From the outset, the sea exerted a powerful influence over Peter Blake. The family lived in a wooden bungalow in Bayswater on the northern flanks of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. His father, Brian, was a gunboat captain in the Royal Navy during World War Two; throughout their marriage, Brian and Joyce Blake owned boats and the Blake children grew up with the sea as their playground.
Peter was born in 1948, the second child of what would later grow to a family of four children: Janet, Peter, Tony and Elizabeth.
Peter loved messing about along the foreshore and boats very quickly became a passion. Family summer holidays were spent camping on a piece of land they owned at Mairangi Bay, north of Auckland, next to their grandparents’ house.
The two boys, in particular, spent all their time on the water. "We had banana box boats," recalls Tony. As the name implies, these comprised wooden banana boxes, with a rudder hung off the back, a mast and a square sail. Windward ability was somewhat lacking, but there was no shortage of fun and adventure.
Later, their holidays were further afield, camping at Martins Bay, where the children would trudge up the hill every morning to collect fresh milk, still warm, from the local farmer. The evenings would be occupied with family card or board games – perhaps planting the seeds of Peter’s later love of Scrabble, a game he engaged with steely and unrelenting competitiveness.
Back at home, schooldays were spent dreaming about boats. Traditional team sports – cricket, rugby, soccer – did not interest Peter. It was boats, boats, boats. Both he and Tony, three years his junior, would pore over English sailing magazines and follow design trends with keen interest.
I can remember sailing on evenings after school, the sun going down on the water. I’d sail through flotillas of water birds. Really peaceful: I had as good a time then as sailing around the world years later."
— Sir Peter Blake
Just as some boys drool over the latest Ferrari or Porsche, they would dream of the latest yachts – and would draw their own, improved versions.
When Peter was eight years old, his father built him a P-Class yacht, a single-handed 7ft wooden dinghy which has laid the foundations of many illustrious sailing careers in New Zealand. Pee Bee was launched with all due ceremony, lemonade substituting for champagne, and many exciting hours were spent racing and idling about aboard. "Friends and I used to go all over Waitemata Harbour in our Ps together and sometimes ended up being blown into the mangroves around the edge," he wrote in his book Peter Blake Adventurer. "We explored all the creeks near home. I can remember sailing on evenings after school, the sun going down on the water. I’d sail through flotillas of water birds. Really peaceful: I had as good a time then as sailing around the world years later."
It was not long before Peter outgrew the P-Class, his knees jamming under his chin as he tried to duck under the boom during tacks and gybes. He graduated to a Z-Class dinghy, which he called Tango. This had a menacing black hull, bright orange mainsail and black and orange striped spinnaker.
"One thing I always remember with Peter was that if it was blowing hard from the south west, we would slog over to the wharves (on the city side of the harbour) and then put up the spinnaker. We would fly back across the harbour with the boat going like an absolute rocket," says Tony.
There was great freedom to explore not only their physical environment, but their sailing abilities. With injunctions to wear their lifejackets and be home in time for dinner, the young Blake seafarers would be off onto the harbour at every opportunity. Tony Blake: "We used to keep the dinghies on the hardstand area at the Takapuna Yacht Club. There were lockers there, where we could store sails and gear, so we could just walk down from home and off we went."
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