Thursday, November 15, 2012

Escape of the Rainbow Warrior ... Greenpeace Days

In 1980, the good ship Rainbow Warrior was detained by the Spanish government over a disagreement about harpoons. Greenpeace thought they should be in a museum, and Spain thought they should be used to kill whales. Hence our crew putting themselves in little inflatable boats between the whaling ship and the whales, and thus the arrest of our flagship the Rainbow Warrior.

Which only led to another disagreement with Spain over money, in that we refused to give them any, while they wanted Greenpeace to pay them a half a million dollars to cover the cost of the whales we'd prevented them from killing. This stalemate resulted in our ship languishing at dock in the military town of El Ferrol.

Not only was the R Dub parked in the midst the modern-day Spanish Armada, it had been disabled by the removal of the thrust block, a vital part of the propeller shaft. And it was under 24-hour guard. And her bow was pointing toward shore.

So first things first. The skeleton crew that remained aboard began painting the side of the ship beside the dock. When that side was done, they sought and received permission to spin the ship around, using the rope lines, so they could paint the other side.

During this time, a replacement thrust block had been manufactured in the UK;  Tony smuggled it across the border in an old VW van. He drove into the military port and audaciously parked next to a police vehicle, then sauntered off to join the crew in their nightly pub crawl.

So far so good. Now the trick was to get the thrust block past the guards and onto the ship. For this, the crew used its own bad habits as cover. Late one night they staggered back from the bar, rowdy and boisterous. Athel peeled off from the group and stopped off at the van. He staggered onto the ship, apparently from drunkenness, but really under the weight of the thrust block; with the military police amused and distracted by the happy revelry of rest of the crew.

After they'll installed the thrust block (quietly, quietly!), Tony slipped over the side to check the state of the ship below sea line. The Rainbow Warrior had now spent five months at dock, and the hull of the 146-foot ship was coated with the seaweed. Tony was able to scrap off the stuff attached to the propeller, but the seaweed remaining on the hull worried the crew.

David noted that when the guards switched there were sometimes two or three  minutes when no one was closely watching the ship. So the crew watched the guards who watched the ship...and at the evening changing of the guard, the two men stepped briefly away, deep in conversation. The crew threw the lines aboard and--another miracle--the engine started up without complaint. 

The ship motored toward the sea, but the seaweed on the hull slowed them down. They could only make 7 knots, which is ridiculously slow. So ridiculous that when the Spanish navy realized the escape and started after the Rainbow Warrior, they passed our ship in the dark. The anxious crew could see the lights of a helicopter searching ahead of them. Instead of making a straight run across the channel to the UK, as Spain anticipated, the R Dub hugged the coast, and crept across the French border. 

By the time the crew made it to England, the cameras and the champagne and the cheers were waiting for them. 

The guys who brought back our ship:
Pierre Gleizes, Tony Marriner, Athel von Koettlitz, David McTaggart,
Cap't. Jon Castle, Tim Mark and Chris Robinson. 
(Want to read more about Greenpeace days? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the word Greenpeace.)  


  1. This is such a great story!

  2. Exciting and triumphant!

    But, why were they painting the ship? To disguise it? To stall for time?

  3. The more I learn about these hippy tree-huggers, the better I like them! What great stories you tell.

  4. So they could turn it around and point it toward the open sea.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Remember this with much elation. Bloody wonderful!