Eco-warriors still chasing rainbow

By Tim Adams

An artists' impression of the design for the new Greenpeace boat, Rainbow Warrior III. Photo / Supplied
An artists' impression of the design for the new Greenpeace boat, Rainbow Warrior III. Photo / Supplied

The secretive shipyards of Bremen in northern Germany are where Russian oligarchs and Silicon Valley billionaires go to have their fantasies (and insecurities) made into yachts.

But at the Fassmer yard on the banks of the River Weser a different kind of £16 million ($32 million) dream boat is taking shape.

It is a dream that began more than 25 years ago, when Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior was sunk in the Waitemata Harbour by bombs planted by the French secret service.

The determination then, from environmental activists worldwide, was that "you can't sink a Rainbow".

Greenpeace has since become perhaps the world's most recognisable and sophisticated eco-charity. But its ships - converted trawlers and gas guzzlers - have never quite lived up to its green aspirations. That is where the dream comes in.

The new Rainbow Warrior III will be among the most environmentally advanced ships of its size at sea.

The boat - "don't call it a yacht!" I'm told - is nearly 60m long and under the scaffolding the distinctive dove of peace and childlike red-and-yellow-and-pink-and-green rainbow is visible on its hull.

At the beginning of next month, when the ship is baptised, twin 50m masts will be hoisted on its deck to carry 1200sq m of sail. A hybrid engine will be needed for only about 10 per cent of its operational power.

Everything about it, from the paintwork to the insulation, has been designed with sustainability in mind. Each component comes with transparent ethical sourcing. Below deck will be one of the most sophisticated communications operations anywhere on the ocean. The boat is also required to have something not mentioned in the hundreds of pages of specification: a soul.

This particular tricky fixture is very much rooted in its history. On one level Rainbow Warrior III is the inspired result of some of the latest thinking in sailboat technology from world-leading - mainly Dutch - computer modellers and wind-tunnel obsessives.

On another it is the latest fulfilment of an old Native American prophecy: "There will come a time when the earth grows sick, and when it does a tribe will gather from all the cultures of the world who believe in deeds and not words. They will work to heal it ... they will be known as the 'Warriors of the Rainbow'."

When Greenpeace activists in Britain thought of taking a ship to bear witness to some of the more blatant acts of ecological destruction - from whaling and oil exploration to nuclear testing and industrial fishing - in the remote oceans, only one name could do it justice.

The Scotland-built trawler the Sir William Hardy was almost ready for scrap when it was bought by Greenpeace for £40,000. After a refit and hand-painting of the famous logo on its bow, it first sailed out along the Thames on May 15, 1978.

The first Rainbow Warrior had been making headlines (and trouble for corporations and governments) successfully for seven years when, on a mission to disrupt French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, it was infamously sunk in Auckland by two bombs attached to its hull by French secret agents.

One Greenpeace crew member, photographer Fernando Pereira, was killed, having gone below deck after the first explosion to try to retrieve his cameras. The story quickly became a defining legend, not just of Greenpeace but of environmental activism in general.

The Rainbow Warrior III project is being overseen in Bremen by William Sykes, a 1.98m Glaswegian second-row forward, who shows me some of the ship's more unusual features.

When it first embarked on the commissioning of the ship, Greenpeace canvassed staff at its 40 global offices to come up with a list of "wants and needs" for the project.

As Greenpeace operations director Ulrich von Eitzen explains, "You can imagine that the wish list we got was quite a long one."

From it was developed a functional specification of 12 closely typed pages. One of the more insistent requirements, particularly from long-term crew members with the scent of old voyages to the Arctic or up the Amazon still vivid, was for a shower in each double cabin, as opposed to the scant communal facilities that had characterised previous boats.

Keen attention was also paid to galley facilities and sewage arrangements.

The ship's planned launch date, July 10, has a powerful significance: it's the 26th anniversary of the bombing of the first Rainbow Warrior. Those who were on board that night have been following the progress of the new ship with a sense of expectation.

When I phoned Peter Willcox, the captain in 1985, he was on a yacht near his home in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. He has worked as a skipper for Greenpeace for 30 years, at sea for six months of most of them. He has been distantly involved with the new Warrior, but mostly, he says wryly, "they seemed happy to keep me about 4000 miles [6400km] away".

Once the Rainbow Warrior III has done a European tour of duty at the end of the year, and given supporters a chance to see what their £10 a month has helped to pay for, Willcox will join it in the Azores in January and take the helm to America. He will then sail it up the Amazon, on its maiden campaign, as part of the protest against deforestation.

He still relives the day 26 years ago when he had to give the fateful shout to abandon ship. "One particularly moving thing for me," he says "was the 20th anniversary of the bombing, when I got to meet Marelle Pereira - Fernando's daughter.

"She is a remarkable woman who has gone through hell as a result of losing her father."

That anniversary was marked by the arrival of Rainbow Warrior II at Auckland and a special Maori ceremony. The recycled ship, which went into service four years after the sinking, these days spends more time out of the water than in it and, at 52 years old, is about to be retired.

Willcox, at 58, has no such plans. Things have changed over the years at Greenpeace, but one thing has not. "The atmosphere on the boats isn't very different. There is still a group of people bound by a similar goal."

The job allows him to see the wonders of the planet as well as the way we abuse them. "The most memorable trip was a couple of years ago, going up to Greenland to do climate-change research," he says. "We were up north of 80 degrees for seven weeks, kayaking in ice melt."

After that he was monitoring the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - "just depressing". Willcox is an optimist, but over the years he has never felt they were winning. "Greenpeace may be taken more seriously than it was 40 years ago, but that's partly because the planet is on its knees."

Still, he can't wait to get out on Rainbow Warrior III, not least because "Greenpeace running around in big polluting motor vessels is not ideal. It is good to see us get serious about alternative technology, because if we don't, how can we expect anyone else to?"

For David Edward, a Yorkshireman who was engineer on the boat in 1985, there is a great feeling of continuity. He is now in charge of all Greenpeace vessels at sea, but he is closely watching progress in Bremen.

For him, the bombing was the point at which Greenpeace grew up as an organisation. "I think it was a springboard for Greenpeace International. It made us even more determined," he says. "But also lawyers are now a big part of Greenpeace."

For a long while after the first Rainbow Warrior was raised, Edward thought it should be repaired. Instead, eventually, the ship was scuttled. Getting out for sea trials on the new boat in the coming months will be a kind of closure. "For me, it's the closing of a circle," he says.

"When we were in New Zealand with the old Warrior, after the bombing, I would go round schools and kids would hand me pocket money to help us build a new ship. I like to think that that money has finally helped to pay for this new boat."

Of course Rainbow Warrior III has to be as much about the future as about the past. Everyone I speak to at Greenpeace talks about getting the balance right between the size of the organisation and the need to put all the energy not into bureaucracy but the sharp end of campaigning. Rainbow Warrior III encapsulates this balance. Greenpeace is not a homemade anarchic kind of concern any more, it is a sophisticated lobbying network, but it still wants to be at the cutting end of environmental defence.

"One thing this boat says very clearly," Ulrich von Eizen maintains, "is that we are still out there.

"This is not about preserving our past victories, it's about the future. To keep on bearing witness."

High-tech battler

* Advanced technology that will drop smaller inflatable speedboats from its sides at record speed for the quickest possible advance or getaway.

* Helicopter pad that can be created on deck.

* Below-deck radio room with reinforced door built to allow at least 30 minutes transmission time in the event of the ship being boarded by SAS-style commandos wielding axes.

* Towering 50m twin masts carrying up to 1200sq m of sail.

* State-of-the-art hybrid engine required for just 10 per cent of operational power.


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