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.
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.