Although it is now safely tied up in St. John’s harbour, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise faced a dangerous situation at sea Saturday.
Capt. Derek Nicholls told reporters Tuesday he was proud of his crew for their actions during their ordeal and admitted the incident shook him.
“I think, to be honest, everyone was scared at some time. There were some people who were quite sick because of the rolling, but sterling effort by the crew,” said Nicholls.
The Arctic Sunrise ran into trouble in rough seas about 650 kilometres south of Cape Race. A container weighing about five tonnes, secured in the hold and used as an office, broke free and started slamming around the space. The crew had no way to secure the object while it was sliding around the hold and it was several hours before it was safe enough to approach the container. While it was loose it caused a lot of damage to several systems and there was concern it might puncture the hull.
“It was pretty scary. I spent most of the time in the wheelhouse trying to keep the ship in a stable position, trying to minimize the rolling, and when this container was going from side to side I could feel the vibrations going through the ship,” said Nicholls.
Nicholls sent out an alert Saturday letting the Canadian Coast Guard know the Arctic Sunrise needed assistance. The coast guard ship the Leonard J. Cowley escorted the Arctic Sunrise into port as a precaution — for which Nicholls said he and his entire crew would like to thank the captain and crew of the Cowley.
The Arctic Sunrise was on its way from Boston, where it had just wrapped up an eastern seaboard American campaign, and was heading to its home port of Amsterdam, Netherlands, for upgrades.
Its detour in Newfoundland is expected to last at least several days before it will be able to continue on its way. Inspectors were busy going over the ship Tuesday to assess the damage.
The arrival of the Arctic Sunrise is believed to be the first time a Greenpeace ship has visited Newfoundland and Labrador in many years.
Staff at the St. John’s Harbour Authority on Tuesday could not find the last recorded visit of any of the organization’s vessels, and neither Nicholls nor a representative of Greenpeace could recall if any of their ships had visited St. John’s in the past.
However, Greenpeace has definitely had a presence in this province in years gone by, mostly in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Greenpeace was one of the first organizations to bring international attention to Newfoundland and Labrador’s annual seal hunt. According to the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, Greenpeace first sent 13 members to St. Anthony and then to Belle Isle in 1976. Their intention was to spray-paint seals, making their pelts worthless. That plan was later abandoned.
In 1979, members of Greenpeace staged a protest in St. John’s during the annual send-off of the fleet. Members chained themselves to vessels while several Zodiac craft tried to prevent the fleet from leaving the harbour.
The same year the federal government passed a law making it illegal to approach within .8 kilometres of the seal hunt without a permit, Greenpeace subsequently shifted away from on-ice confrontations with sealers.
Bob Wakeham was a reporter for The Telegram during Greenpeace’s days of actively disrupting the seal hunt.
He recalls spending at least three sealing seasons in St. Anthony with reporters from all over the world who were there covering the anti-sealing campaign.
During that time you could walk into a bar and there would be locals, anti-sealers and journalists all having a drink, and the three groups didn’t always mix well, Wakeham said, chuckling at the memory.
“It was this really fascinating gathering of people, journalists from around the world, protesters and then the local people who wanted to tar and feather this crowd from Vancouver, the States and Europe who were trying to do away with the seal hunt,” said Wakeham.