Given Blake’s determination to get this one right, it was a cruel twist of fate that saw Ceramco’s rig come crashing down in the first Atlantic leg of the Whitbread Race. A rigging failure brought down the rig 120 miles north of Ascension Island and, with it, any hopes of winning the race. However, Blake and his crew refused to give up and they fashioned a jury rig determined to make their own way to Cape Town.
At the completion of the second Whitbread Race, Condor was in need of a major refit. Blake spent much of the summer of 1978 based in the picturesque village of Emsworth on the English south coast helping with the refurbishment of the yacht. It was at the Emsworth Sailing Club that he met Pippa Glanville, a local girl who had been studying fine art in London.
Describing her as slim and blonde and “rather pretty”, Blake noted that he and Pippa were able to laugh at the same things. She, in turn, described him as “different from anyone else I had ever met.” She noticed an air about him – “he was obviously a man of the sea, an adventurer.”
The two were married in England in 1979 and spent part of their honeymoon delivering Condor to Australia, where it competed in the Sydney Hobart Race. 1979 was a big year for Blake. Not only did he get married, but he was appointed skipper of Condor and notched up a number of notable successes, taking line honours in the Miami to Montego Bay Race, the Antigua to Bermuda Race (setting a new record in the process) and the famous Fastnet Race in which 15 competitors lost their lives and six yachts sank.
By now, Blake had served his Whitbread apprenticeship and was keen to spearhead his own campaign. New Zealand was becoming a sailing force to be reckoned with. Blake was part of a wave of Kiwis taking the sailing world by storm. In 1969, Chris Bouzaid had captured the prestigious One Ton Cup with his famous home-built yacht, Rainbow. Ton Cup racing was the apex of round-the-buoys competition, and New Zealanders were showing their mettle in a number of contests, capturing all the trophies from the Quarter Ton Cup, through the Half Ton Cup to the One Ton Cup one or more times each.
However, for New Zealand to mount a serious campaign in the Whitbread was a massive step up. In the event, two New Zealand entries were mounted for the third Whitbread. One was Outward Bound, a 50-footer designed by Laurie Davidson and skippered by Digby Taylor. The other was Ceramco New Zealand, a 68ft sloop designed by Bruce Farr and skippered by Peter Blake.
To raise the funds for his campaign, Blake was fortunate in attracting the patronage of a local industrialist, Tom Clark, who was a keen yachtsman in his own right. Clark, now Sir Tom Clark, is a delightful character, straight-talking, bluff and jovial with his friends, a tough opponent with his rivals. He became an enduring mentor and touchstone for Blake throughout his sailing career.
At the time, Clark was chairman of the Ceramco Company and he set up a finance deal where the company undertook the principal sponsorship and where the balance was raised through a public sphere offering. Despite initial reservations, through Clarke’s persuasive skills, he managed to convince Blake to skipper the yacht and lead a team on a third Whitbread endeavour.
Ceramco began a successful campaign in the lead up to the Whitbread Race, winning the 1980 Sydney-Hobart race. This victory gained plenty of media coverage and made a big impression on many Kiwis who enjoyed nothing more than beating their Australian rivals. Ceramco then embarked on a victory tour of New Zealand. fundraising thousands of dollars for the Whitbread campaign along the way, turning Ceramco into the people’s boat.
In 1981, Ceramco set off from Portsmouth as a key contender for the Whitbread title and all was going to plan, 23 days into the race when disaster struck. The mast had fallen and with it Blake’s dreams of winning seemed to disintegrate. Ceramco was still 2500 miles downwind of the end of the first leg, Cape Town. In what appeared to be familiar territory, Blake and the crew were left with two choices. Either head to Ascension Island and motor to Cape Town, withdrawing from the first leg, or take the downwind route to Cape Town which was an extra 1000 to 1500 miles than the direct route.
For a determined Blake, the former was unthinkable. Ceramco went on the complete the first leg under jury rig – one of the most impressive feats in yachting history and a true testament to perseverance in itself.
With a new mast fitted in Cape Town, Ceramco went on the complete the rest of the legs, with a sixth in the second leg and notable wins on the legs to Auckland and then to Portsmouth. Ceramco finished the Whitbread in 11th place.