SAO PAULO, Brazil – Masked pirates boarded sailing champion Peter Blake’s yacht at its Amazon River anchorage, shooting and killing the two-time America’s cup winner when he tried to resist, officials said Thursday.
Blake, 53, was on a worldwide expedition to monitor global warming and pollution aboard his 119-foot yacht, said Alan Sefton, spokesman for Blake’s organization, blakexpeditions.
The vessel, called Seamaster, was in the mouth of the Amazon Wednesday night near Macapa, a city 1,600 miles north of Sao Paulo, when three or four assailants approached in a rubber dinghy “commonly used by river rats that ply the Amazon river in search of victims,” said state police chief Rosilene Martins de Sena.
“Armed and hooded individuals came over the rail and had the crew at gunpoint,” Sefton said Thursday in a telephone interview. “It would appear that Peter was down below and heard what was going on and came charging up” and was shot at least twice.
Two crew members were slightly injured but have been released from the hospital.
Federal prosecutor Manoel Pastana told reporters the crew was preparing a barbecue on the yacht when the gunmen appeared, shouting “money, money.”
According to local media, the killers took a spare engine and several watches from the Seamaster, which had been awaiting customs clearance to leave Brazil after a two-month stay.
Blake and a crew of 10 arrived in Brazil in October. Sefton said they spent two months in the upper reaches of the Amazon and Rio Negro and had encountered nothing but “friendly, warm, hospitable people.”
“And as soon as the boat gets back into so-called civilization, something tragic happens,” Sefton told New Zealand’s One News television station.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark described Blake as “a national hero,” and flags were at half-staff across the country. Parliament paid tribute to Blake with a moment of silence and a native Maori hymn.
“I think he is to the waters what Sir Edmund Hillary (conqueror of Mt. Everest) has been to the mountains. He’s just the most amazingly accomplished yachtsman,” Clark said. “He was an inspiration to all New Zealanders, and we will all feel a tremendous sense of loss.”
Brazil’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “government deeply regrets the tragic death of New Zealands’ renowned explorer, yachtsman and scientist.”
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the statement added, “has ordered that the criminals be promptly identified and arrested.”
Seamaster had been scheduled to sail up the coast to Venezuela to meet blakeexpedition’s jungle team. The vessel had previously been on a three-month study of wildlife in the Antarctic region.
In March 2000, Blake said he had received letters from someone threatening to kill him and harm his family.
“We’ve always got crank mail, but it has been going beyond that recently,” Blake said at the time. “So we have taken all the precautions we were advised to take.”
Last year, he became the first non-American entry to retain the America’s Cup in 149 years after beating Italian challengers Prada 5-0.
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