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What haunts the Captain of the Rainbow Warrior?

by Maxine Newlands

Peter Wilcox, Captain of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior III is deeply worried, but not about being blown up by the secret service (again), direct action, terrorism, or being rammed. Maxine Newlands finds out what it is he truly fears.....

We’re talking about the Pacific Ocean dying in 15- 20 years. That is such a horrific thought that it blows my mind

“I’m scared" admits Captain Peter Wilcox. "Scared that we have lost the battle against climate change. But this stuff gets me up in the morning.....I say we’re losing, does that mean I’m gonna stop? No. Absolutely not. I’ll go down fighting. We’re not winning, we’re not succeeding. Global warming is getting worse, and worse, and worse and we haven’t even started to change the way we live on the planet”. 

Rainbow Warrior III is Greenpeace’s first custom built sailing ship powered by renewable energy. The ships ‘A’ frame masts are hydraulically powered and a long way from the spinnaker that Wilcox added to the first Rainbow Warrior. He recalls how they were really short on fuel; "so we put up the spinnaker, and made a couple of hundred miles of free sailing”. Wilcox likes to think his $40 sail influenced the new ships designers; "I hope I had a little part to play in convincing the organisation that sailing on renewable energy could happen.” 

Wilcox has sailed the world campaigning for Greenpeace, even managing to “finally finish the mission” that alluded the first Greenpeace activists - stopping nuclear tests near Amchitka. Amchitka lies within the Aleutian Islands in southwest Alaska; “we got to Amchitka, four or five years ago on the Esperanza. It was the first time Greenpeace made it there”.

Born in 1953, Wilcox has spent two thirds of his life skippering ships with the environmental movement. He first captained American folk singer and environmentalist Pete Seeger’s boat ‘Clearwater’, after which he took on the Ocean Research ship, ‘Regina Maris’, before joining Greenpeace at the age of 28. Wilcox still regards Seeger as “a huge example in my life”.

Wilcox’s political activity began with the civil rights movement. Then in the late 60s the environmental movement started: "I was lucky to get on at the ground floor. It felt like we could really accomplish something - now I don’t have that same feeling”.

He admits he was idealistic and a lot more optimistic in the early days; “40 years ago, I thought we’d pass some laws, do some things, and get this cleaned up in five or ten years. Now I’m not doing it for the future of my kids. I am doing it  for my future, cause the world’s not going to last long enough to see me come and go. We’re talking about a Pacific Ocean dying in 15 or 20 years, oh my goodness, that’s horrific, that blows my mind”. 

For Captain Peter Wilcox, his wife and 2 daughters, home is a co-operative just outside of New York City. The co-operative was built by his father, grandparents, aunt and uncle. He explains: “Everybody built their own houses, we own our own property. We all collectively own the beach, the harbour, the tennis field, the playground”. 

He admits family life has often come second to Greenpeace, which remains a constant source of support: “I’m really fortunate that both my daughters have made a lot of trips with me. My younger daughter has just sailed from Argentina to Cape Town last winter. All the crew know her. My oldest daughter is graduating next month, and her thesis is on e-waste [electronic waste] in third world countries, and my younger daughter will be starting her degree in marine biology. I think Greenpeace has added something to their life. I’m grateful for that. I think it’s made me a better person”.

There’s more to Wilcox than skipper of the bombed Rainbow Warrior. He’s seen the environmental movement grow from the 1960s to become a sleek publicity and marketing machine. “Today is such a different world. It’s a world of teenage girl suicide bombers. I mean; I’m not saying we’re trying to compete with them. I see actions as being public education tools. It’s harder now to grab headlines than it was 40 years ago. No question”. 

Over the years, Wilcox has seen his fair share of action, with one particular incident standing out - rescuing 300 Rongelap Islanders from their contaminated land. Rongelap Atoll lies within the Republic of the Marshall Islands, part of Micronesia. On March 1st 1954, America exploded a thermonuclear bomb (H-Bomb), effectively contaminating the land for decades to come. The Rongelap community tried to return to their island, only to find high levels of illness and unworkable soil. After decades of legal wrangling, Rongelap Senator, John Anjain appealed to Greenpeace for help (1984). 

Wilcox and eleven crew members helped islanders load up the Rainbow Warrior with wooden trunks, furniture, tools, sleeping mats, generators, building materials, and 75 of their most vulnerable residents. Wilcox knew how big the task was: “It was a huge undertaking; it was not a dramatic action, not in the traditional sense, it was just huge. It affected all of us greatly. It affected us even before we got there, it galvanised everybody. For me it was the one action that meant the most, that felt most important to do - to move the Rongelap islanders off their contaminated island to a place that was hopefully less contaminated”.

The action at Ronglap precedes a larger campaign against French nuclear testing of the coast off New Zealand. A campaign made infamous with the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. Nearly thirty years ago, the French secret service planted two bombs on the belly of the Rainbow Warrior, as it moored in Auckland harbour.

The first bomb tore a hole in the side of the hull, shortly followed by a second explosion. Wilcox is philosophical about the events - “I never realised the coolest thing I ever did with my life, was to crawl out my bunk and stand on the dock in my birthday suit watching my boat sink”. But his joviality soon disappears when the death of photographer and crew member, Fernando Pereira comes into conversation -“I never joke about my friends’ death”. 

Today, Wilcox is again skippering Rainbow Warrior, first along the Queensland coast, and then off to Indonesia to highlight the impact of intensive logging practices. “I really enjoy working with Greenpeace on the ships; I could do it for another ten years...I learn a lot....I love it. I’m scared, but this stuff also gets me up in the morning”

Maxine Newlands is a freelance journalist and academic researching environmental politics and the media. 

 

 

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