One can only guess what Aucklanders would have been doing this cloudy morning had Sir Peter Blake been wearing his lucky red socks instead of carrying a rifle when the Brazilian “river rats” boarded the Blake Expeditions research yacht Seamaster two weeks ago.
Instead, like thirty thousand others, I pulled on a pair of red socks and made my way up to a grassy hillside in the Auckland Domain that overlooks the Waitemata Harbour. We went to say farewell to a man who started his sailing career on this harbor as a child, and who went on to become one of the greatest yachtsmen in history. After winning three of the top prizes in sailing, the Whitbread Around the World Race, the Trophy Jules Verne (non stop around the world in less than 80 days) and the America’s Cup (twice), Sir Peter had shifted his life’s work to protecting the oceans that he had successfully sailed upon for so many years.
The mood of the ceremony matched the changing weather. There were cloudy patches, a few raindrops fell and then the bright sun would pop through and brighten up the day.
The one-and-a-half hour memorial service was very quickly put together, but went off as if it had been carefully choreographed and rehearsed. Friends, family, colleagues, rock musicians, business associates, and former sailing mates shared their most poignant thoughts, feelings, music and anecdotes about Sir Peter Blake. Some brought tears, some brought laughter. All brought a sense that the world has lost a person who lived life to the fullest and who had a huge impact on all whose life he had touched.
Kiwi rock artist Dave Dobbyn played one of Sir Peter’s favorite songs, Loyal. That was followed by Neil and Tim Finn’s (Split Enz) anthem, Six Months in a Leaky Boat. The audience was quiet, attentive and solemn through out the entire ceremony.
In a society that tends to frown on “tall poppies,” Sir Peter was touted as a giant, a hero, seemingly bigger than life. Not since Sir Edmund Hillary scaled Mount Everest has a Kiwi been able to bring these two little South Pacific islands into the world’s focus. For almost anyone who has raced a yacht or crossed an ocean under sail, Peter Blake was a tremendous inspiration. He single-handedly redefined the terms persistence, teamwork and loyalty.
The most touching moment was at the very end of the ceremony, when the audience spontaneously tossed out three loud cheers.
If the mood of the memorial service at the Auckland Domain was solemn, the water procession was chaotic and upbeat. Seven hundred vessels ranging from Hobie Cats to a four masted cruise ship assembled near the Auckland Harbour Bridge for an on the water tribute to their hero.
On the water, Aucklanders can’t help but smile, enjoy themselves and have humorous exchanges with their mates on other boats. It’s as if they were all saying, “This is what Sir Peter would have wanted us to do.” With a warm humid breeze blowing puffy clouds across the big New Zealand sky, it was a perfect day to be on the water. Those who couldn’t be on the water gathered at spots all along the shoreline to watch the flotilla pass by, many waving red socks.
A few yachts were fully dressed, but most flew the national flag, a yacht club burgee or two, a black flag and/or lots of red socks in honor of Sir Peter. Yachts that normally spar on the racecourse were moving quite closely, but gentlemanly along the designated procession route. Sir Peter’s family yacht, Ladybird led the procession from the bridge, along the North Shore to North Head and then back, hugging the Auckland City waterfront and the America’s Cup Viaduct Basin.
Even though thoughts of this day will fade, memories of Sir Peter Blake and his accomplishments will never be forgotten