David McTaggart and Steve Sawyer, circa 1986

We had a big party Friday night to mark Steve Sawyer’s departure from Greenpeace after nearly 30 years of service to The Firm. We put an invitation out to the diaspora of Greenpeace staff that Steve has known over the years — and they are legion — and asked them to gather to celebrate not just Steve, but the organisation’s history — the two are sometimes difficult to distinguish. Steve was there at so many beginnings, so many transitions, so many crossroads. He was one of the major forces, second only to David McTaggart, who drove the organisation through its early years. And while McT, rest his soul, will probably always get the top-dog credit, the fact is that some of our most successful work would never have been begun, or would never have succeeded, without Steve’s hand on the wheel. And we could have had a few major disasters if Steve hadn’t known when it was time to take McT’s hand off the wheel.

I always thought of Steve as our Gandalf, our grey pilgrim, wise and cunning and wary — moving mysteriously, turning up at precisely the right time, inspiring and encouraging despairing members of the fellowship, always a step ahead of the enemy, and never one to suffer fools gladly.

So along with all the shiny young creatures which seem to make up more and more of our Dutch and International offices staffs these days, a fair selection of Greenpeace dinosaurs, fossils, and relic species gathered to honour the man. Matt Gianni, former Greenpeace Oceans Campaign Coordinator, explained “relic species” to me as ones that everyone thought were extinct, but which turn up again. Well, that’s Steve I guess: by his own estimate, he has left the organisation 5 times, been declared extinct, and returned to surprise the taxonomists. So who knows? He may be back.

But he shared with us his pride that whenever he goes to a conference or treaty negotiation, the official Greenpeace delegation always seems to be dwarfed by the members of the Greenpeace diaspora who turn up in their new roles as ministers, delegates, and lobbyists. A lot of the names of those folks could be found on one of the most thoughtful gifts Steve got, from long-time receptionist, Sjoukje: a framed original of the 1989 phone directory for Greenpeace International.

Grace O’Sullivan (seated) Steve’s wife

Kelly and daughter Layla

The party was billed as an evening of story telling. Steve Erwood, who made the event happen, put together a stunning video of the organisation’s history. It featured footage that Sawyer had never seen, and which he didn’t know existed, of an event that marked one of the organisations greatest achievements: the press conference for the signing of the Madrid Protocol — the treaty which stopped plans for oil and gas exploration in the Antarctic. This was a campaign that we weren’t meant to win, and which taught us an early lesson in the value of impossible ambitions.Kelly Rigg, who partnered up with Steve in the early 80s to form the organisation’s alpha power couple, ran that campaign to completion, plunking an overwintering Greenpeace presence in the Antarctic at the doorstep of the American base, along with creating a worldwide political pressure campaign that gathered force from the voices of Sir Peter Scott, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and Jacques Cousteau, along with hundreds of thousands others.

There was an echo of that lesson in impossible ambitions in Jon Castle’s story, on video, about winning the Brent Spar campaign.

He described preparing himself to tell the crew that they were going to have to accept the inevitable: that despite weeks of high-seas confrontation and a wildfire of protest across Europe, Shell was going to succeed in dumping the disused oil rig in the North Sea, as if it were their own private landfill.

And it was just when he was about to muster the crew that the word came down from the bridge: the Spar was turning around. Cameras were there to catch the moment -- crew members leaping into the air, giant spinning hugs, and Jon carried shoulder high in triumph. Happy Greenpeacers -- too rare a sight.

Grace O’Sullivan was there to tell the story of the attempted hijacking of the Greenpeace ship Sirius by a breakaway group of whale campaigners, back in the 80s, and of how she got the job of informing Steve of the rebellion. There’s a vein in Steve’s forehead which bulges when he gets mad, and I have a feeling Grace saw that vein in one of the most distended states it had ever known. “He went bal-lis-tic” she told us in her lilting brogue.

Walt and Lieke Simpson, Matt Gianni

Matt Gianni told me about the first time that he’d met Steve, when our international office was in Lewes. Steve was the only one in the office, it was early, Matt introduced himself and Steve said hi. Then he asked Matt for his newspaper. “Did you hear about some ship in Alaska sinking?” asked Steve. Matt said yes, it was there on the front page of the Herald Tribune. The name of the ship was the Exxon Valdez. Today we may have instant communications systems that span the globe, but Matt considers it a mark of a simpler, slower time that the news of the biggest oil spill in history hit the desk of Greenpeace’s global communications centre via a newspaper in the back pocket of an office visitor.

Janet Dalziell spoke of how she and her husband met on a Greenpeace ship — a voyage that Steve had proposed for a campaign that Steve had to fight for, against massive opposition within the organisation. So by that logic, one wag suggested, Steve is the father of her children. (By that logic, I suspect Steve is the father of many, many children…)

Hans Guyt

Hans Guyt was there — one of the great hardcore campaigners to come out of the Dutch office. To this day he holds the record for most jail time served in the name of Greenpeace, for defying a high court injunction on continuing to protest Sellafield’s discharge of nuclear waste at sea. And he still wants to know why it is that nobody at Sellafield got any jail time. Like Grace, Hans had been there with Steve the night the Rainbow Warrior was sunk by French agents in New Zealand.

At the party too were Walt and Lieke, and Cor Offerman, and dozens of others who laboured, and labour still, below the decks and behind the scenes.

Steve and son Sam

Mahi Sideridou and I were looking through a book of dedications that had been gathered, and she mentioned how many people’s lives Steve had touched. I told her how much of a mentor he had been to me, and how important his endorsement used to be in the organisation. Steve could be brutal in his judgement — people were either keepers or losers, and his blessing and respect were once, godfather-like, pope-like, almost essential to survival. And when you were lucky enough to stand in his presence, to have his ear, and to be party to his confidences, you were in a privileged state indeed. You were in the presence of history.

Before the party, I went over to Steve and Kelly’s and asked Steve to hold up a series of T-shirts he’d collected over the years. When you look at some of those old messages: Acid Rain, Stop Nuclear Testing, World Park Antarctica, the Ozone hole, and realise how many are now dated because we won, I remember Desmond Tutu’s blessing of the Greenpeace ship Esperanza:

When the history of these things is written, and they ask “how did this come about?”, it will be because you and you and you and you did something about these things.”

When the history book on Greenpeace is written, and all those folks get asked why they did something about these things — why they got involved, what kept them going, what spurred them on to work harder, be smarter, and to not give up despite ridiculous odds — an awful lot of those people will be pointing at Steve Sawyer.