Essays

Launching Greenpeace

Robert Hunter

The first Greenpeace expedition set out from Vancouver on September 15, 1971. It consisted of twelve men aboard the eighty-foot halibut seiner Phyllis Cormack, temporarily renamed Greenpeace, whose mission was to stop U.S. underwater nuclear testing at Amchitka, a tiny island in the Aleutians. Among the crew were Robert Hunter, a writer, and Robert Keziere, a photographer. Their chronicle of the voyage, Greenpeace to Amchitka, will be published in the autumn of 24 by Arsenal Pulp Press. More of this article can be read in Geist issue 54.

Tuesday, October 5, 1971

When we arrived at Sand Point, the wharf around the cannery was surrounded by boats, with only a few parking spaces left. But now, boats and more boats are double-parked and in some places triple-parked. The fishing fleets are retreating from the October gales coming up out on the Shumagin Bank, and points beyond. The autumn equinox is stirring the seas into a fury. "Yeah, it was startin' to smoke out there," the fishermen say, referring to a wind so hard it sends spray out from the waves and spreads it across the surface of the water like soupy mist. When it starts to smoke, the fishermen leave their nets and pots and run like hell.

Down at the tavern, the men just in off the boats tell incredible stories of taking green water over the stern just as they were rounded Mountain Point at the tip of Nagai Island. Winds that have been a whispering among the gulls and terns and puffins in the morning have changed into leagues of dark grey smoking water by early afternoon. Guys tell us about the waters farther up the chain, how as you approached the end, around Amchitka, you took blasts of wind that had been building right across the Bering Sea. Three guys got caught up by the Pribilof Islands, a few hundred miles north of the Aleutians, out in the unbelievably vast and lonely sweeps of the Bering, and had to hang on for fourteen days in a 18-mile-an-hour bitch of a storm. Only thing you can do then is get that anchor down as far as she'll go, face her into the waves, gear right down, and jog for your life. Waves come in at 12 feet. Usually you keep losing ground—the anchor can't hold against that kind of competition—but the trick is to handle her like a kite, with a baby-pin hanging on to the ground and you up in the kite, in the middle of the goddamnedest hurricane you ever saw, and you gotta keep steering so's you're aimed right into that wind and hope the baby-pin don't come loose completely from whatever little bitty patch of gravel she's grappling at, ’cause without that anchor, you ain't got a chance. Boat just flips around, the 12-footers come down over the roof, and that's at least a couple of hundred tons of water hitting you like a paddle. A lot of boats break up. Others just kind of lie down and die. Still others flip right over. Yeah, she's rough.

Everybody we talk to in Sand Point has at least one relative who drowned out there, and everybody can name at least a dozen guys they knew who have gone down. It is like a perpetual state of war—every time Daddy goes out, well, he may not come back, and that's the way it is. We are all shaken, and we start losing interest in heading down to the tavern. An afternoon in that place, listening to the fishermen, an awful lot of them with a missing finger or hand or eye, or a moon-pit face from when a big one came over the side and shattered a window and sent shrapnel into whoever was sitting in the galley, the wind keening around the rafters, the glass panes clattering even here in the lee of the island, icy blasts hitting us like blows as we come clambering out of the bar—it is the stuff of nightmares.

Someone tells the story about Old Jock, the Aleut who was on the Annabelle when she went down outside of Port Miller. The rest of the guys were running around drunk as skunks, trying to get the lifeboat loose, but Old Jock had put in forty-five years in these waters and he knew what to do. He put on about three pairs of thermal underwear, all the socks he could find, T-shirts, sweaters, jackets, overcoats, three pairs of mitts, and wrapped his whole head in towels, slung a bunch of life jackets around his legs and arms, and stayed there in the bunkhouse until she started to break up. Never found a trace of the rest of the guys, not a sign of the lifeboat, but Old Jock—well, they found him three days later. Alive, all right, but the sand fleas had got at him.

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