Ever wondered what it’s like to sail on Greenpeace’s iconic Rainbow Warrior?

By Miki Perkins and Eddie Jim

The Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior is anchored off the coastline near Kioa island.Credit: Eddie Jim

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From the galley of the Rainbow Warrior comes the soaring voice of chef Ronnie Ferrer, who is singing along to a Depeche Mode classic as he prepares dinner.

We slip and slide as we fall in love
And I just can’t seem to get enough

Ferrer, who has been with environmental organisation Greenpeace for more than 20 years, is used to working in rough waters and has a chicken stir-fry (with vegan options, of course) underway for all 32 souls on board.

Those of us sitting in the mess also slip and slide as the Rainbow Warrior rides the three-metre swell and the heavy metal chairs skate back and forth across the floor. Thank goodness for sea-sickness tablets.

Second mate Katharina Koenig and deck hand Tim Atichakaro raise the the Rainbow Warrior’s sails.Credit: Eddie JIm

The ship’s seasoned crew, most of whom have sailed all over the globe, barely seem to notice. One engineer leans over to tell me the Indian Ocean is gentle, the Pacific Ocean is “okay”, and the wild Southern Ocean “really sorts people out”.

This masthead was invited aboard the Rainbow Warrior for two nights, travelling 145 nautical miles from Suva, Fiji, to one of the country’s remote islands, Kioa – where a significant climate meeting is being held. (Greenpeace funded our travel to join the ship.)

The ship is on a tour of the Pacific, sailing from Australia to Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Fiji to meet with politicians, civil organisations and front-line communities to find out how the climate crisis is affecting the region.

Being aboard the Rainbow Warrior feels like travelling on a potent cultural object: the walls are covered with mementos donated or collected by those who have sailed with her over decades.

There are pictures of marine wildlife, Tibetan prayer flags, a whole stack of musical instruments, colourful drawings from children and black-and-white photos of many of the founders, including Canadian environmentalist Robert Hunter.

This vessel, launched in 2011, is the third iteration of the Rainbow Warrior. The original was famously bombed by French intelligence operatives in the Port of Auckland in 1985 on the way to a protest against a planned French nuclear test in Mururoa. Fernando Pereira, a freelance photographer, tragically drowned on the sinking ship.

The first Rainbow Warrior after it was bombed in 1985.Credit: SMH Travel

Aboard the trip from Suva to Kioa is nuclear justice advocate Bedi Racule, who represents the Pacific Conference of Churches and hails from the Marshall Islands, in the central Pacific Ocean.

For the Pacific, the spectre of nuclear war was a reality from 1948, when the nuclear fallout from 66 hydrogen and fission bombs exploded, during eight years of atmospheric testing at Bikini Atoll, contaminated the region, including the island of Rongelap.

“The sky turned black and children and mothers were scared,” says Racule. “The children didn’t know what it was … they thought it was snow. So, they began playing with it on the beach.”

Nuclear campaigner Bedi Racule.Credit: Eddie Jim

In 1985, concerned about the long-term effect on their health and fertility, Rongelap residents asked Greenpeace to evacuate the entire population to the safer island of Mejato, 180 kilometres away, and more than 300 Islanders and over 100 tons of building materials were relocated using the original Rainbow Warrior.

Racule has interviewed elderly Rongelap residents who never returned to their island home. “While I’m on the boat I couldn’t help but think about that – the Rainbow Warrior has a very significant history,” she says.

The 1971 footage of the first Greenpeace voyage shows a group of brave, occasionally foolhardy, founders who chartered a rusty Canadian ship, the Phyllis Cormack, and sailed to protest nuclear tests on the remote Amchitka Island in the Aleutians in south-west Alaska.

Rainbow Warrior crew evacuating Rongelap Islanders in 1985.Credit: Greenpeace/Fernando Pereira

Widely known for its early anti-whaling stance, the young non-violent organisation successfully harnessed the rise of television to transmit dramatic pictures of harpooned whales and seabirds slick with oil into living rooms around the world.

Today, Greenpeace has focused its campaign muscle on the climate crisis, and is no longer perceived as the “radical flank”, a role taken by newer groups like Blockade Australia, Extinction Rebellion and the British-based Just Stop Oil, says Professor Andrea Gaynor, an environmental historian at the University of Western Australia.

“Greenpeace has moved into the centre a bit more – they don’t undertake as disruptive or controversial actions [as some of these other environmental groups] though they do still do direct action,” says Gaynor.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific program director Kate Smolski says the organisation has stayed true to its “radical activist” heart despite having headquarters in the Netherlands and a presence in 26 countries. Jennifer Morgan, the former co-executive director of Greenpeace International, left to become Germany’s climate envoy, placing her at the heart of global climate talks.

“We will take the non-violent steps we think are necessary to stop environmental destruction,” says Smolski. “But, of course, over 50 years, we have become more professionalised. We are more of an institution now.”

Today, Australia is seeing an upsurge in direct action and civil disobedience tactics in response to the climate crisis, including the blockades of roads in major cities, “lock on” techniques used to halt coal-carrying trains and protesters controversially gluing themselves to (or spray-painting) famous artworks, mirroring similar protests around the world.

Second mate Katharina Koenig on the bridge en route to Kioa.Credit: Eddie Jim

Gaynor says she doesn’t condone violence but believes direct tactics are warranted in an age where insufficient attention is being paid to serious environmental issues.

“As a historian, in the future they will be regarded as heroes who did their best to try and turn around a very slow ship that is heading into extremely challenging times,” Gaynor says. “The climate and biodiversity crises are absolutely an existential threat to humanity in the longer term.”

A number of Australian states have recently passed anti-protest laws that impose thousands of dollars in fines and prison sentences on protesters engaged in civil disobedience. These include the maximum jail sentence and fines for hindering, obstructing or interfering with timber harvesting operations in Victoria being upped to 12 months, and more than $21,000.

Just Stop Oil climate activists glue themselves to a Van Gogh painting at the Courtauld Gallery in London in June. Credit: Getty

In Tasmania, veterinarian and forest protester Colette Harmsen was sentenced to three months in jail in July over her protest against mining in Tasmania’s north-west, the first time in 12 years an activist has received prison time.

The Victorian Labor government has since announced native forest logging will end in December, six years earlier than previously planned.

In NSW, activists are mounting a Supreme Court challenge to laws passed last April that provide for jail terms of up to two years, and fines of $22,000, for protesters who cause “damage or disruption” to major roads or major public facilities.

The Kiaon islanders welcome the Greenpeace crew.Credit: Eddie Jim

There are many precedents to civil disobedience, says Gaynor. “We recognise civil rights protests … even though disruptive and unpleasant, were to shake the state and wider population out of complacency.”

Today, the most pressing security threat in the Pacific region is the climate crisis. Rapid global warming has caused rising seas to erode coastlines, inundate islands during high tides and brought more frequent severe weather.

Greenpeace brought the Rainbow Warrior to the Pacific region to use its international clout to amplify Pacific voices, says Kate Smolski.

Rizwan Kutty, deckhand and program liasion officer, says spending time on the Rainbow Warrior has “opened his eyes”.Credit: Eddie Jim

“Pacific island nations really are calling on the developed nations, particularly the fossil fuel exporting nations, to rapidly phase down coal, oil and gas,” she says. “That’s something Greenpeace supports.”

Earlier this year, a group of Pacific law students succeeded in getting the United Nations to back a landmark resolution on climate justice. The UN has asked the International Court of Justice to provide advice on whether countries have an obligation to protect the global climate system. The court’s decision next year could have powerful worldwide legal consequences.

Greenpeace’s legal team has also used the Pacific trip to gather testimonies of climate harm, which it will submit as evidence to the International Court of Justice in October.

After a two-day meeting in Kioa the climate meeting delegates launched a regional finance mechanism, the Kato Pacific Community Climate Fund, which they hope will remove barriers to vulnerable frontline communities trying to access climate crisis funding.

Today, the organisation has three ocean-going vessels – the Rainbow Warrior, the icebreaker Arctic Sunrise and the Esperanza. Designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible, the Rainbow Warrior sails primarily under wind power while a biological filtering system helps clean and recycle grey water.

“The ships are unique tools that allow us to get to places that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to access, bear witness and even do scientific research,” says Smoski.

Hundreds of local high school students go through the ship on its open day at Suva’s port in Fiji. Credit: Eddie Jim

There was a notable lack of gender or cultural diversity on the first all-male Greenpeace voyage in 1971, but it’s a different story onboard the Rainbow Warrior today: the crew hails from all over the world, including Colombia, Germany, Fiji, the Philippines and India. Deckhand and program liaison officer Rizwan Kutty has completed half a dozen trips on the ship, which he joined first as a volunteer and later as a staff member on a three-monthly rotation (like all the crew).

“The best thing for me is the people from different nationalities – having all that exposure to different cultures,” says Kutty. “The thing about the environment is that it’s not specific to one country – it’s affecting everyone the same. It’s quite an eye-opener.”

This masthead travelled to Kioa with the assistance of Greenpeace.

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