Just turn around now.....'cause you're not welcome anymore

Feature story - 25 July, 2002
"The two plutonium ships obviously had something to hide that could not bear the light of day..." Henk, the Skipper of the Tiama gives a first hand account about how a protest flotilla of 10 small yachts spread across 80 miles of ocean had BNFL running scared.

The flotilla boat Tiama heading out to bear witness to passage through the Pacific of BNFL's nuclear cargo freighters

All the Pacific flotilla boats are sailing away in their own different directions now. Nanu, Phantom and Fio-oko to New Caledonia, Moontide, Love of Gaia and Kailea are heading back to Australia. Joie back to New Zealand to have their engine sorted out one more time, and Ranui is heading back to Vanuatu to continue with the medical aid program that they are involved in there.

Here on Tiama, we're heading for Norfolk island and then on to Fiji to be a flotilla presence at the Pacific Island Forum that is being held in Suva between 13 and 16 August. All the heads of governments in the region will come together and we will try to help make the Plutonium shipments a topic of conversation during their meeting.

So while we sail, here's a perspective on how the flotilla looked from the water.

Most of the flotilla boats met for the first time in the mid Tasman on July 18th. On the first day we were becalmed and we had a bit of a social getting to know each other onboard Tiama with a few drinks and nibbles. The next day we had a long skippers meeting in the morning discussing our options and it was again clearly decided not to hinder the ships' passage in any form, and to just be a presence on the water to bear witness to the passage of these ships of death through our region.

In the afternoon we tried some formation sailing and got some real good photos of all the boats in line, which were used in the media later on.

Saturday July 20th saw us getting ready for the big meeting with the two plutonium ships. We had another long series of meetings working out the logistics of where everybody should be and the co-ordinates for every boat; at the end of the day we had it sorted as much as one can ever sort something like this given the numerous options that can come into it with so many variables. It is a bit like trying to cook a nice cake with a whole bunch of unknown ingredients...

By Sunday 21 July 0400 hours we were all in position, and almost totally still. It was a nice night and we were settling in for the long wait. By 0900 we were starting to think that maybe the plutonium ships had slipped into the Economic Exclusive Zone of Australia or come past us already.

However there was only one thing to do for the flotilla and that was maintain our line of position so we all bobbed around on our little patch of ocean trying to stay in one place as much as possible (given wind, weather and currents).

It continued to be a nice sunny Sunday, and life was good, besides all the worrying going on, (I'm convinced that I got some more grey hairs out of this one).

By late afternoon it was clear the ships had slowed right down, almost going in circles to wait for darkness before they came close to the flotilla. This was unbelievable - we had effectively blocked the Tasman as a route (during daylight hours at least) by the mere presence of 10 yachts that were spread eight miles apart from each other across an 80 mile line!

This was hard to believe but true, the two plutonium ships obviously had something to hide that could not bear the light of day. It was unreal and hard to comprehend.

Now we had a Mid-Tasman stand off between 10 little peace boats and two 100-meter long armed freighters who had around 10 miles of sea room between every boat to pass in between. No matter how many scenarios we had thought of we never thought of this one.

It became obvious that they were stalling and wanted to sneak through our line at night under the cover of darkness, how sneaky can you get ???

So the flotilla decided that we were rather effective and to maintain out positions and keep our eyes wide open during the night. We agreed to keep a good radar watch and in doing so we became a radar screen 80 miles wide. We settled in for the night again expecting them to come through at the darkest and most sleepy hour.

And yes, true to form these guys showed up at 0100 Monday morning. It was a bit of a surprise because nobody had seen them on radar yet. One of the crew was having a wee pee on the aft deck and through his sleepy eyes he saw these two lights appear on the horizon, he had to rub the sleep out of his eyes to make sure, but yes our friends were coming up right behind us and Fio-oko steaming slowly ahead.

We had a bit of a scramble getting the big inflatable on the road, all actions stations... their plan of sneaking through our line in the dark did not work very well as it was a nice clear night with lots of stars and a 3/4 moon illuminating the scene. Tiama got to within 1.5 miles of the ships as they increased speed from nine knots to 13 knots when they knew that they had been sighted by us.

We called them up on radio stating again that we did not intend to interfere with their passage but that we were here to bear witness to the passing of these plutonium shipments and that we wanted them stopped. In typical fashion they refused to acknowledge any of our calls.

The big inflatable was the only vessel of the fleet that could keep up with them and they followed them until first light, during the night the weather changed for the worse with heavy rain squalls and the wind picked up from the south west 15 to 20 knots. This meant a head wind for the small boat and it was not a pleasant ride on a fast inflatable anymore, it became more a matter of hanging on tight and staying with it, which they did.

At first light we at least could take a picture of the ships, which is of course exactly the thing that they had been trying to avoid by coming through at night. In the end the two plutonium ships changed course so that they were 13 miles apart, in that way we could not take a picture of both ships together. One wonders what it is that these guys have to hide ?

At about 0800 two volunteers from the flotilla jumped in the water on the port side of the ship (in this way making sure not to get in their way) and held up a banner with the nuclear free seas logo and the slogan NUCLEAR FREE PACIFIC on it. So in the end we did get some good pictures that were used worldwide.

The rest of the day was spent transferring gear and people and boats back to their various different homes on the water, while we were doing this the weather did not improve and we had a bit of a moment recovering the inflatable back onboard Tiama. At one point it seemed that we might have to tow it back to Norfolk upside down but it all worked out.

So today is a good day to catch up on some sleep, all the flotilla boats had a good radio sked last night, we actually never even physically saw Joie or Ranui as they literally arrived on the eleventh hour, Ranui came all the way down from Vanuatu a good 1000 miles and arrived half a day before we formed our line, and Joie came all the way from New Zealand with great difficulty because they had some engine problems They arrived one hour before we started to form our line in the water, talk about timing.

So we never had a chance to see them but we knew they were there playing their part in this great effort to stop these shipments form sailing on the oceans.

During all this we did have some magical moments like when some humpback whales appeared out of nowhere and stayed with us for the rest of the day and well into the night playing around the flotilla boats, this did seem like a sign that we were on the right track regardless.

Also when the two ships appeared out of the darkness at 0100 in the middle of the night with lots of moonlight we had a moonbow (a sort of rainbow made by the moonlight and water vapour in the sky) appearing just behind them seeming to indicate the position where the ships were!

So now it is over to the Irish flotilla to do their thing in the Irish Sea. It would be good to be there, but we can not quite make it there in time with our boats (sorry about that), the best of luck to the sailors in the Irish flotilla ... our thoughts will be with you.

Also lots of respect for the boats and crew of the Cape Horn flotilla who were on standby ready to go out into the Drake passage until it became clear that the ships would come through the Tasman, and not round the Horn, thanks for being there.

All in all this has been an amazing experience, the way all the people on the boats worked together and were committed to doing this in the winter time mid Tasman. It is a continuing source of amazement and inspiration, and not to forget all the people working very hard in the background to make this all happen. Thank you for all your work.

I surely hope that we can make this the last shipment that is ever to take place.

Kind regards to all of you on behalf of all the boat crews that are out here.

Kia Kaha (standing strong)



(Currently bobbing around on a nice boat running with the wind to Norfolk Island)