Peter James Blake was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on 1 October 1948, and raised in the suburb of Bayswater on the northern edge of the Waitematā Harbour. His father, Brian Blake, had emigrated from England in 1920 and worked as an artist and art director for an advertising firm in Auckland. In 1940 Brian married New Zealander Joyce Hilda Wilson, a photography engraver. Peter was the second of their four children.
Peter began sailing at the age of five in the family Frostply dinghy. When he turned eight, his father built him a P-class dinghy, christened Pee Bee. At fourteen he moved into the larger Z-class. Over the next few years Peter became increasingly passionate about sailing and offshore racing. At 18, with the help of his brother, Tony, he built his first keel yacht, called Bandit, in which they won the New Zealand Junior Offshore Group Championship in the 1967/68 season. Sailing on the family yacht, Ladybird, during this period was to influence Peter's understanding of ocean racing and yacht design.
Peter was educated at Bayswater Primary School and Belmont Intermediate, then Takapuna Grammar School. He attended Auckland Technical Institute from 1966 to 1969 to study mechanical engineering, gaining the New Zealand Certificate of Engineering.
Blake's graduation through the small-boat classes and his hands-on approach to boats stood him in good stead as he began his international sailing career from England as watch leader on Ocean Spirit in the inaugural Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro race in 1971. Ocean Spirit's English co-skippers, Leslie Williams and Robin Knox-Johnston, recognised Blake's abilities in leadership and seamanship and invited him onboard Burton Cutter as watch leader for the inaugural Whitbread Round the World race in 1973–74.
In between races, Blake worked mainly for Auckland mast manufacturer Yachtspars from 1974 to 1977, but also briefly as an industrial sales engineer. He skippered a yacht owned by an Arab industrialist based in Beirut in 1975 and gained a private pilot's licence in England that year.
In 1977, Williams and Knox-Johnston invited Blake to be watch leader on Heath’s Condor for the second Whitbread Round the World race. While refitting Heath's Condor after the race in the village of Emsworth on the south coast of England, Peter met Philippa (Pippa) Jane Glanville at the Emsworth Sailing Club. They married in Emsworth on 25 August 1979. In between periods of living in Auckland, they settled at Pippa's family home in Emsworth on the edge of Chichester Harbour. They had a daughter and a son.
By the late 1970s Blake was convinced that New Zealand had the sailing and boat-building talent to enter the Whitbread Round the World race. With the help of family friend Martin Foster, he initiated some of New Zealand's first attempts at raising money through corporate sponsorship for offshore sailing campaigns. Businessman Tom Clark committed his Ceramco group of companies to the project, beginning a fruitful partnership and friendship. Blake skippered the resulting entry, Ceramco New Zealand, for the third Whitbread Round the World race of 1981–82. The campaign started with high expectations, but quickly ran into disaster when Ceramco lost its mast on the first leg, about 4,000 kilometres from Cape Town. However, in a major feat of endurance and seamanship, Blake and his crew created a jury rig from parts of the broken spar and continued the race, finishing third in the fleet in terms of elapsed time.
In his fourth attempt, Blake skippered Lion New Zealand in the Whitbread Round the World race of 1985–86 to a creditable second place. However, it was his fifth attempt, in the 1989–90 Whitbread as skipper on Steinlager 2, that saw him achieve his long-held dream. Steinlager 2 won the line and handicap honours in all six legs and overall. Throughout this period, the sponsorship of Lion Breweries under Douglas Myers was critical to the projects' success.
Blake's other major sailing achievements during this period include line honours in the inaugural Round the North Island (of New Zealand) two-man race on Gerontius in 1977, and line honours and the course record in Britain's Fastnet race on Condor in 1979. He also gained line and handicap honours in Australia's Sydney-to-Hobart race on Ceramco New Zealand in 1980 and line honours in the Sydney-to-Hobart race on Lion New Zealand in 1984. Late in the 1980s he was awarded line honours in the first two-man Round Australia race on the trimaran Steinlager 1 with Mike Quilter, and line honours in the Fastnet race on Steinlager 2 in 1989.
However, it was the Trophée Jules Verne that became Blake's most personally rewarding ocean sailing experience. The challenge was for the fastest non-stop circumnavigation of the world under sail. Blake's second attempt, in 1994 with co-skipper Robin Knox-Johnston on the catamaran ENZA, saw the record cut by over four days to 74 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes and 22 seconds.
The America’s Cup, the world’s premier yachting trophy, absorbed much of Blake’s energies in the 1990s. He was brought in near the end of Michael Fay's New Zealand challenge for the America's Cup of 1992. The campaign was unsuccessful but inspired Blake to establish Team New Zealand in 1992. He led two successful America's Cup campaigns as syndicate head, winning the Cup in San Diego in 1995 and defending it in 2000 in Auckland (the first non-American team to do so).
As well as leading the 1995 campaign, Blake joined the crew on board. A personal gift of red socks from his wife Pippa also became a national talisman. The only race not won by NZL 32 (Black Magic) was popularly believed to be because Blake was not on board in his red socks. For the 2000 regatta, Blake's vision and determination for an America's Cup village of yachts and superyachts resulted in the development of Viaduct Basin on the edge of Auckland Harbour.
Blake was made an MBE in 1983 and an OBE in 1991. He was knighted in 1995 for services to yachting. He received many other awards and accolades throughout this period, including New Zealand Yachtsman of the Year in 1982 and 1990. Later he was awarded World Sailor of the Year in 1994. Blake was New Zealand Sportsman of the Year in 1990, and again with Team New Zealand in 1995. He received honorary doctorates from Massey University in 1999 and Auckland University of Technology in 2000.
In 1997 the Cousteau Society appointed Blake the successor to environmentalist and explorer Jacques Cousteau, with the intention that Blake should captain the planned Calypso II. However, differences in philosophy between Blake and the Cousteau management team led him in an alternative direction. He retired from competitive racing in 2000 and established the independent 'blakexpeditions' to undertake voyages to ecologically important areas.
Blake’s goal was to educate and inspire people to take better care of life in and around oceans, rivers and waterways. In recognition of his work, he was appointed a Special Envoy for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2001.
Blakexpeditions was centred on the polar exploration yacht Seamaster. In 2000 and 2001 Blake led two expeditions on Seamaster; the first to the Antarctic Peninsula, and the second to Brazil, along the Amazon and Negro rivers. As the Seamaster prepared to leave the Amazon near Macapá, Amapá state, Brazil, on 6 December 2001, Blake was shot and killed while defending his crew and vessel against armed intruders.
His funeral took place at St Thomas à Becket Church, Warblington, Hampshire, England, where he was buried. This was followed by a memorial service on the Auckland Domain in New Zealand on 23 December 2001, attended by over 30,000 people. Later that day, about 8,000 yachts and boats sailed on the Auckland Harbour in his honour. He was posthumously awarded the Olympic Order from the International Olympic Committee in 2002.
Peter Blake had a commanding, authoritative presence. Tall and striking with blue eyes and tousled blond hair, he would often be seen laughing with his head thrown back. He was gentlemanly, shy at times, and loyal to his family, friends, sponsors and supporters: those closest knew him as 'Blakey'.
In addition to sailing and racing he enjoyed cruising, scuba diving and playing the piano.
Blake’s greatest strengths lay in organisation and leadership. He built up his sailing crews through careful selection, focusing on compatibility and the temperament of individuals who could function effectively in team environments. He encouraged consensus, and worked as hard as his crews, thereby winning loyalty and respect. Many became lifelong friends and sailed with Blake whatever the project. He was also a perfectionist and firm when necessary.
Blake was tenacious and determined to succeed, but saw defeat as an important part of the learning curve. Overall, he believed that sailing and racing should be fun.
Blake was quick to embrace new technology. He was a seaman in the traditional sense, in his respect for nature and the use of traditional arts of seamanship, such as celestial navigation. He co-wrote two books on his experiences in the Whitbread Round the World races, and communicated regularly with the public during his campaigns.
Blake was at the forefront of the professionalisation of ocean racing, becoming a well-known public figure in New Zealand and in international sailing. In a period of 10 years (1990–2000) he won many of the ultimate prizes in both ocean and match racing. In total, he sailed around the world five times, covering over 600,000 ocean miles. His projects and successes were shared by many New Zealand sailors and the marine industry, and significantly contributed to the international reputation of New Zealand yachting in the late 20th century.