Protest voyage to Moruroa

When Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior was blown up in Auckland Harbour by French secret agents seeking to deter her from protests against Pacific nuclear testing, New Zealand was united in fury.  In the public backlash against all things French, even champagne sales suffered. Nonetheless, underground tests at Moruroa atoll continued at intervals during the next five years, despite well-publicised evidence from Jacques Cousteau that Caesium 134 and iodine 131 were leaking into surrounding waters. Rainbow Warrior II (bought by Greenpeace using French compensation money) also gathered evidence in 1990 that Caesium 134 was being carried by ocean currents well away from the test zone. At last, bowing to international pressure and an international moratorium, President Mitterand declared a halt to any further French tests.

So when Jacques Chirac announced in 1995 that France would resume underground nuclear testing at Moruroa, a roar of angry disbelief rose from Oceania and Australasia. I still vividly remember Greenpeace’s David McTaggart on NZ TV: ‘I hope that the Kiwis, who are the best sailors in the world, get together all the boats they can and just wander over to Moruroa. You don’t have to go inside the 12-mile zone, as even when you are outside the 12-mile limit they have to put a warship onto you and it bothers them. The more that can get there the better. Please come.’

‘Just wander over,’ he said, talking about a winter Southern Pacific voyage of some 3000 nautical miles. This is equivalent to a North Atlantic crossing, well beyond the scope of most mortgage-bound boat-owners. Barbara and I, though, had few impediments. We were living aboard our ocean-going 45ft gaff-rigged Herreshoff ketch New Zealand Maid in a central Wellington marina, both on temporary teaching jobs with the kids on correspondence schooling. Lack of money was the biggest problem, although we were prepared to run up big debts if necessary.  New Zealand Maid was a seaworthy boat, but we had to face concerns about exposing our children to the extraordinary hazards of such a venture.

Early estimates indicated that the flotilla might be over fifty strong. However the final number was fourteen – nine being from the country’s north, including Auckland, and two from the South Island. We were joined by two other yachts from our Wellington marina, where we formed a central New Zealand flotilla of our own, sharing the pressures of public scrutiny and fundraising as evenly as possible.

It was useful (and unique) that there were three flotilla vessels in a single marina. Our neighbours, Nick and Taff Gales with their two very young children lived aboard an Australian-flagged 54ft steel ketch, Kela . Our other near neighbour, Lynn Pistoll, was an Alaskan who had sailed his 42ft fibreglass sloop Joie to NZ fourteen years earlier. Lynn became enthusiastically involved when he noticed the serious activity surrounding New Zealand Maid and Kela a week after our decision to answer the call.  His boat needed a total rig overhaul, which gobbled up a fair chunk of our small group-budget. In exchange, he made his office available as a coordination HQ, and even craned Joie aboard a low-loader to be parked outside the French Embassy one morning, surrounded by placard-wielding protesters.

Media attention was fierce but necessary, and the interruptions it caused took their toll on our schedules. A typical day began at 0600 with a radio station bringing microphones on to the ice-glazed decks. At 1030 the crews of all three boats would be chivvied on to New Zealand Maid’s foredeck for a newspaper photo. Four hours later the leader of the German Greens Party was swept aboard for a photo opportunity (we left our two youngest sons to deal with questions while we did urgent work on the engine). That evening Nick off Kela would be the chosen victim to face a live TV3 interview.

A list of several hundred hopeful volunteers, all claiming much sailing experience, was being circulated among the committed vessels. Nick selected four crew for Kela in the hope that it would relieve the pressure on him as skipper if things got tough. Barbara and I had always voyaged with our five sons. But our eldest son Ben was in the UK studying for his foreign-going mate’s ticket, seventeen-year old Josh was committed to the RNZYS youth sailing team. That left ten-year old Matt, twelve-year old Sam and nineteen-year-old Dan, who gave up his well-paid job in the fishing industry to rejoin us. So when Adriaan showed up unannounced on our dock with a recent square-rig North Atlantic crossing under his belt, offering to help us overhaul the rig before departure, we took him on immediately. A week later we chose Jim from the list – a mild-mannered fifty-year-old former fishing boat skipper turned Greenpeace driftnet diver. Our final crew-member was mechanical – Charlie, a secondhand homebuilt servo-pendulum self-steering unit, who ate nothing except steering cables, for which he had an annoyingly voracious appetite.

There was a lot to do in the six weeks before our departure deadline. New Zealand Maid had been built in our back yard years earlier on a tight budget and now needed some expensive gear. This included a liferaft, SSB radio, Pacific charts, up-to-date flares, upgraded charging system and replacement battery-bank, almanacs, big first-aid kit, GPS, rigging and engine spares, an extra water tank, and hopefully a drogue. It was a relief when offers of loan gear began to flood in: an eight-person life-raft freshly serviced, a powerful long-range HF radio and a GPS came in quick succession, greatly easing our budget nightmares. For Barbara there was the added burden of preparing provisioning lists for a three-month voyage of which over 90% would be spent at sea. Without a fridge or freezer, her options were more limited than those of most other vessels in the flotilla. We also needed wet-weather gear and thermal clothing, and to consider the children’s schoolwork and potential medical needs.

Meanwhile, Pacific Peace Flotilla shore-based volunteers set up a headquarters in Auckland, arranging fundraising, logistical support, sponsorship deals and media reports.  However there were no coordinated departure arrangements. All the Kiwi yachts except our Wellington group cleared on different dates from a variety of ports, the earliest being a fortnight before us.

Two days before we sailed, five overflowing pallets of food arrived at our marina. It felt like an early Christmas. By this time we had been joined by a fourth vessel, the brand-new well-found 54ft steel sloop Chimera from Greymouth harbour on the South Island’s exposed west coast. Her owner, Gary, was a rookie skipper with an enthusiastic rookie crew, who had decided to sail in our company to compensate for his lack of voyaging experience. We were amused at his 120 cases of sponsored beer, but rather alarmed at his large-calibre rifle. It was a relief when Customs officers calmly took it away during clearance procedures. We were, after all, a Peace flotilla.

The departure itself was a bittersweet occasion. The media hype was exhilarating, but was balanced by the emotion of parting with our remaining sons Josh and Ben, who had both flown in for a fortnight to help with preparations. Ben had stayed up all night on last-minute rigging work, and it was hard to drop him off onto a lonely wharf at 0500hrs on the morning of his 21st birthday.

The first fortnight of the nineteen-day passage to Moruroa was a sleigh-ride down the Roaring Forties at their winter wildest. Front after front sped us on our way, always abaft the beam. Sometimes the greybearded waves were higher than our forty-foot high mizzen mast. We were barely three days out when a sixty-knot gale had us all streaming drogues. New Zealand Maid’s engine flooded with seawater, which in spite of our deck-high exhaust loop backfilled the cylinders. (Our galley spoons still bear the scars of the difficult exercise of decompressing exhaust valves. But it had to be done. Without its alternator, our batteries would have been flat within days and our radios unusable.)

Balanced against the discomfort and perpetual damp was the camaraderie. It was common to have at least one other yacht in sight, and the VHF ‘boardroom’ discussions kept our little fleet connected. When Barbara and Taff discovered that we had all the carrots and they had all the cabbages, we chose one of the steadier days for a close-range exchange. When Chimera’s freezer broke down we were pleased to swap some of our freshly-caught tuna for some rapidly thawing chicken.

On the thirteenth day we had sufficient easting to begin our climb northeastward towards Moruroa. It was yet another vicious night. Lightning flashes revealed huge seas breaking on either side of the wake streaming away astern as we ran at six knots under only one tiny reefed stays’l. Kela was knocked down during the night, and her mainsail headboard was torn out. But the prospect of warmer latitudes ahead buoyed us through our watches.

Then the radio sched announced that the first nuclear blast had occurred. Riots were breaking out in Papeete, and the French military had confiscated MV Greenpeace and Rainbow Warrior II, Greenpeace’s two largest vessels. Six other vessels including HMNZS Tui were already at the zone.

None of our four boats reached the variables unscathed. Joie’s uncoupled propeller shaft disappeared out of the stern-tube and water rushed in in its place. Luckily it was salvable, but not without some heroic underwater activity. Then Chimera reported sluggish helming, and an exploratory dive revealed that all but one of her rudder flange bolts had disappeared.

The first puff of a southeasterly tradewind was welcome. It was also a grim reminder that we were now nearing the Tuamoto archipelago, the region most affected by past and present French nuclear tests. On the same day we were welcomed, if that is the word, by the sudden startling scream of a low-flying French jet. We were being watched.

In the past, our landfalls had been characterised by the time-honoured ‘Land ho’ from a lookout aloft. Not so this one. We were still some sixteen miles short of our waypoint when a rather inelegant white ship hove into view and a Kiwi-accented voice crackled over the VHF. Almost before we knew it, a contingent of HMNZS Tui’s officers and crew were aboard each of our yachts, passing on a dizzying volume of information in a short space of time. An important part of this was an up-to-date chart of the twin islands of Moruroa and Fangataufa, corrected to WGS84 datum for our GPS sets. It had been a niggling worry that our ancient chart could inadvertently have set us inside the twelve-mile prohibited zone, where we could have been scooped up by a predatory frigate.

The NZ government had agreed to send HMNZS Tui shortly before we had left, in response to overwhelming public pressure for an official gesture of protest. At that point it had been made clear that although she would carry MPs, she would have no association with the flotilla. We now found out that due to public pressure, Tui had been authorised to provide logistical support to Kiwi Flotilla vessels, including refuelling, replenishing water tanks, and giving medical assistance. And as for our biggest question – ‘where do we meet the others?’ – the answer was simple;1.00pm, at the coffee shop.’ This enigmatic location (21’40S, 139’ 10W) was a point just over twelve miles SE of Moruroa’s reef entrance, providing a marginal lee from the incessant trades, although not immune from the wraparound cross-swell – the legendary ‘Moruroa Roll’ – and beyond visual range of the low-lying atoll.

There could have been no better way to show national solidarity against the French nuclear test programme than our refuelling exercise next morning. With naval precision each of our four freshly arrived vessels took our turn to be refuelled courtesy of the NZ government, steaming 000degrees true at 4.0 knots only fifteen metres off Tui’s port quarter, under the indignant noses of two circling French warships. I spent a nerve-wracking half-hour at the helm, fighting the natural tendency for the two mismatched vessels to be sucked together, constantly aware that both the diesel and water hoses had a finite length which could not tolerate any significant variation in speed or distance.

This done, the two mothers, Barbara and Taff, were whisked away with all four kids for a dose of comfort aboard Tui – not to mention a solid dollop of media attention and a medical check-up. Meanwhile the rest of us had a flotilla meeting at the coffee-shop to attend.


We have often been asked how we kept ourselves sane during the next two weeks of busily going nowhere. One of the key sanity savers was the daily strategy meeting at the coffee shop. These were an initiative of Greenpeace – an entity distinct from the rest of the Pacific Peace Flotilla. Their veteran campaigners were the most experienced activists amongst us, and certainly the best resourced. Though they had already lost their two flagships, Greenpeace still had the 90ft schooner Manutea and the veteran anti-nuclear yacht Vega keeping station among the constantly changing flotilla vessels. David McTaggart was deemed to be the godfather, and on that first meeting, held aboard the big Kiwi topsail schooner R Tucker Thompson, I was impressed by his quiet authority.

The philosophy was simple enough: plan regular activities to frustrate the French whilst giving us a sense of purpose. The activities varied, but certainly helped structure the flotilla. All locations would be referenced to our Flotilla ‘roadmap’, a basic chart of Moruroa overlaid with Wellington city streets to prevent the mentioning of lat/long waypoints on the VHF. That afternoon’s rather crude action was for all ten boats to assemble in Taranaki Street and simultaneously rush the line on a coded command, ignoring any French warnings and not sheering away until the very last minute. This action brought two frigates, two patrol vessels and a helicopter rapidly on to the scene, accompanied by several tense and heavily accented radio voices attempting to identify and reprimand each vessel individually. The Chilean single-hander on Bebinka was badly knocked down by helicopter downwash, and the Kiwi yacht Photina missed his cue altogether, attempting to fix his position by sextant in the absence of a GPS aboard.

Shortly afterwards a zodiac roared alongside, manned by a group of armed marines delivering a polite but firm message from vice-admiral Euverte. This spelled out the official French definition of international maritime law, especially in relation to their suspension of the right of free passage between Moruroa and Fangataufa. Should we attempt to circumnavigate Moruroa, we would be venturing within twelve miles of the neighbouring atoll, and liable for prosecution. We declined their request to board us, on the grounds that they were carrying weapons in international waters. In return we handed them a carefully worded letter stating our view that France was abusing its political authority by overriding the wishes of all Pacific nations and creating a long-term contamination problem.

Days passed. The wind eased temporarily to a balmy five knots, and enabled safe socialising between boats and some cautious swimming. Some left, others arrived. The boys sent off a set of completed schoolwork to Tui before her departure to Rarotonga.

The daily meetings became a ritual with Vega’s inflatable ‘taxi’ collecting skippers and various crew to meet aboard one of the biggest vessels. One action entailed an early morning ‘huddle’ whereby every available vessel came as close together as practicable to enable a canoe to be launched from an unidentifiable boat, and paddled ashore under the radar by a pair of dissident Tahitians. Another action required each of us to heave-to at specific waypoints scattered around the perimeters of Moruroa and neighbouring Fangataufa, all rushing the line simultaneously at a predetermined time. This was not as pointless as it may seem – another blast was imminent on one of the two islands, and this was an attempt to work out which location was under the tightest military cordon.

In spite of the camaraderie, the constant struggle to hold station against often strong trade-winds took its toll. Aboard Kela, one crewmember crushed two fingers while handing the sea anchor, and Nick made the understandable decision to cut and run for Papeete.  Meanwhile we broke the boom of New Zealand Maid‘s gaff mizzen and were forced to set a trysail with the gaff spar as a boom. Chafe was causing trouble thanks to the incessant hove-to roll. The engine developed an overheating problem. Then Sam became unwell. The fleet had dwindled to five, although three more were shortly to arrive from New Zealand, Denmark and Germany. It was time to sail for Papeete, six hundred miles downwind.

It was a pleasant five-day downwind passage to Tahiti, but two surprises were waiting for us. The first occurred at a cash machine, which told us that le solde de votre carte est insuffisant. Despite my limited French, the meaning was plain. We were in dire financial straits, nearly out of fuel and fresh food, with 3000 miles to sail home.

The second was more complicated. Visiting the heavily bugged but furiously active Greenpeace headquarters on the Papeete waterfront, we learned that during the past few days both Manutea and Vega had been seized. Greenpeace desperately needed a vessel to convey a radio operator and their US head of operations back to the zone. Would we be prepared to sail New Zealand Maid back to Moruroa as a Greenpeace representative vessel and hold station there until their latest replacement, Caramba, could be readied? Naturally they would cover our costs.

Barbara was not averse to the notion, but was concerned about Sam’s slow recovery. It was decided that Greenpeace would accommodate Barbara and the two boys in a campground hut on Moorea, pay for our mizzen-boom repair and refuel us. The work was done swiftly, and we sailed without delay.

Gaff ketches don’t like windward work. It was a six-day slog back to the zone into the teeth of the trades, with only Dan and Jim to share the burden of watch-keeping. By the time we arrived at a now-deserted coffee-shop our fuel tanks were nearly empty, and the French were clearly not amused to see us back. This was to be a lonely vigil, constantly shadowed by at least one frigate, maintaining a thirty-mile reaching track back and forth just outside the prohibited line. In our novel role as a satellite communication vessel, we balanced the big flat antenna on our knees pointing at the geo-stationary satellite thousands of miles overhead while a borrowed generator hummed away and the reports were beamed skyward.

As skipper I now regret not knowing what some of these messages contained. Certainly they must have been provocative, for our naval ‘escorts’ became noticeably more aggressive. Clearly their officers disliked our banner too: Le jour de honte est arrivé – a play on their national anthem, substituting ‘shame’ for ‘glory’. To rub salt into the wound we also reversed the signal flag ‘T’ to create the red/white/blue French flag, including it in the message honte, which we displayed from our starboard spreaders. It was immediately noticeable that approaching warships would sheer away to pass on our port side.

On one notable occasion an especially aggressive frigate steamed very close alongside, with armed marines loaded into zodiacs hanging from davits. Tui was no longer in the area, and we felt particularly vulnerable, but held our course with the long-range HF radio warmed up in case of an incident. On our return I learned that Greenpeace had issued a media release to the effect that we had successfully launched a mini-sub. In addition Barbara was being unwittingly used as their propaganda conduit by being fed misinformation on the bugged HQ telephone. It is possible that New Zealand Maid’s name may have been our saving grace. As a Greenpeace representative vessel we were potentially vulnerable, but as a vessel bearing the name of a Pacific nation, any significant aggression towards us would be likely to create a media frenzy.

Reaching up and down that track became decidedly tedious. Once we had the news that Caramba was on her way, accompanied by our old friend Joie, we seized the opportunity to slip away into a rare dusk when no frigate was visible. This enabled us to transfer Greenpeace’s equipment outside French surveillance, and to land their representatives back at Papeete. This was done under cover of darkness, as I had been belatedly informed that both their visas had been revoked, rendering me (as skipper) potentially liable for smuggling illegal aliens.


Occasionally we are asked whether this flotilla made a difference. Well, a total of 32 vessels from twelve nations participated, maintaining a constant stream of media reports. It would be presumptuous to overlook the significance of the many parallel land-based protest activities, or the fact that this was Greenpeace’s most expensive campaign ever. But the outcome was one we had all worked towards. The planned series of eight blasts was terminated prematurely, and within months Chirac agreed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.