They gathered to farewell a ship — former captains, campaigners, and crew — and raise a toast to a creature of steel and wood and rope which had been their home, their guardian, their fierce champion, and occasionally their trickster nemesis.
And, as whenever a Greenpeace salty dog or two is gathered, they rose, one by one, to tell the stories of each other’s exploits, to rib one another with tales of embarrassments and foibles, and to praise such little-known skills as a crew member’s ability to climb out of the porthole of a captain’s cabin, back in the porthole of the lounge, and get back into her own cabin without being detected by the watch. Or so she thought, anyway, these many years.
These are the gatherings where we tell the stories we do not tell in press releases.
Stories like the beer run that two rooky crew went on in one of the rubber boats, tying up to the quay side and setting off to hoist 4 crates apiece, hard work in the burning afternoon sun, and so deserving a stop in a pub for a cold one. Or two, or three. At which point locals were coming in and laughing about someone’s rubber boat. Their rubber boat, it turned out, as they finally staggered to the quay side with their four crates apiece to discover the tide had gone out, and left their hapless craft suspended by its lines 2 meters in the air.
Or the story of one captain’s first day on the ship, when in the middle of the complicated operation of launching a zodiac at speed, he went below to fetch life vests. The sight that greeted him when he returned to deck was indelibly impressed: all he saw was a row of bums along the rail, where every crew member was leaning over the water. The zodiac was below them, upside down in the sea, its occupants sputtering and clamouring onto the overturned hull. “What have I got myself into” was all he could think.
Or the one about the arrival in Istanbul, where because Sirius was registered as a yacht (there’s no marine classification for eco-campaign ships), she was welcomed into the Yacht harbour, crowded with dozens of tiny, fragile, outrageously expensive luxury vessels, including Gerald Ford’s three-master. When a harbour pilot’s instructions were misunderstood, the only choice to avoid catastrophe whas a full-speed maneuver and a subsequent dropping of anchor. The anchor chain, however, snagged on the moorings of a dozen ships as the Sirius reluctantly slowed to a halt, dragging the yachts in that part of the harbour into a petal pattern around her. It took days for divers to sort the tangle out.
The Sirius was launched as a Greenpeace ship in 1981, and for nearly two decades sailed the waters of the North Sea and Med, notching her rails with arrests and victories against environmental abuses that were then commonplace, many of which today would be four-star scandals of major media magnitude in Europe: the dumping of raw Titanium Dioxide waste into European rivers, the tipping of barrels of radioactive waste into the North Sea, the slaughter of whales off Gibralter by Russian whaling ships, the harvesting of red coral with iron drag bars.
She placed artificial reefs designed to snag illegal driftnets, her crew boarded radioactive waste ships and occupied cranes to stop the loading of deadly cargo. She faced Russian and American war ships, painting them with nuclear symbols to identify them as carrying nuclear weapons at a time when neither side would confirm or deny their presence. She called Italy’s attention to the presence of cruise missiles at a US submarine base at La Maddalena, and found radiation on the seabed where none was supposed to be.
She hosted a concert by the Waterboys in Dublin, she helped found our office in Greece, she first carried Greenpeace’s message to Africa. She fought radioactive waste discharges in Sellafield and Cherbourgh, she campaigned in the Adriatic and the Irish sea.
She was shot at, rammed, and arrested.
And she was loved.
She has spent her last days at a wharf in the Netherlands, where children, my own sons included, have gone with their school classes to spin the steering wheel, try on a survival suit, sit in one of those rubber boats, and hear of her history and the issues she worked on. But the school programme has been expensive to run, the ship has become increasingly expensive to keep afloat in a place that’s safe for children, and the decision has been made to find a new home for her at a maritime museum, or as an historic bead and breakfast, or failing that, to take her apart for recycling.
Somehow at this point, our party turned into a meeting. A classic crew meeting in which everyone asked if there wasn’t something we all could do to keep her going, or to send her off with one last campaign, or to commandeer her, as once was done, in an act of mutiny against the forces of bureaucracy and budgets. The meeting concluded without a clear conclusion. Greenpeace will retire the Sirius from her educational duties, but beyond that her future remains undecided.
The Sirius was named for a star, the brightest star in the night sky, sometimes called the “Dog Star” and a faithful friend to navigators since human beings set out in ships. In the 19th century, it was discovered that one reason it appears so bright is that it’s actually two stars, a binary pair, set in a luminous cluster.
Whatever the fate of the wood and steel and rope of the Sirius may be, her memory will be kept bright by the companion stars who turned up to see her off: the crew and captains that brought her story to life, and sailed her, ever true, into a place in history.