Blake is an onboard reporter, or OBR — one of 10 men and women hired by the race to deliver video, photography and written material from the boats. The OBRs are, by job definition, fly-on-the-deck observers and are not permitted to help with the performance of the yachts (although they can do lots of cooking).
But impartiality can prove elusive when you share very cramped quarters and the perils of ocean racing during legs that can stretch to 7,600 nautical miles and last more than 20 days.
“The most important thing is telling the story, but it’s a fine line we all have to dance between telling the good, the bad and the ugly,” Corinna Halloran, a former onboard reporter, once said.
That dance, never straightforward since embedded reporting became part of the Volvo in 2008, has been particularly challenging during this edition of the race, which has twice turned tragic.
In January, a fisherman was killed after the Danish-American team, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, collided with a Chinese fishing boat. Then in March, John Fisher, a British sailor with the Hong Kong-based team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, was lost at sea and presumed dead after being swept overboard about 1,400 nautical miles west of Cape Horn.
Largely for legal reasons, the race released little detailed information from on board Vestas after the January incident. Konrad Frost, the OBR on Scallywag during the fatal leg in March, stopped reporting after it became clear that Fisher had been lost.
“Konrad is a very experienced cameraman, and it was his judgment on what should and should not be captured,” said Brian Carlin, the OBR team leader. “Konrad stood down and did not continue, and I think that was only right.”
Fisher’s loss was an emotional blow.
“It’s definitely been a big shock to everyone,” Blake said. “My initial thoughts were just with his family, because I have a little bit of experience with what they are going through.”
Blake was 14 when his father was killed during an environmental research mission.
The society’s yacht, Seamaster, was anchored in Macapa near the mouth of the Amazon delta when a small band of masked river pirates came aboard with guns drawn and balaclavas in place. Peter Blake, in an attempt to protect his crew, fired a rifle and was shot twice in the back by Ricardo Colares Tavares, who was later sentenced to 36 years in prison in Brazil for the murder.
Peter Blake became an icon in New Zealand, where sailing is an intermittent national obsession. He was imposing with a bushy mustache, and though plenty of Kiwi sailors won more regattas, he had a rumpled charisma and persistence. He finally won the Whitbread on his fifth attempt, sweeping all six legs during the 1989-90 edition as skipper of Steinlager 2.
After managing an unsuccessful challenge for the 1992 America’s Cup, he was the syndicate head in 1995 when Team New Zealand won yachting’s most prestigious trophy for the first time. He played the same role off the water again in 2000 when the team successfully defended the Cup at home in Auckland.
During those campaigns, his lucky red socks became a national symbol (and fund-raising vehicle), worn by Prime Minister Jim Bolger and other New Zealanders in honor of a small nation’s ability to punch above its weight.
James’ older sister, Sarah-Jane, is an artist who is married to Alistair Moore, one of Peter Blake’s former crew members on Seamaster. James and Sarah-Jane grew up sailing with their father and British mother, Pippa, on family cruises in places like New Zealand’s Bay of Islands and Scotland’s west coast.
He holds dual British-New Zealand citizenship but was raised and educated mainly in the United Kingdom, where he remains based when he is not being buffeted by winds and doused by seawater with a camera or drone control in hand.
“These boats are very, very wet,” James said. “Sometimes it just feels like you are underwater.”
Blake might not be an offshore racer, but he shares his father’s adventurous streak. In 2012 he rowed from Australia to New Zealand with three companions, losing about 40 pounds during the 51 days it took to complete the crossing. He and a friend are attempting to develop a foiling kite boat to make a trans-Atlantic crossing.
A cameraman by trade, he has focused, until now, on wildlife and historical documentaries, including work on the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.
“I’ve never really covered sport before,” Blake said. “Lots of sharks and whales, but this popped up, and it’s a bit of a challenge really. I like filming expeditions and people going through a bit of hardship, so for me this has been a chance to look into that basically, and it’s also been quite nice from a personal point of view seeing what Dad went through.”
He was encouraged to apply for the Volvo OBR role by Leon Sefton, head of television and video for the race. Sefton is the son of Alan Sefton, a former journalist who became Peter Blake’s biographer and aide-de-camp.
The family connection surely did not hurt in making the final cut among the 140 candidates who made it through the initial vetting process.
“The Blake family is always an important part of this race, but James got here on his merits as a cameraman,” Carlin said. “It’s just an added bonus that he happens to be Sir Peter Blake’s son.”
The OBRs rotate from crew to crew in this edition, and Blake has sailed with three different teams during the first eight legs of this race.
He was aboard Dutch entrant Team AkzoNobel for the third leg from Cape Town to Melbourne, Australia, when the boat’s mast track broke in December amid 50-knot squalls.
“We’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere and you see this dip in how everyone is feeling, like we’re screwed basically,” Blake said. “And I’d say within five minutes everyone was back up and running. There was a game plan, the humor was back and everyone got on with it, so that will really stick with me.”
But the highlight so far for Blake was rounding the Horn: documenting the huge seas and seeing the albatrosses his father spoke about so often.
“You see these birds that put no apparent effort into being down there, and we’re 10 men and women in a boat struggling just to stay afloat,” Blake said. “And you see them flying around up there, and you wonder what they’re thinking of you. It’s quite amusing.”
Blake and the rest of the crew did manage to stay afloat, and when they arrived in Itajai, Brazil, in March they made their way to a restaurant to celebrate the return to terra firma.
“It was a nice meal out,” Blake said. “And everyone was putting their elbows on the table.”