir Cardoso, and Reney Macedo had decided to rob it and recruited the others. Tavares claimed that the crew was drunk and on cocaine. (The crew members I spoke with denied that the crew had been drinking to excess, or had any drugs aboard.) When the crew realized what was happening they began throwing beer cans, Tavares said, but then they saw the guns and stopped resisting. The thieves started collecting watches.
Meanwhile, Tavares continued, “Peter” (as he called Blake), who had escaped below, suddenly appeared at the bottom of the wheelhouse stairs and started firing up at them. “He was firing fast and very skillfully,” said Tavares. He made the motions of working a rifle bolt. “Like a soldier. And then he shot him,” he said, nodding at Isael da Costa. “Twice.”
Da Costa was quiet. I asked him who had shot first.
“Peter,” he said.
“And where were you?”
When one of Blake’s shots knocked da Costa’s pistol from his hand, Tavares said he shot down the stairs without looking. He stuck out his arm and demonstrated how he’d fired blindly while trying to keep out of the way.
The pirates left quickly because Isael was hurt. They took Seamaster‘s black inflatable dinghy, with its outboard. They didn’t know that Blake had been killed, Tavares said, or even shot, until the next day. He said they’d only meant to steal a few watches. They had robbed before, and nobody had put up any resistance. It was just a robbery that had gone very wrong. They were all sorry Blake had been killed.
When the judge granted me permission to see the killers, he offered to let me read the federal indictment and look over the official paperwork in the case. So back in the justice building, I asked an assistant for the federal prosecutor’s report. A fat file was handed to me, titled, “Indictment prepared by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office of the State of Amapá.”
I found the autopsy report, complete with photographs of Blake laid open like a side of beef, and the findings as to the cause of death: “One of the bullets penetrated the upper part of his left shoulder, crossing his body, causing fatal wounds to the lungs and ascending aorta; the other shot penetrated below the left shoulder, fatally crossing the left lung and upper vena cava, where it lodged, under the skin, near the armpit.” Blake had bled to death in less than a minute, the report concluded.
There is a Russian saying: “He lies like an eyewitness.” It’s applicable here: Ozimael Mendes could not have seen Blake alive that night, half an hour after the shooting. But this was typical. The whole town was swirling with tales of the night Peter died. Some were innocent, and true, firsthand accounts. At the Bar du Bizerra, where Blake and a few of the crew had dinner and drinks, their compact, whiskered waitress told me and many others how she’d danced with Peter, as he was now known everywhere. But the air was also full of wildly creative rumors, and even Junior, the police detective, was trafficking: “They were waiting for women,” he told me of the crew. But when I spoke to the local madam and she emphatically dismissed Junior’s claim, he merely shrugged and admitted, “I must have been wrong.” But still he peddled: “There were drugs on the boat,” he told me; his friend was the local forensic technician and had read the federal report. The same report I saw. It made no mention whatsoever of drugs.
Blake’s death was the biggest thing to hit Macapá in years. It had turned everyone into an authority, and each of their accounts was more exciting and movie-like than the stark reality of what really happened.
MOST OF THE MEN on Seamaster when Blake was killed have chosen to remain silent, pending the verdict in the Brazilians’ judicial case. But crew members Don Robertson and Leon Sefton both spoke with me in detail about what happened that night.
“They came from nowhere and suddenly were all around us,” Robertson, Blake’s oldest and closest friend aboard the yacht—they had shared tens of thousands of sea miles and countless games of Scrabble—told me when I reached him by phone in New Zealand in mid-January.
Robertson recalled that it was after 10 p.m. Blake, Robertson, and most of the crew were standing around on deck, having a drink. With Seamaster‘s deck lit up by lights in the wheelhouse and in the rigging, stereo speakers playing music, the generator running, and large fans circulating air through the boat, no one heard or saw anything until the Brazilians appeared on deck.
“They were waving guns, shouting in Portuguese,” said Robertson. “We didn’t know what they were saying, but we didn’t need a dictionary. Very quickly they isolated us from each other, pinned our guys down to the deck. It appeared professional, almost military.” In their helmets and balaclavas, he said, the Brazilians looked “done up for a raid.”
Robertson and Rodger Moore, another longtime friend of Blake’s on the crew, initially tried to push the gunmen away. Moore splashed them with beer, Robertson said, but Tavares smashed Moore in the face with his gun butt, and Moore dropped to the deck, unconscious. Journalist Mark Scott and Geoff Bullock pulled Robertson down to the deck with them, urging him not to resist. Robertson remembers Scott screaming at him to stop for the sake of Scott’s wife and two daughters. The suddenness of the Brazilians’ appearance, the shouting, the quick felling of Moore, forestalled any attempt to repel the boarders. The crew was quickly subdued.
Except for Blake. Almost immediately, he ran down the companionway stairs and headed belowdecks. He was followed closely by Isael da Costa.
Leon Sefton, the cameraman, told me he had been in bed in his cabin, almost asleep, when he heard “a ruckus” on deck at about 10:20 p.m. Through the noise of the fans, generator, and music, he couldn’t make out what the shouting was about, so he got out of bed to complain about the noise.
Sefton’s cabin was directly across from Blake’s, forward of Seamaster‘s main saloon. He noticed Blake’s door was ajar, and that Blake was inside. Sefton began tying on his surf shorts, looking down; when he looked up a man in a balaclava was standing in front of him holding an automatic pistol.
When he was a child, Sefton told me, he had been in a bank with his mother when a man carrying a shotgun and wearing a hood came in to rob it. When the robber appeared, eight-year-old Leon had thought it was a joke because he looked so funny, so out of place. Now, as the Brazilian came toward him, Sefton didn’t laugh. He dropped to one knee, raised his hands, and said, “It’s cool, it’s cool,” over and over. Da Costa stopped two feet from Sefton and aimed his pistol at the young man’s head.
At that moment, Blake came out of his cabin carrying the .308 rifle they’d brought aboard for the Arctic cruise. Holding the large-bore gun at his hip, he shouted at da Costa, “Right! Get the fuck off my boat!”
It was too much for da Costa. He retreated, still facing Blake, as the boat’s captain chased him aft through the saloon. Da Costa began climbing backward up the steps and disappeared out of Sefton’s line of sight. Then Blake suddenly tensed, and there was a loud exchange of fire. Four shots, Sefton believes, two from each man. One or both of the bullets from Blake’s rifle hit the Brazilian, who was holding his gun outstretched in both hands, and smashed into the pistol, knocking it out of da Costa’s grip, taking with it the tops of two fingers, and grazing his forearm. Da Costa’s bullets went wide, and he scrambled, bleeding, up to the deck.
Blake might have fired more shots, but his rifle jammed. He started banging its stock on the saloon floor. Sefton asked him if he needed more bullets—he’d gathered them up from Blake’s bunk—but Blake said no and told him to go clear a ventilator fan out of the forward hatch in case they needed to get up on deck by that route. Sefton ran forward out of the saloon, past the crew cabins, but before he got to the bow he heard more gunfire. He turned and ran back toward the saloon.
ON DECK, EVERYONE had heard the first exchange of fire between da Costa and Blake. According to the crew, Rob Warring and Geoff Bullock saw da Costa come up from below, wounded and holding his bloody hand. Tavares moved into the wheelhouse, and Warring and Bullock saw him fire two shots down the stairs, step aside, then fire twice more. From below, Blake, who by now had cleared his rifle’s action, returned fire, but the rifle jammed again. He turned from the stairs and once more began banging the rifle butt down on the floor. Tavares, perhaps seeing that the rifle was jammed, quickly stepped to the companionway and went halfway down the steps. Blake was turned away from him, banging the rifle down on the floor. Tavares shot him twice in the back from a distance of several feet.
Blake fell at the foot of the companionway steps, hitting his head on the sill of the saloon doorway. Tavares continued down the steps, picked up Blake’s rifle, and climbed back up to the deck.
Sefton believes that no more than 40 seconds passed from the time Blake told him to go forward until he came back and found him lying at the foot of the companionway steps. Blake’s eyes were open but appeared lifeless. Sefton began trying to revive him.
On deck, Josué da Costa was untying Seamaster‘s rubber dinghy; others were still frantically removing the crew’s watches. Robertson pulled his arm away as one of the Brazilians made a grab for his watch, and it stayed on his wrist. Three of the thieves were now scrambling over the rail into their own boat, while Tavares and the da Costa brothers jumped into the inflatable, but they couldn’t figure out the Zodiac’s engine and so they motored away in the catraia towing the rubber boat. As they went, Tavares fired what seemed to Robertson like “a hail of bullets.” One grazed Bullock’s back as he dropped to the deck for protection, inflicting a flesh wound. Nobody else was hit.
Warring, a trained medic, was the first to go below, where he found Sefton bent over Blake. They shifted Blake, getting him flat on his back, and spent the next 15 minutes attempting to resuscitate him with mouth-to-mouth and CPR. With each forced exhalation, blood poured from Blake’s mouth. “I kept talking to Pete the whole time,” Sefton told me, “but he was white and it was pretty clear he was dead. I think one of the most heartbreaking things for us all was to see Don when he came below. It was terrible. They were such close friends, best mates.
“I remember watching Pete earlier that last night, while he was looking at Rabbit [Robertson’s nickname], who was making us all laugh with some story, and Pete was just laughing at him and you could see how much he loved him. Pete had a wonderful last night.”
When it became clear that Blake was beyond help, Robertson put out distress calls on the boat’s VHF radio. The only response came in Portuguese, and it was some time before word of what happened was communicated to the police.
“Then there was this horrible long time while we were waiting for the police,” Robertson said, “with Peter lying dead on the floor.”
ON A RAW JANUARY DAY, I visited Blake’s grave, beside St. Thomas à Becket Church in Warblington, England, on the Hampshire coast. The bare trees at the edge of the graveyard framed a view of the English Channel. The grave was newly dug, with no stone yet erected to mark it—no way to know who lay there, except that Alan Sefton had told me it was decorated with an empty bottle of Steinlager. It’s a peaceful spot, the sort of place where Blake suitably might have been buried in another 30 years, after a long life of venerable service to the world’s oceans.
The location and manner of Blake’s death have disturbed many people—a brave man’s senseless end at the hands of punk killers in a nowhere port, a fatal appointment in Macapá after surviving all those circumnavigations and stormy seas. But perhaps even more haunting has been the question of culpability and blame. It may be easy to discount Ricardo Tavares and Isael da Costa’s dubious assertions—their apparently self-serving claims about cocaine, a recklessly aggressive crew, and killing in self-defense. Less easy to dismiss is an undercurrent of doubt and criticism that has turned into a nasty debate in New Zealand, where the view that Blake lived and died a hero has been challenged by those who believe Blake and his crew bear a large share of responsibility for escalating a robbery into a murder.
Perhaps the severest critic has been columnist Frank Haden, of Auckland’s Sunday Star-Times, who in a controversial February article wrote, “We send kids to school with their ears ringing from praise for Sir Peter Blake, a man who got himself shot and put the lives of his crew at enormous risk by doing the red-blooded Kiwi male thing and trying to shoot it out with some armed pirates. He behaved like an irresponsible oaf and paid for it with his life. But we should think soberly about the way the shooting reduced us to an orgy of self congratulation about how lucky we were to have such a red-blooded Kiwi male icon of international sport.”
Only one eyewitness to the piracy in Macapá has given credence to such criticism: journalist Mark Scott. Early this year, after the funeral service in England and the memorial in Auckland had sent Blake to his rest, Scott, who left Seamaster the day after the killing, began to tell his story.
Scott declined to be interviewed for this article, claiming that the contract with blakexpeditions that gave him access to Seamaster prevents him from speaking, but he has offered his account of the events in the piece he wrote for New Zealand Geographic, and in an interview with New Zealand’s 60 Minutes. On the television show, he painted himself as the only cool head aboard Seamaster that night, and accused the crew of sharing the blame for Blake’s death. “I took control,” he said, describing how he forcefully put one of the crew in a headlock to restrain him. “I’ve been there, I know the ropes.É You’ve got armed, masked gunmen pointing pistols at you. Who are they? Are they out of it on drugs? How jittery are they? How ruthless are they? You don’t put those questions to the test by spitting in their faces with absurd abuse. You do what you’re told.”
Scott gave another brief interview to Auckland’s Sunday Star-Times, in response to “all kinds of unpleasant whisperings from the crew about my motivations” and “a wall of hostility” with which they’d greeted his comments. “I don’t condemn anybody for their actions [that] night,” he told the paper, “but honesty is essential…. If the crew thinks a shoot-out and crew actions which the Brazilian police describe as suicidal was a job well done, then they are in denial.”
In the Star-Times, Scott argues that he is speaking up for Blake and against the idea “that Peter Blake was entirely the author of his unfortunate response.” In fact, Scott charges, “an aggressive reaction by the crew” was the crucial factor in the tragedy. “Was there time for calm to prevail?” Scott asked. “If there was enough time for different crew to throw beer in the face of a gunman, challenge gunmen, refuse to give up a watch, and to fetch ammunition for Peter—well, there was certainly enough time to say, ‘Do as they say,’ or ‘Drop the gun.’ If the crew was happy to have Peter going for his gun—and took no action to stop him—then they clearly share responsibility for the outcome.”
THE CREW DOESN’T see it that way. Don Robertson and Leon Sefton were angry and contemptuous of Scott’s criticisms. Both told me they thought Scott was drunk that night and in no state to judge anything that happened. “He became hysterical,” said Robertson, “completely off the rails out of control.”
Scott told 60 Minutes that the crew, himself included, had had “quite a bit to drink,” although he thought that “concentration on alcohol is irrelevant.” Robertson and Sefton both acknowledged that the crew had been drinking. But when I asked them if anyone had been drunk, or if they thought alcohol might have affected the crew’s responses, both said no, and provided a most seamanlike reason: They faced an early departure the next morning and a last patch of tricky navigation through the racing shallows of the Amazon before reaching the sea. Blake wasn’t inebriated either, Robertson said. “You don’t get round the world that many times by making poor judgments,” he said.
“Pete was aware of piracy; he knew he had one chance,” Sefton said. “You’ve got to remember we had the two boys aboard, Robin and Charlie, more or less the same age as Pete’s daughter. He just did what he felt he had to do. For the rest of my life I’ll remember the way he looked charging through the saloon after this guy, holding the rifle, a look on his face of pure outrage. I remember thinking, ‘You’re a gutsy bastard.'”
Robertson told me he’d spent the better part of a month waking up at night, wondering uselessly and painfully what they might have done differently. “But it all happened so quickly, before any of us had time to think.” As for his friend Peter, Robertson thought Blake had made the only move he could. He and the rest of the crew, he said, are untroubled by Blake’s decision to confront the pirates.
“Peter must’ve felt our guys were in extreme danger,” Robertson said. “He wasn’t about to hang about to see what would happen.” It was a sailor’s reaction, Robertson believes. “We were never armed, in our opinion. The rifle was something stuck away for the next voyage. If we’d thought we’d needed six armed guards aboard the boat to do the Amazon, we wouldn’t have gone there. Peter would have said, ‘Let’s forget it.'”
Blake’s old friend and shipmate Sir Robin Knox-Johnston told me that he understood Blake’s actions completely, and that he too would likely have trod the same path to death. “It’s no good waiting around, hoping for the best,” he said, “and finding your crew all dead half an hour later.”
Everywhere Blake’s death has been discussed, the debate has revolved around his decision to go for his rifle. Many would have behaved differently, allowed the thieves to take what they wanted in the hope they’d go away with no harm done. Many see Blake’s choice as a fatal mistake.
But only Blake could make that choice. He was a man of decisive action, a figure of clearcut grace and stature. What’s more, he was the captain of a ship. Captains at sea have always been a law unto themselves; they are responsible for the lives of all aboard. Just as there is no single way to handle a hurricane, there is no rule for piracy. There are only men and their choices.
The captain’s intimate friends characterized him as a man of unflinching resolve, one who would tackle trouble head-on. Blake was indeed a leader in the Shackleton mode; in his mind, his responsibility for his crew and his duty to protect them were clear. If there hadn’t been a rifle aboard, he would have used something else. His hands, even. Or a bottle of Steinlager.