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Beautiful messiness: Learnings from my time as crew on Greenpeace ships

September 22, 2021

The power of possibility and the necessity of imagination I learned aboard the ship has informed and guided me to this day.

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza continues on an expedition in the Indian Ocean to peacefully tackle unsustainable fishing.

© Will Rose / Greenpeace

It was just past day break.  I was groggy from the long flight across the world and less than confident that I’d successfully followed the printed-out map that was meant to lead me to the pick-up spot. I had arrived at the water’s edge. There was no one. I re-read the directions, cross-checked the street signs, and scanned for a pay phone. Could I call someone collect? 

The sun’s warmth was just beginning to gently cut into that special crispness and quietude only dawn can claim. Resigned to the moment of unknowingness, I walked out onto a small dock. The morning fog floating just above the glassy water, twirled toward the sky as it dissipated. I stared off into the distance, breathing in the cool air, unsure of my next step. Then, emerging through the mist, I faintly saw the faded colors of a rainbow rising out of the still water and soon, the deep blue edges of the Esperanza blurred into focus.   

Standing there alone on a dock in Auckland at 24-years old I was filled with a feeling of possibility I had never experienced. As the melting tuffs of fog revealed the ship, a soft and profound kind of magic and imagination saturated the dreamy morning air and filled my chest with hope. 

That feeling has never left me. The power of possibility and the necessity of imagination I learned in that moment has informed and guided me ever since. 

For the next five years, I worked as a deckhand and bosun on all three of the Greenpeace International ships.  Some of the most incredible and some the hardest moments of my life occurred on board. The ship’s crew is made up of 15-18 people from all over the world that have different backgrounds, languages, customs, different wounds, different hopes, and different fears.  

In common, however, is the belief, no matter how faint, that a better world is possible

In so many ways the Greenpeace ships are a microcosm of the world as it is but also how it could be. We struggled with many of the same afflictions that are present throughout society and still could feel the magic when we all worked together to accomplish something meaningful or found ways to live in harmony. 

Photo: Greenpeace crew of board of the SV Phyllis Cormack during the Amchitka campaign in 1971. This is a photographic record by Robert Keziere of the very first Greenpeace voyage, which departed Vancouver on the 15th September 1971. The aim of the trip was to halt nuclear tests in Amchitka Island by sailing into the restricted area. Crew on-board the ship, are the pioneers of the green movement who formed the original group that became Greenpeace.

Greenpeace crew of board of the SV Phyllis Cormack during the Amchitka campaign in 1971. This is a photographic record by Robert Keziere of the very first Greenpeace voyage, which departed Vancouver on the 15th September 1971. The aim of the trip was to halt nuclear tests in Amchitka Island by sailing into the restricted area. Crew on-board the ship, are the pioneers of the green movement who formed the original group that became Greenpeace.

It is easy to see through lines from that first trip on the Phyliss Cormak 50 years ago this week. Like that first journey to Amchitka Island, the ships still manifest a belief in the immense impact of bearing witness, of speaking truth to power, and of direct action. It is also easy to see where the organization has radically changed from those early days and how it is still transforming.   The narratives throughout the founding years of Greenpeace were often remiss in their lack of acknowledgment of the gross injustices plaguing society related race, gender, sexuality, and access to resources (to name a few) and the erasure of how those issues are inherently interconnected to every campaign that Greenpeace was and is fighting.  Today, Greenpeace continues to grow and shift as it journeys toward becoming an ever more impactful organization that truly embeds justice in all of its work.

The lessons I learned and insights I gained during my time on the ships continue to stretch into every aspect of my life. Here are a few that stand out: 

Over and over again, I witnessed and experienced the magnificent capacity of human kindness, how it transcends even the most obdurate differences and how the simplest gestures can change people’s lives. 

Arctic Sunrise in East Greenland

Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise off the east coast of Greenland.

I learned that despite all of our lofty goals and righteous pursuits, humanness is often messy and nuanced; that the moment we let perfection be the enemy of progress, we stop moving forward. That it is desperately important that we bring tenderness and grace into our movements. 

I learned that we are ones most responsible for keeping each other accountable to our espoused values and that doing so is often necessarily uncomfortable. In fact, discomfort is often the critical component to growth. 

I saw the dire consequences of our actions and inactions. The walruses strangled in the plastic washed ashore on Arctic islands, the communities ravaged by rising sea levels and poisoned water, the dolphins choking on crude oil, the lives destroyed by catastrophic storms, the starving polar bears, the lost bycatch of industrial fishing that is decimating our oceans and the lives of those who depend on it, the disappearing ice.

I felt the deep gratitude and humility from the stunning world we get to be a part of and was struck to tears by its awe-provoking majesty. The expanse of the sea, the bioluminescent creatures dancing in waters around the ship, the playing dolphins, the Arctic sky being opened up by a sword of rainbow fire as the northern lights paraded across the night, the children who only know abundance laughing as they catch fish with their bare hands, the 1000lb polar bear appearing like a ghost through the horizonless, white mist reducing the entire crew to whispers in the presence of such magnificence.

Arctic Sunrise Salish Sea Visit

The Arctic Sunrise sails towards Friday Harbor around the San Juan Islands in Washington.

I learned that no matter what the problem is—no matter how unlikely our success—we must try. We must imagine a better way.  I was constantly humbled at my shipmates’ enormous potential to create, innovate, rejoice, fight back, and persevere – whether chained to the anchor of a tanker and being relentlessly attacked with a fire hose or finding ways to stop the ship from taking on water during a terrible Arctic storm, or mourning the life of a dear friend lost at sea. 

I learned that not everything can or should be everything. That perfection is the enemy of progress. That hard doesn’t mean bad, just hard. That there should always be music and that everyone, the world over, can dance to Billy Joel.  

From a wise captain, I learned that Greenpeace cannot love you back because the fight for justice cannot be transactional. The power and magic of Greenpeace is the people who stand together. For me, working on the ships was life-changing not because of the name, but because of the people who were there, the work we were doing, and all the ways we navigated the beautiful, messiness of humanness. 

From that very first moment on the dock in New Zealand, I continuously learned that in order to build a better world, we first have to imagine it – to feel the possibility – to take the sometimes desperate and scary risk, despite the odds, of allowing ourselves to hope.  

This essay is part of our Perspectives: Our Next Fifty Years series, in which we reflect briefly on our first fifty years, but more importantly, we lay out the future we are building together—collaborative, ambitious, and intersectional. The work ahead won’t be easy, but we’ve never shied away from hard work. We continue to push for policies that recognize the contributions and leadership of marginalized groups, and we amplify their voices, looking to their wisdom to show us the way. We hold corporations accountable, demanding real action that puts people ahead of profit. We work each day with our partners to co-create green, safe planet for all beings. We recognize that equality is not necessarily justice. We demand more from our leaders, from our colleagues, and from ourselves. A green and peaceful world isn’t just a slogan—it is our mission, and it takes each one of us to get there.

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