Nearly 30 years on, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior remains deeply lodged in our national psyche - and the thoughts of the ship's captain, Peter Willcox.

Fernando Pereira, a 35-year-old photographer, died when the Greenpeace ship was bombed by French agents just before midnight on July 10, 1985.

Willcox was asleep in his cabin when the first of two bombs detonated.

Just half an hour before the attack there had been a meeting on board the ship for the New Zealand peace fleet skippers and crew to discuss logistics for their trip to the Moruroa Atoll to protest French nuclear testing.

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"I had gone to bed right after that," Willcox said, talking to the Herald on Sunday near where the Rainbow Warrior sunk.

"I was in my bed sleeping and I just woke up. I didn't hear an explosion."

Dressed only in a towel, Willcox rushed around the ship which was rapidly filling up with water.

At the stairs to the cabins, Willcox asked first mate Martini Gotje if all the crew members were out and he said yes.

"That's when the second bomb went off and now I was if anything a little more confused, I couldn't figure out what was going on," Willcox said.

"I looked at Martini and said 'abandon ship, we need to get out of here'. By this time I had lost the towel, I was running around naked."

From hearing the blast to chasing the police car as the convicted spies were smuggled out of the country, Herald reporters recount how they broke the story.

It had been reported that Pereria left the boat and then returned before the second bomb to retrieve his camera equipment. However, Willcox says this wasn't the case.

"I discussed it with Martini, who said Fernando never left the boat, he just went from the mess to his cabin.

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"What happened when the second bomb went off was not only did a flood of water come into his cabin, it wracked his door so he couldn't get out."

An inspection of the partially sunken boat the day after the explosions revealed it had been targeted by a deliberate attack.

Two days later, two French agents, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, were caught waiting for a refund on a camper van. It was later revealed the attack was given the go ahead by French president Francois Mitterrand.

The pair later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment 5.

As a result, France threatened an economic embargo of New Zealand's exports to the European Economic Community if they were not released. A deal was later made that saw France pay $13 million to New Zealand and apologise. In return, Mafart and Prier would be detained at the French military base on Hao Atoll for three years.

However, both returned to France after less than two years on the atoll.

Three other agents were arrested by Australian police on Norfolk Island, but were released. The commander of the operation, Louis-Pierre Dillais was never captured and never faced charges.

Willcox said: "I think France has a lot to be sorry for but at this point it's an old story. The agents were soldiers. Soldiers do what they're told."

He remains in touch with many of the crew members of the Rainbow Warrior and was set to head to Waiheke Island on Saturday afternoon for dinner with former Greenpeace head Bunny McDiarmid and her partner and fellow crew member Henk Haazen.