America's Cup winner and adventurer Sir Peter Blake has been killed in a gunfight with hooded pirates who stormed his ship at night in Brazil's Amazon, officials said on Friday.
New Zealander Blake, one of the most successful sailors in yachting history, was aboard his Seamaster vessel with his crew on an environmental expedition up the Amazon River when they were attacked by the pirates.
Blake's ship was anchored on the river near Macapa, the capital of Brazil's poor Amazon jungle state of Amapa when the bandits slipped on board to rob his ship. Macapa is close to where the massive Amazon River flows into the ocean.
Blake was on his way out to sea after an environmental-awareness expedition thousands of miles up the Amazon when the pirates boarded.
"He was probably shot twice in the back," a spokesman for Brazil's federal police said. The police report said Blake had shot at the invading bandits with a rifle, most likely wounding one of them, before being killed.
Two other crew members on the Seamaster were wounded. The pirates stole several watches, cameras and an inflatable dinghy. The police launched a manhunt for the pirates who had fled by boat.
New Zealand's ambassador to Brazil rushed to Amapa to establish the facts about the death of a man who was one of his country's best-known sporting personalities. New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark traveled to the Amazon to visit his ship during a trip to Brazil last month.
"He was a New Zealand hero and everyone will feel a great sense of sadness at his death," Paul East, New Zealand's High Commissioner (ambassador) in London, told Reuters.
Brazil, which may be embarrassed by the killing of such a high-profile personality in the lawless Amazon region, also lamented the loss. "It was with profound sadness that I heard of the tragic death of explorer, sportsman and scientist Peter Blake," Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said in a letter to Clark.
Tragedy may hurt Brazil's image
Brazil's Robert Scheidt, elected the world's top yachtsman in 2001 and Olympic gold medalist in the Laser class, lamented that "this absurd episode occurred precisely in Brazil."
"Peter was a real legend in his country and one of the most respected figures in yachting and it is a tragedy that will hurt the image of the country abroad," Scheidt said in a note.
Blake, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, won yachting's most high-profile trophy - the America's Cup - in 1995 and 2000 with Team New Zealand.
He won the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989 and captured the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994 with a record-breaking nonstop voyage.
Chay Blyth, one of Britain's most accomplished yachtsmen, said Blake would be "sorely missed" by everyone in sailing.
"It's incredible - really, very sad," said Blyth, whose promotions company Challenge Business organizes the BT Challenge round-the-world yacht race. "He was a very quiet man, there was nothing flash about him and he achieved so much in sailing."
Blake kept a daily log on a web site about his progress.
The log for Thursday read: "Location-Rio Amazonas. Status-Still motoring. Conditions-pleasant." He said in his log that the boat had been traveling down the Amazon at night.
"Dusk has turned the surface of the river into a greasy gray - with the sky quickly darkening after the sun's orange and golds have gone," he wrote.
"We always hope for a clear night and tonight the moon will be up soon after 9 p.m. but this means two and a half hours of real blackness before then.
A meticulous planner and a gifted leader, Blake's fierce determination to win always inspired immense loyalty from his crews and unlimited confidence from his backers.
He was the only man to compete in the first five Whitbreads and his 1989-90 victory in Steinlager 2 came with an unprecedented clean sweep as his team walked off with line, handicap and overall honors on each of the race's six legs.
Blake was also chosen to succeed the late Jacques Cousteau as captain of the marine research vessel Calypso 2.
In his Seamaster log, he wrote on Thursday: "Again I raise the question - Why are we here?"
Later he answered the question: "We want to make a difference."