The crew then and now

Background - January 31, 2011
Times have changed dramatically since the Greenpeace flagship the Rainbow Warrior was bombed in Auckland harbour by French secret service agents 25 years ago. Nuclear weapons testing has stopped, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and the Cold War fear of a nuclear winter have been replaced by a war on terror, 'rogue nations' and a fear of global warming.

Greenpeace has also changed with the times, taking on new issues, new tactics and new campaigners. Yet, extraordinarily, one thing that hasn't changed for the 1985 crew of the Rainbow Warrior, most of them are still at it, campaigning for a safer sustainable world.

11:48 Marsden Dock, Auckland, 10 July 1985: The Rainbow Warrior is going down. Captain Peter Willcox wakes from his bunk thinking, "we'd been in a collision with another boat at sea." Having peered out of his cabin porthole, Willcox saw "the lights of Marsden wharf" where the ship was docked and "figured it wasn't my fault". But still all was not well. "The noises didn't sound right. So I reached for my glasses where they hung next to my bunk. I couldn't find them. In four years at sea they had never fallen from where they hung. I got up and everything was upside down in my cabin," recalls the 51 year old American.

Pete Willcox, 2005

"I put on a towel and walked to the engine room, where I found the chief engineer, Davey Edwards, shaking his head, saying 'its all over, she's finished'." Willcox called for everyone to be woken so they could figure out what to do. "Martini Gotje, the first mate, was at the bottom of the stairs leading to the lower accommodation, I asked him if everyone was up and he said yes. That's when the second bomb went off, right under our feet! That is when I ordered abandon ship." Only a couple of minutes passed between the explosions.

"I walked back to my cabin, because by this time I had lost my towel. I wanted to get something to wear before I hit the dock and then I felt the ship start to keel over towards the dock. I walked back aft calling out abandon ship."

"I stood there looking at the boat with all of these bubbles coming out of it. That's when Davey said Fernando is down there. I remember arguing with him, saying no, Fernando has gone to town, that's what he always did. No he said. Fernando is down there."

Steve Sawyer, 2005

Steve Sawyer, another American and then a 29 year old Greenpeace campaigner, was across town at the Piha Surf Club, where Greenpeace was holding a regional meeting. Playing pool and celebrating his birthday Sawyer received a phone call: "It was Elaine Shaw, who ran the Greenpeace nuclear campaign in NZ. She said there has been a fire and explosion on board the ship and that we should come straight away. So we did. The police cordoned off the dock; they said the crew is all across the street in the police station. Chris Robinson, the skipper of the Vega, told me they have blown up the ship and they have killed Fernando."

Early the following day, remembers Sawyer: "Willcox and I were summoned to see the Harbour Chief, where he basically said to us, 'when and how are you going to get your ship off of the bottom of my harbour?' In the middle of this conversation the police from down on the dock called. It was getting light enough to see, the divers had been down and confirmed that the plates had been blown inwards and it was obviously an explosion from the outside, at which point the police attitude changed completely."

Soon news bulletins worldwide reported that the Rainbow Warrior has been bombed: Sabotage and murder.

Within days -- what seems instantly obvious with the benefit of 20 years hindsight, -- fingers pointed at France and its desire to stop the Pacific Peace Flotilla, to be led by Greenpeace and the Rainbow Warrior, from its imminent departure for Moruroa to protest against French nuclear weapons tests.

Bunny McDiarmid, 2005

Sawyer, who went on to become the growing orgainsations International Executive Director and now orchestrates its policy work on climate change, remembers; "I went on record on Australian TV saying it couldn't have been the French, they wouldn't have been that stupid … but within days it all unravelled very quickly. As some newspaper columnist observed, all that was missing was 'a beret, a baguette and a bottle of Beaujolais.'"

The crew's only New Zealander, who'd spent the previous seven years travelling the world, was 28-year-old deck hand Bunny McDiarmid. She'd also left the party and along with her partner, the Warrior's third engineer, Henk Haazen, was at her parent's house.

Martini Gotje called around 2 or 3 in the morning, recalls Bunny "and he told us the boat had been sunk and that Fernando had been killed. It was just complete and utter disbelief and shock, trying to absorb the fact that Fernando had died. It was unbelievable to think that this ship and Fernando had just disappeared, just like that."

Henk Haazen, engineer on the Rainbow Warrior, 1985

"I think they [The French] completely misunderstood why Greenpeace was successful," adds Bunny, who now heads part of the organisations international campaign to protect the oceans. "I don't think they had any idea why Greenpeace at that stage attracted people or why we were successful at what we were doing, if they thought that kind of action would stop it."

"I think the Rainbow Warrior belongs to more than Greenpeace. The Warrior became part of New Zealand's history. New Zealanders own the Warrior, not just Greenpeace anymore. In a lot of the struggles in the Pacific around nuclear issues the Warrior was seen as a symbol and she will continue to be that; any time she's talked about in this part of the world people remember her as part of the nuclear free campaigns."

The bombing was an affirmation that what I was doing might actually be amounting to something," remembers Captain Peter Willcox, who will again be skipper on 10 July this year when the Rainbow Warrior pays tribute to her fallen comrade, laid to rest in New Zealand's Matauri Bay. Willcox and fellow crewmember, deck hand Grace O'Sullivan, returned to Mururoa to protest against French nuclear tests within months of the bombing, on board the Greenpeace yacht Vega. They were arrested and deported.

Nathalie Thomas Mestre, Cook aboard the Rainbow Warrior, 1985

Sawyer remains sanguine about what it meant for the French. "As my French colleagues remind me from time to time, as a domestic political exercise, other than the scandal involved, and even considering the scandal involved, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior was quite a successful thing for the French government."

"Greenpeace was eradicated in France; we had to close down the office about a year after the bombing and the two spies returned home as heroes. There was an international price to pay for France, yes. For the rest of the world it was a very positive thing in terms of getting the issue of nuclear testing much higher up the political agenda and that was the main thing that we wanted to capitalise on but we didn't win any friends or influence people in France."

Worldwide, Greenpeace went from strength to strength It currently has almost 3 million supporters worldwide and there are offices in 27 countries, with a presence in another 12. Greenpeace in France is alive and well, with around 90,000 supporters.

"The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior propelled us to a place in the public imagination and the public attention that was really essential to us becoming the kind of force that Greenpeace was destined to become and had to become eventually," says Peter Willcox.

"Greenpeace has certainly changed," agrees Sawyer. "Although I must admit on my first Greenpeace action in 1978 there were people from Vancouver talking about the good old days when ships were made of wood, men were made of iron and Greenpeace was really vital. I've been hearing this 'good old days' crap now for 25 years. To me the interesting and vital parts of the organisation now are the offices in Delhi, Beijing, Istanbul, Sao Paolo and Manaus in the Amazon. That's where the best stuff is happening and the most exciting part of the organisation really is."

Bene Hoffman, Mate aboard the Rainbow Warrior, 1985

Arguably Greenpeace's most lasting legacy has been to cement the idea that questioning authority on environmental matters is now essential to all societies. But these days the world in which Greenpeace moves is vastly more complex. The organization is constantly looking for new ways of doing the jaw-dropping things it did in the 70s, 80s and 90s. New ways to push the growing environmental threats up the public and political agenda, new ways to promote change.

"I think we need to adapt, change, grow and be brave," asserts Bunny. "We don't have a lot of cue cards; there are not a lot of models to copy. I actually think that if Greenpeace is going to make a contribution to this planet it will be how we do that. It'll be about how we figure out a way to work with each other across all those different divides, political, cultural, and religious. And do it well. I don't think I'm cynical 20 years later. More realistic perhaps, sometimes I see Greenpeace take two steps forward on an issue and then progress takes one step back. But, it is still extraordinarily inspiring to see what a small group of dedicated people can to change things for the better."

"I wish I could say nuclear testing was over and we'd never have to come back to it and I wish I could say I was surprised about US moves to restart the nuclear testing programme but I can't," says Sawyer.

Grace O'Sullivan, deckhand aboard the Rainbow Warrior, 1985.

"Things like the 20th anniversary give us an opportunity to talk about why this should never happen again," adds Bunny. "Why the French need to be accountable on Moruroa and Tahiti, why the Marshallese people need to be compensated adequately by the Americans and why the latter will never be able to walk away from their responsibilities in those islands. And why the Americans should not be developing any more nuclear weapons today."

After some 23 years, Pete Willcox is still a captain onboard Greenpeace ships commanding new crews; new Warriors of the Rainbow. "I don't try to inspire people. There is nothing I can do if the issues don't get you out of bed in the morning and want to save the whales, stop toxic trade from invading India or the Philippines or to try and prevent a new nuclear arms race. If the issues don't excite you I'm not going to. My job is to pass on the fundamental knowledge about how to work safely on a boat, how to work safely on an inflatable. If you are not inspired by the campaign then you are in the wrong place."

As a final word, Willcox laments: "In Auckland after the bombing we had a memorial service for Fernando and it was kind of light and funny, and we all tried to tell a funny story about him. But I'll never forget the weight that descended on my shoulders when we had to pick up the coffin and leave the church with it. And it was something I'll never forget and I don't think we should."

Fernando Pereira and his daughter, Marelle Photo by kind permission of Marelle Pereira