Richard Wibley, a former Greenpeace ships capatain, passed away last week. Steve Shallhorn, who runs the Greenpeace Australia office these days, posted this reminecense:
I worked with Richard Wibley for 6 months in 1989 along the east coast of the United States. Richard was Captain of the M/V Greenpeace as it did a tour of American coastal cities, campaigning on issues ranging from the offshore drilling of oil to nuclear disarmament.
As it turned out, most of the fuss of that tour surrounded a campaign to rid the oceans of nuclear weapons. The focus of the Nuclear Free Seas campaign in the United States was the Trident missile, a 38 Billion dollar program to build a new missile that was to be launched from both American and British submarines.
Richard’s skills as a mariner were put to the test during two high seas confrontations with the United States Navy. Let me tell you how.
The first test of this missile from a submarine at sea resulted in spectacular failure, it pin-wheeled immediately after launch, and the test commander pushed the destruct button after only 4 seconds.
The second launch was scheduled for the July 26 1989. The plan was simple to sail the MV Greenpeace into the test zone, 50 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. With us in the middle of the test zone, procedures required the Navy to cancel the test for fear of killing or injuring our crew. It was civil disobedience on the high seas.
The submarine USS Tennessee sailed from Port Canaveral before dawn, accompanied by 3 large surface ships. Two contained sophisticated radars, the other, a cruiser, seemed to be selected because it could carry a lot of civilian spectators on its decks.
First we tracked Tennessee on radar, then we made visual contact. The dawn broke into a scorching hot day, the seas were flat calm. I remember being on the bridge with Richard when the sub blew her ballast tanks in a burst of pressurized water and dipped below the waves. As the three surface ships formed a ring one mile around the missile sub, Richard signalled to launch the zodiacs, our inflatable boats.
We knew the exact position of the submerged sub, because it was required to keep an electronic mast above the surface. The zodiacs speed towards the mast, a Greenpeace sailboat, Mondcevitano behind them.
On the flagship of our rag-tag flotilla, Richard Wibley was firmly in command. He ordered the Greenpeace to turn to port, to pass between the escort vessels and steer for the submerged Tennessee.
I recall him calmly and assuredly issuing orders to the crew member steering the large wooden wheel. The escort vessels did not know how to re-act, their launch procedure was in chaos. Richard was in his glory, steering the Greenpeace in a broad circle inside their security zone, taunting the escort vessels to try to remove him. The largest navy in the world was not prepared for this, and stood by helplessly as our zodiacs tied banners to mast of the submerged Tennessee, and Richard closed to within a quarter mile of our quarry.
It was all too much for the ill-prepared Navy. After two hours the Tennessee surfaced and ran for home a Nuclear Free Seas banner still attached to its mast. We had done it! We had taken on the most powerful Navy in the world, and cancelled their test.
The Washington Post reported that there was shouting in the halls in the Pentagon when word got back that the much anticipated test had been cancelled because of Greenpeace.
We came back for more in December but this time the Navy was ready for us. They were not going to be embarrassed a second time. At first light a three star Admiral personally read us a warning over the radio to move out of their test zone. As we closed onto the Tennessee for a second round, Richard replied that neither Greenpeace nor international law recognized their right to block off the high seas for their missile test
For our defiance, we were immediately set upon by two large, fast ocean salvage tugs commanded by an Admiral Bacon aboard Nashville, an amphibious assault ship. The tugs took turns trying to ram us, spraying our decks with high-pressure water cannon. For two and a half-hours Richard twisted and turned the ship, preventing the Navy from delivering a knockout blow. I remember him moving from one bridge wing to the other, constantly giving orders to the helm, having to change his course to avoid not one but two ships whose sole intention was to do us harm. In that time they hit the Greenpeace nine times, the largest of the three holes in our hull caused by the protruding anchor of Grasp as it slammed its bows into our hull, its water cannon aimed down the stack of the Greenpeace.
With reports coming to the bridge that we were taking on water, Richard rang the general alarm, as a warning to the crew that we might be sinking. Those that hadn’t already donned their life-jackets did so. A damage control party used timbers to prevent us from taking on any more water, and we remained afloat. But they couldn’t do anything about the fuel tank that had been ruptured by the Navy’s illegal and dangerous acts.
It wasn’t until first one, and then the other diesel engines were drowned out by the water cannon, that Richard was forced to give up the fight. We lay helpless, no longer able to move in the ocean swell.
The two naval tugs were stationed on either side of us, seemingly glowering at us as they prevented us from disrupting the Tennessee. A fully equipped boarding party appearing briefly on the stern of the Kittiwake as further threat.
After about 20 minutes the engineers managed to get one engine sputtering, giving Richard just enough manoeuvring power to land a chartered helicopter on our deck to take the all important film and video to an Orlando TV station
That video was requested by 33 international news agencies, the dramatic footage was broadcast in virtually every country in the world, including all of the US networks and the Soviet Union.
There was no way Richard was going to let the US Navy push him around on the high seas. His skill and determination kept us in the fight and allowed us to get the footage off the ship.
I haven’t seen Richard since the Greenpeace was in an American shipyard, making temporary repairs to sail back across the Atlantic. But I often recall the first of the two engagements, his steadiness on the bridge, quietly given orders to the helm; as though he was steering the entire organization to a great victory. I’ll never forget his calmness under fire, and the contribution he made to Greenpeace during that campaign.
The Navy may have won the tussle but Greenpeace won the media battle, thanks to the superb seamanship of Captain Richard Wibley.