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Sailing to Save the World

The mighty Seamaster awaits her crew in the Amazon delta late last year after the tragic loss of her skipper.
It’s now been more than six months since the tragic loss of renowned yachtsman Sir Peter Blake, K.B.E., in the Amazon delta sent shockwaves around the world, both within and beyond the sailing community. Sir Peter had been leading an environmental expedition aboard the 115-foot aluminum schooner Seamaster when armed men stormed aboard, inciting a confrontation that eventually cost him his life. Months later, we encountered Seamaster anchored off the French side of St. Martin in the lee of high green mountains as steady trade winds sent cumulus clouds zipping overhead. Aboard the mammoth aluminum vessel, the crew was still struggling to come to terms with the loss of someone who was equal parts captain, visionary, and friend, but slowly, surely, blakexpeditions as the organization is known appeared to be regaining its momentum.

Cruising boats from all over the world anchor in this idyllic location, but there’s something about Seamaster that set her apart from the fleet. It wasn’t so much her gargantuan size. There was a tall ship and two or three mega yachts that measured longer on the water than Sir Peter’s craft. But Seamaster appeared to be all business. Her rounded stern, blunt bow, and almost submarine-like utilitarian lines suggest a capability beyond the ordinary realm of cruising vessels. All together she has an aspect of being capable of doing what very few vessels can, namely call any latitude on the planet home. From the searing tropics in the depths of the Amazon jungle, to the loneliest regions of the polar ice caps, she’s been there and back, sharing her tales with her followers along the way (see

Built in 1989 for Frenchman Jean Louis Etieanne, Seamaster traveled to the arctic where she wintered among the drifting snowfields, frozen in solid ice. For these kinds of extreme conditions, Seamaster can retract both her two centerboards and her rudders to protect them from the crush of the pack ice. Her two props are also encased in cages to ensure that they too suffer no damage from the immense pressures. The hull is 50 millimeters thick on the bottom, and 25 mm thick on the sides and the top. Seamaster, say members of her crew, can break up to a yard and a half of ice, and if it gets thicker than that the saucer shape hull also allows the vessel to be pushed up and over the ice as it forms, rather than be crushed by it. In short, Seamaster could be just the vessel that noted arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton might have wish he had.

Sir Peter Blake and his wife Pippa hosted New Zealand's Prime Minister aboard Seamaster not long before his death.
Sir Peter, who had proven himself immensely talented in international racing circuits, won the America’s Cup in 1995 and 2000 with Team New Zealand, sailed in the first five Whitbreads (winning the 1989 edition of that race), and captured the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994. He was chosen to succeed the late Jacques Cousteau as captain of the famed marine research vessel Calypso 2 after the last America’s Cup. But in the end he decided to head out on his own environmental mission, namely to chronicle the state of the environment in out-of-the way places and reveal that to the ordinary person via blakexpeditions, taking care to report his team’s findings in an understandable and an accessible manner. While the team has hosted zoologists and other scientists aboard Seamaster, the research they undertake is primarily meant to appeal to the nonscientists among us, with an additional emphasis on educational programs in schools.

Unlike Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd, the blakexpedition’s philosophy is non-confrontational. Sir Peter and a crew of five left New Zealand in 2000 and spent three months in the Antarctic. There they filmed documentaries and recorded the splendor of their encounters with Minke whales, humpbacks, penguins, seals, and albatrosses from the front row seats aboard Seamaster, relaying it to the rest of the world through their daily log updates on the website and by way of documentary films. In addition to the special skills such a sailing expedition calls for, picking a course through icebergs for instance, much of the crew have diving expertise that allows them to dive in the bone-chilling waters to photograph and film what they encounter there.

After the Antarctic expedition, the original itinerary for Seamaster and its crew was to call on the Amazon, and then head north to summer in the Arctic before backtracking to the South Pacific for coral reef observation. But then the well publicized tragedy struck. Now the team is looking to get its mission back on track.

"Seamaster, says her skipper, is a 'special boat, a yachtsman's yacht. She likes anything over 20 knots and she'll comfortably sail at 10 or 11 knots upwind.'"
"Peter’s original plan was to go as high as seven degrees north by July, but that won’t happen. We’ve had to scale that back due to our travels back to the Amazon to finish filming," said skipper Rob Warring, who describes himself as the new kid on the block when compared to some of the long-time crew members. Warring joined the boat in Buenos Aires last July as an engineer. The crew eventually piloted some 2,000 miles up the Amazon. The boat had been filming a documentary on the Amazon at the time of the attack. After Sir Peter’s death, the BBC wanted to film a documentary about him. From the Amazon, the crew of Seamaster made their way up to the Caribbean, and planned to jump from St. Martin to Newport, RI, where a major refit was scheduled.

Warring says that the scenery and the sailing are part and parcel, and the trip from one locale to the next is likely to be spirited if there’s any breeze about. "She’s a special boat, a yachtsman’s yacht," explains the skipper, who has been involved with yachting since he was six years old, spending the last 12 years involved in dive tourism and environmental education in Northern Australia. "We’ve all come from competitive racing backgrounds, so we’re always trying to tweak her as best we can. She likes anything over 20 knots. She’ll do 10 or 11 knots, but we average about eight or nine knots. After we drop down to about five knots, we’ll fire up the engine."

The two 89-foot masts are nearly identical, although she is technically a schooner. Seamaster is capable of spreading some 478 square yards of canvas. The crow’s nest on the mainsail is good for finding leads through ice, but also proved useful negotiating the twists and turns of the Amazon, allowing a vantage point above the trees to negotiate around the numerous shoals the team found there.

At 115 feet on deck, the aluminum-hulled Seamaster is an unusual sight in any harbor. Here, she rests at anchor off the French and Dutch island of St. Martin earlier this year.
With all of her capabilities, though, Seamaster is reportedly a hands-on and physically demanding craft to sail. For traveling in shallow waters, the twin centerboards are both winched up manually. Retracting the rudders is also a manual, block-and-tackle affair taking about three hours all together. Controlling the sails is done from forward of the pilothouse where a set of coffee grinders and a number of huge winches expose the trimmers to whatever conditions are at hand. The loads on all of this gear are immense; the turnbuckle for the upper shroud is as thick as a man’s forearm. With all six crew members pulling on the two-to-one halyard, they can raise the foresail and mainsails to the top set of spreaders, but after that the halyard has to go on a winch and be ground the rest of the way up.

In polar latitudes, with the sun shining for almost 24 hours, the huge Lexan windows on the cabin top help to keep the boat light and warm, although the brunt of the heating is done by a diesel heater. The boat is heavily insulated, both hull, deck, and under the floorboards have a thick layer of insulation to keep the interior warm and keep condensation at a minimum. Taking a tour of the boat is like taking a tour of a floating labyrinth. It seems to go on and on. The pilothouse is home to the electronics, autopilot, twin radars, GPS, wind, depth, and speed instruments. Following a short set of stairs down, the main salon area is huge beyond description. Inside a beam that measures over 30 feet there’s a galley on the port side that is more of a kitchen, and a settee on the starboard side that mimics a furniture store. In the middle are the boat’s diesel heaters, and the interior is decorated with photos from Seamaster’s past adventures in the Arctic, frozen among the ice with penguins in the foreground, or silhouetted behind large translucent icebergs. There are several hundred books in a bookshelf, which would doubtlessly prove useful in the case of being stuck in the ice.

In pursuit of environmental awareness, Seamaster will continue to ply the seas. Here the vessel's 30-plus-foot beam proves too much for the photographer's lens.
Forward are the crew quarters, and beyond a watertight door in the bow is a dive compressor, freezer, a few surfboards, a windsurfer, spare line, crates of spare parts, as well as prodigious amounts of other gear necessary for this type of extended voyaging in far away places. Aft are the machine spaces, another set of watertight doors, a workbench, and an extensive array of battery banks. An entire aft section houses another dive compressor, dive tanks, wet suits, diving equipment for every type of condition, complete with several underwater scooters. There are two freezers, five inverters, two generators, a backup generator, and an emergency bilge pump. With her two 350-hp main engines and enormous fuel capacity, Seamaster has a range of 10,000 nm under power alone, although her crew is more likely to be sailing when the conditions allow.

Some time after I scripted this, Seamaster arrived in Newport and is now undergoing a major refit—the first the boat has had in some 18 months. The itinerary thereafter has yet to evolve. Warring says that the crew is doing all of the work themselves, fixing generators, overhauling the twin engines, updating the electronics; in short, doing everything they can to make their next expedition as free from breakdowns as possible. There’s not likely to be too many equipment specialists among the bergy bits in Baffin Bay, if they indeed make it up there this summer.

The Work Goes On

As part of the United Nations Environmental Program, Sir Peter Blake's organization, blakexpeditions belongs to a worldwide consortium designed to heighten the awareness of the environment on a global scale. In the wake of his death, the organization has indicated that it plans to continue its vital work, with Seamaster sailing the globe for the benefit of all.

After heading north to Arctic waters, the crew will take the boat across the South Pacific to study coral reefs. It's certain that there will always be further discoveries ahead for this novel vessel. For more information see

Suggested Reading:

How We Define Seaworthy by Don Casey

Boats for the Long Haul by John Kretschmer

The Environmentally Aware Sailor by Micca Hutchins

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