Greenpeace on-board campaign training

Arctic Sunrise
Arc­tic Sun­rise

It’s 4am in the morn­ing and the Arc­tic Sun­rise lies at anchor just off Den Helder, the last Dutch port before you enter the North Sea. I’m in the cam­paign office, a cab­in close by the bridge that reeks of human beings spend­ing too many days in too close prox­im­i­ty under too much stress. Here the action team has just learned that their last 24 hours of plan­ning and train­ing to stop an oil rig from mov­ing into place in the Arc­tic have been for nought. The rig has got wind of Greenpeace’s pres­ence in the region, dou­bling its speed. We can’t catch them in time to provide the planned dra­mat­ic back­drop to the speech of Kumi Naidoo, our Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, before the Unit­ed Nations to call for an end to oil drilling in the Arc­tic.

What the team doesn’t know is that this is a false alarm. It’s designed to test their sleep-deprived deci­sion mak­ing, strain the team and its lead­er, demon­strate the impor­tance of back­up con­tin­gen­cy plans at sea, and stress their over­all per­for­mance in tomorrow’s action. If they analy­se the data close­ly, they’ll fig­ure out it makes no sense and start to ques­tion it. If they don’t, they’ll spend the next hour being observed to see how resilient­ly they react, what they pri­ori­tise, and how well they lay out con­tin­gen­cy alter­na­tives. Then they’ll learn that the infor­ma­tion of the rig’s accel­er­a­tion result­ed from a com­put­er glitch, and they can return to the plan they’ve cooked up with the crew and spent most of the night prepar­ing, but an hour the poor­er in prepa­ra­tion time and sleep.

This is an On Board Cam­paign­ers Train­ing, a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al Action Team’s cur­ricu­lum to help accel­er­ate the tran­si­tion of promis­ing trou­ble­mak­er tal­ent into sea­soned salty dogs. The 12 trainees we’re work­ing with today hail from Rus­sia, Switzer­land, Nor­way, Spain, Nether­lands, the UK, and Canada.

There’s a lawyer, a video­g­ra­pher, a cou­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ists, ex-jour­nal­ists, web and social media spe­cial­ists, cam­paign­ers, and action coor­di­na­tors who’ve been part of or run land-based activ­i­ties for Green­peace and who have vol­un­teered to par­tic­i­pate in ship-based actions. None have yet been to sea.

In a series of cold and salty work­shops, they learn to get on a mov­ing rigid hulled inflat­able boat from the mov­ing Arc­tic Sun­rise. They learn to climb a board­ing lad­der, how to don a sur­vival suit, how to hang a ban­ner from a mov­ing ship.

They learn how to walk on a rolling deck, learn their way around the ship and how not to bonk their heads or stub a toe in hatch­es that aren’t square nor designed for easy pas­sage; fig­ur­ing out where the mess and the gal­ley and the mon­key island are; and the impor­tance of say­ing port and star­board instead of left and right. They learn to spell pho­net­i­cal­ly so they can be under­stood on the Romeo-Alpha-Delta-India- Oscar. They learn what it’s like to oper­ate in a dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment with extreme lim­i­ta­tions on band­width and inter­net access. They learn about the impor­tance of har­mony and shar­ing the hard work of life on board, and the very unhip­py hier­ar­chies that make a ship safe and func­tion­al, and why at sea the captain’s word is law. They learn that here we fol­low the ancient wis­dom that no ship can sail by com­mit­tee, and Green­peace when at sea is there to defend democ­ra­cy, not to prac­tice it.

But most of all, they learn how to cam­paign. In 6 short days, they get a crash course in the col­lec­tive his­to­ry of Green­peace think­ing about how to bring change to the world, from the IDEAL mod­el (Inves­ti­gate-Doc­u­ment-Expose-Take Action-Lever­age pub­lic opin­ion) to how to con­struct a crit­i­cal path to the dif­fer­ence between strat­e­gy and tac­tics.

They learn the the­o­ry in the lounge and the mess. They learn the prac­tice out on the water.

We draw from a com­bined 70 years of Green­peace expe­ri­ence to refine and run two role-play sce­nar­ios, drawn from pre­vi­ous train­ings. We appoint an onboard cam­paign­er, an actions coor­di­na­tor, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager, a dig­i­tal spe­cial­ist, a video­g­ra­pher, a pho­tog­ra­pher and set them the task of design­ing and exe­cut­ing an action at sea. Our goal is sim­ple: make the trainee’s lives hell. My action unit col­leagues have cre­at­ed a safe space for trainees to learn by their mis­takes, and we try to force as many on them as pos­si­ble in an extreme­ly com­pressed time­line. But one of the rules of the game: while the sto­ry as a whole may be fic­tion, we will nev­er throw a curve ball that hasn’t been pitched at the organ­i­sa­tion in real life.

For 36 hour blocks, we recre­ate sit­u­a­tions we’ve been through. We design char­ac­ters and set­tings and nar­ra­tives drawn from sto­ries we’ve all heard around the organ­i­sa­tion­al camp­fire, and recre­ate them using the ship as stage, and the crew and trainees as actors. Some play a role they might expect to play on board. Other’s get to play out­side their exper­tise and observe them­selves as played by anoth­er. And in addi­tion to the cam­paign and crew roles, we have dou­ble agents: char­ac­ters with spe­cial secret brief­in­gs designed to test the patience and diplo­ma­cy of activists and crew. There’s a fiendish­ly twist­ed and divi­sive embed­ded jour­nal­ist, the rest­less celebri­ty who wants her poodle chop­pered in, the social media celeb who has 2.5 mil­lion twit­ter fol­low­ers which could all decide en masse to hate us if we don’t man­age our rela­tion­ship with her well.

They get the unex­pect­ed ill­ness, the open rebel­lion of a crew mem­ber, the equip­ment fail­ure, the false alarm: sit­u­a­tions we’ve engi­neered. But they also get the dry suit which doesn’t keep you dry, the dead cam­era bat­tery that got grabbed instead of the charged one, the dropped inter­net sig­nal, the sam­ple bot­tle of tox­ic waste that breaks on deck, and the sea­sick activist — sit­u­a­tions we *didn’t* con­struct but which our para­noid trainees will think we did.

Dave Roberts
Heath Han­son








This train­ing is being led by Dave Roberts, a rather elder­ly sea­far­ing gen­tle­man of dubi­ous char­ac­ter who has yarns about more Green­peace ships than any­one I know, and will dis­tract your sto­ry­line with amus­ing anec­dotes with lit­tle or no prompt­ing. This time out I hear of the vent on for­mer Green­peace ves­sel the “Black Pig,” which appar­ent­ly was shaped so like a toad­stool it proved irre­sistible to wags on every voy­age who would paint it red with white dots. Back in Ams­ter­dam, it would get a new coat of plain white paint by the una­mused David Roy. Roberts reck­ons that more paint was applied to that vent over the years than was applied to the entire­ty of the ship.

Heath, our sec­ond train­er, is a young whip­per-snap­per, an expe­ri­enced action coor­di­na­tor, mus­ter­er of vol­un­teers, and a guru of gad­getry. Need a quadro-copter? 20 peo­ple will­ing to dress like man­nequins in a bit of street the­atre? A mag­net­ic track­ing device that will bea­con the loca­tion of a con­tain­er of tox­ic waste for six months? A Mop Cam? (That’s a GoPro he’s attach­ing in the pic­ture above). Heath is your man.

The Green­peace ships are the camp­fires around which we tell our sto­ries: the tri­umphs, the fail­ures, the com­plete f*&^% ups. And it’s where we try to ensure that a few core val­ues and best prac­tics of how we do the­se things car­ry on: the duty of care that we share indi­vid­u­al­ly and organ­i­sa­tion­al­ly for any­one who vol­un­teers to put them­selves in harm’s way. The absolute sanc­ti­ty of ensur­ing every­one makes a ful­ly informed deci­sion about the risks they are vol­un­teer­ing to take. They’ll learn the mantra of “Safe­ty First” and the pri­ma­cy of non-vio­lence in all we do.

But there are things that train­ing can­not teach. There are sit­u­a­tions that can­not be sim­u­lat­ed.

We can stress them pret­ty darn far, and we do. There are tears, gen­uine anger, they suf­fer phys­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly. This isn’t gra­tu­itous tor­ment: we’re here to make them ready for the real thing. But we can’t entire­ly pre­pare them to make the right call in those moments of extreme pres­sure when luck and weath­er con­spire to undo months of prepa­ra­tion. We can only hint at what if feels like to live through a knife-blade moment when the life of an indi­vid­u­al or an entire crew, or the suc­cess of a cam­paign or the organisation’s rep­u­ta­tion hangs in the bal­ance, with your ass in the hot-seat call­ing the shots. Nor can we recre­ate the defla­tion of fail­ure or exhil­a­ra­tion of vic­to­ry, of bend­ing the arc of his­to­ry, of learn­ing pre­cise­ly how much a small band of peo­ple, in a tiny boat, with a good idea, can do when they pull togeth­er.

But we can open the door a crack. And if they learn noth­ing else, they’ll get an inkling of how pas­sion and love and cre­ativ­i­ty and fierce ded­i­ca­tion turn the­se hol­low souls of steel and wood from ships to liv­ing spir­its; part home, part friend, part fick­le tor­men­tor, part sleep­less guardians of the Earth.

1 thought on “Greenpeace on-board campaign training”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.