As James Blake heads off on his first round-the-world race odyssey, he knows he will find a new appreciation of what his father, Sir Peter Blake, achieved, and see the oceans he fell in love with.
Blake admits he’s tried to stay away from sailing for most of his 30 years, even though his dad was regarded as one of the world’s greatest yachtsmen. But when the opportunity came up to be an onboard reporter in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, the nature documentary film-maker couldn’t turn it down.
“It’s a bit of a challenge, but I like to push myself.”
Blake headed off on the first leg of the race – from Alicante to Lisbon, through the Straits of Gibraltar – on October 23, on board the US/Danish boat, Vestas 11th Hour. On the next two legs, he switches to AkzoNobel, the Dutch yacht skippered by Kiwi Brad Jackson, who’s sailing in his seventh round-the-world race.
It’s a new rule of the race that onboard reporters will switch boats during the race – a move Blake says will “take a bit of getting used to”, but he expects to enjoy sailing with different crews. Witnessing what the sailors, both men and women, put themselves through to conquer the 45,000 nautical mile race, was one of the reasons Blake signed up.
“Seeing how hard these guys push themselves and push the boats, is quite incredible. They’re always trying to make the boat go faster. So watching that as a fly on the wall is superb, and encouraging.”
It’s already given him a new appreciation of what his father achieved in five versions of the race, finally winning it in 1989-90. “The race has changed a lot since Dad was here, but once you narrow it down, it’s still men and women out there facing the same elements. It’s great seeing a little bit of what he saw.”
Blake says his mother – Sir Peter Blake Trust co-patron Pippa, Lady Blake – is happy to see him involved in the race. “I’ve always been off somewhere in the world filming, and she sees this as me at work. There are, of course, some historical elements to this job though,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m here to film these guys sail around the world.”
The environmental message the Volvo Ocean Race is sending out to the world was also key to Blake signing up. The race is focusing on taking action to help “Turn the Tide on Plastic” – the rapidly growing and critical problem of plastic polluting the ocean, highlighted by the United Nations Environment’s Clean Seas campaign.
“The Volvo puts a lot of emphasis on the environmental stance, and that’s one of the reasons I was so keen to get involved. It’s great seeing what a large organisation like this can do if they want to; it might encourage and push other big organisations to do the same,” Blake says.
“The ocean is their playground, their race track, and it’s up to us to go out there and document it, and hopefully get other people to appreciate it more.”
He’s also looking forward to sailing through the Southern Ocean – one of Sir Peter’s great passions. “The route has two big Southern Ocean legs – one from Cape Town to Melbourne, and then Auckland to Itajai – so to go out and experience those seas on these boats… I don’t think I can quite get my head around it just yet. But that’s something that has drawn me to this race, and got me really excited about it.”
It takes Blake a couple of days to get used to being out at sea, but then he admits he finds it “quite comforting” being back on board a boat. But he’s under no illusion that this will be a cruise. Filming and photographing the movements of the crew around the clock, and then editing in a small square of space on the Volvo Ocean 65 – which is just 20m long – will be exhausting.
“There’s not a lot of personal space, and my little office space is a bit bigger than what most of the sailors get. But you quite quickly get used to it and you end up loving it a bit,” he says.
Blake, who considers himself a Kiwi-Brit, is looking forward to “coming home” to Auckland at the end of leg six, some time towards the end of February. His sister, Sarah-Jane, will be there welcoming him back. “It will be nice to see her after a very long trip from Hong Kong,” he says.
Although he doesn’t consider himself a great sailor, Blake loves the sea, and has his eyes on another big challenge after the Volvo. He and a friend have been building a prototype of a kiteboat to sail across the Atlantic.
“I’ve always been a very keen kite surfer and it’s something I’ve thought about since I was 18. I was on a boat from Newport to Antigua in a big storm, and I thought it would be fantastic to do this powered by kite. There’s only one other person doing it in the world, and throughout our testing, our boat has been super-efficient so we want to start breaking some records by kite.”
But right now, the Volvo Ocean Race is his priority. “I guess it’s in my blood,” he laughs. “I know there will be tough times, but at the end of the day, I think it will put a smile on my face.”