New book perfectly captures our Hero of the Sea

By Suzanne McFadden 

David Hill may not know a luff from a lanyard. And yet he was able to capture the essence of Sir Peter Blake in his picture book for young readers, Hero of the Sea.

Hill, an award-winning New Zealand author, did extensive research into the life of the late adventurer and environmentalist, and learned a lot about the man, and sailing, in the process.

“I spoke to a sailing friend of mine who pointed out any blunders,” Hill laughs. “When you’re writing about someone like Peter, who I think every New Zealander feels they own a piece of, you have to get it especially right.”

He also had “really valuable” help from Pippa, Lady Blake – who features prominently in the book, too.

“She was so understanding of what we were trying to do, and her suggestions were excellent. It was wonderful to have her co-operation and not feel the book was compromised.”

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The book, beautifully illustrated by Phoebe Morris, paints the life story of Sir Peter, from his childhood through to his untimely death in the Amazon 17 years ago.

Hill never met the hero of the story, but the former teacher taught Sir Peter’s brother Tony at Takapuna Grammar School.

“I’d known Peter mainly as the sailor; I’d been aware that he’d committed himself to environmental causes, but I hadn’t realise the extent. His total dedication to the environment was the discovery for me,” he says.

“This was a guy with a searchlight in his head. He would apply it to yachting, and when it came to the environmental issues, he had the same absolute, almost irradiating quality, and he would light up and search everything he committed himself to.”

During his research, where he handwrote pages and pages of notes, Hill was “enchanted” by some of the little details of Sir Peter’s life.  “He and Tony building their boat on the lawn as kids, then sailing it across to the city and belting back across the harbour. And proposing to Pippa in the boatyard,” he says. “It’s also a love story of sorts.

“It’s not a book just for sailing aficionados, or just for kids. We know adults read these books too.” 

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He felt it was important to show throughout the book that Sir Peter’s passion for the natural world wasn’t only towards the end of his life. “I didn’t want to give the impression that his sailing life ended and then, bang, his environmental life began. They complimented and contributed to each other,” he says. 

Hero of the Sea is the fourth book in a series of true Kiwi heroes, sitting alongside Jean Batten, Sir Edmund Hillary and Burt Munro.   All of the books have been illustrated by Morris, a freelance illustrator who lives in Wellington.

“Penguin Random New Zealand are delighted to have found Phoebe,” Hill says. “And I really enjoy working with her. I love the quirky little details she puts in. Her double page spread of Peter’s first Whitbread Race,  with the yacht in a storm, and an umbrella blowing away above the yacht. And penguins looking on curiously, but not cute, as the expedition heads to Antarctica.

“I’ve had to learn to leave Phoebe to do things. In other fiction that I write, I do the describing. But I’ve come to realise the wonderful things that Phoebe can do, in not just complimenting the text but expanding and lifting it with her illustrations.”

* Hero of the Sea is the perfect Christmas gift for young people and can be purchased for $25 through all leading New Zealand bookstores. Each book sold generates a small donation to the Sir Peter Blake Trust to help us continue his environmental legacy.