A Warrior's Welcome

Feature Story - 2011-06-17
What do you say when you are offered the chance to sail aboard the world’s most famous environmental campaigning ship? I replied with the only answer that would come out of my mouth: “Absolutely.”

The Rainbow Warrior II was making a last-minute trip around the peninsula of South Korea. She had just completed testing for nuclear radiation in the ocean off Fukushima, Japan, and there was just a small window of time before she was due back in Taiwan. The stars had aligned for the Rainbow Warrior to help launch the newest office of Greenpeace East Asia in Seoul, as well as Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear campaign there.

The trip would also be a bittersweet one - the final campaign of the Rainbow Warrior II before she retires from the seas in a little over a month to make way for the launch of the Rainbow Warrior III in the fall.

They had already secured a photographer for the voyage; now I would be joining the ship as a videographer to document her last campaign. I could not have been more excited to be part of this historical moment.

Two weeks later, as I made my way through port security at Gate 1 of the pier in Incheon, South Korea, weighed down with video camera gear, I caught my first glimpse of the famed flagship.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” asked Simon, the ship photographer from Singapore who had loved the Rainbow Warrior since his youth. He relieved me of my tripod as we made our way to the ship. And she was. Simon started to explain some of the things I would see and do on board, but my attention was focused on the ship itself, docked about 100 meters away. The early evening light played off the shiny green exterior, somehow perfectly illuminating her name so that it glowed. I tuned back into the conversation as Simon informed me, “Katie will show you your bunk. She’s the one with covered in piercings and tattoos.”

Katie, a lovely volunteer deckhand, is one of the 14 individuals that make up a crew as international and inspiring as the Greenpeace organization itself. Hailing from countries like Spain, South Africa, Ghana, UK, India, Thailand, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands, many crew members have been sailing with Greenpeace for decades. They are as dedicated to the actual ships themselves as they are to the environmental missions; for many of them, the Rainbow Warrior is very much “home.” Like any other home, the Rainbow Warrior’s walls not only protect against external elements, but contain more than 20 years of history: the history of a family at sea, a family with constantly changing faces but always the same heart.

Adorning the old walls are colorful paintings and other creative depictions of the ship, and the souvenirs from her global adventures beg for their stories to be told. But I always find my eyes gravitating toward the photographs of ships past and present that line the hallway leading from the deck entrance to the mess.

In fact, each walk through takes more time than it should. The urgency of whatever purpose I had is forgotten with a glance at the black and white photograph of a bearded man who once celebrated his January birthday with a bath on deck, somewhere off the coast of Antarctica. Photographer Fernando Pereira is remembered alongside images of the original Rainbow Warrior after the blast that killed him and sent her to a Maori burial at sea. A collection of snapshots of the Phyllis Cormack and the anti-hero hippies that chartered her on that fateful day in 1971 provides a philosophical anchor for a ship mandated to sail the world to “bear witness” to attacks on the environment.

Kira in action: documenting the first action of the campaign in Yeongwang
Kira in action: documenting the first action of the campaign in Yeongwang

Less than 48 hours after I arrived, we set sail for our first destination. All hands were on deck as anchors were raised, lines were pulled in and we were guided out of port. The blue skies faded with the horizon, and a fog rolled in to wrap the ship in a thick blanket. Hans, a volunteer doctor from the Netherlands bundled in a warm winter coat and pants, stood watch outside the bridge in the wet grey haze. Inside the bridge, Captain Mike, who has sailed with Greenpeace for more years than can be counted on two hands, concentrated on a monitor tracking other ships. From all appearances it could have been mistaken for a celestial map, and the mistake would not have been so far-fetched – in the few hours since we had departed from shore, it felt as though we had entered our own little world.

With the fog hampering most plans for work, those off duty retreated to their own little corners, having long since learned to enjoy the downtime as it would become increasingly less frequent as the trip progresses. Some disappeared into their rooms, while others congregated in the mess, playing music and chatting. Later that night, we were rocked to sleep by the waves, as we continued to sail into the darkness.

As I settled in over the past few days and learned more about this floating marvel called the Rainbow Warrior II, something occurred to me. The ship’s glow I had seen upon my arrival was more than the reflection of the setting sun. It also came from within.

- Kira Leinonen