Thursday, August 01, 2019


Steve Sawyer was a force to be reckoned with. He was tough, physically very strong, until the last days of his life when an agressive cancer finally stopped him trying to help the world and save the planet. No doubt Kelly, his lifelong partner will continue the battle as she always has. Their son and daughter will also ensure that parent's legacy is honoured. They've all travelled the world extensively and no doubt Steve's spirit is out there now expoloring new dimensions.

Steve was a grand sailor they tell me. I avoid stepping on boats if at all possible. I used to advise people not to play basketball with him. His speed, strength and attitude were overwhelming. My son and I played the blues with him in the cellar of the family house in Amsterdam. He could really play that guitar, generally with the VOLUME TURNED UP to max.. He was good with technology too. If I was going on any sort of expedition, which is unlikely but not impossible, I would want to be in Steve's tent. Hurricane or bear attack, you had the best chance of surviving if you were on his team. 

Steve was doggone damned determined and that's what made him a great head of Greenpeace International [ he did 30 years at the mast in total] and then the 10-year s as top man at the global wind association, speaking about global warming early and doing something about it. Wind energy is rapidly expanding thanks to China. Steve deserves credit for making a huge contribution  in both those organisations.There were others who did a lot and they too should be celebrated.

Steve: I have combed the worldwide internet for pictures of you. There are a few. You didn't seek the limelight. Happily I know you are captured plenty in the family snapshot archive.

As is usual in these situations, I wonder why I didn't keep in touch Steve. I thought of you often and often thought of contacting you. I followed your movemnts in the world of wind admiringly.

I expect you'll meet up with David McTaggart sometime soon. Those two in one room could be thermonuclear or joyous or both.

I wanted to pay tribute to you in some way and I hope you will approve. It is the article I wrote for Time Out magazine that they published in early October 1985. That was the first time met. You were still jangled by it all. I remember it being intense. That was your birthday party on the Rainbow Warrior that night in July and you might all have died when the bombs went off except you'd all taken the party elsewhere, They killed photographer Fernando Pereira. Now we know it was the French state. The last act in the battle to stop atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific. They stopped.

I may think of more things to add.  I''ll put some links in. I certainly didn't expect to write this note in the way it's come out. Best not to speculate about the future. I'm missing you already but I know you're out there somewhere, That's you in the picture. As the Beach Boys sing it: Sail On, Sail On Sailor. I'm listerning to it now.



Greenpeace's Steve Sawyer was in Auckland when the French bombed the Rainbow Warrior. John May talks to him about the fateful events of the night of July 10 and Greenpeace's current plans to confront the French navy off Mururoa. 

Rainbow Warrior had arrived in Auckland three days before the bombing to an enthusiastic reception from friends and well-wishers in a flotilla of small craft. The first days in port were packed with social engage-ments and the boat was crowded with politicians, campaigners and the crews of the other peace vessels. They were given a civic reception complete with an official Maori welcome. Wednesday, July 10 was the first day anyone had to get any proper work done. 

Time Out spoke to Steve Sawyer, co-ordinator of Greenpeace's Mururoa campaign, about the events of that night and the following days. It had become a familiar story to him, but this didn't make it any easier for him to tell it. The strain, the tension and the tired-ness have not relented since. His voice was flat and tight-lipped. 

'Wednesday evening I went out with representatives from our other national organisations in the West who were there for a regional meeting scheduled to start the next day.

 'Eight o'clock I arrived back at the ship for our so-called skipper's meeting. It was my birthday so they had a cake and ice cream and all that business. Which is when we noticed this French character. 

'He gave his name as Francois Verlon. He arrived on the boar the night of the bombing about 7 o'clock and left about 8.30. A crewperson was with him the entire time. 

'Basically he was on our side, or so he professed. My only contact with him was that he wished me "Happy birthday" and then said "Good luck on the campaign" as he walked out the door.

 'He was young, slender. I thought he was a student. Short. Very light blonde hair. Very clean shaven or else he didn't have a beard yet.

 'He had left his name with people and told them he was going to Tahiti that night on an airplane. So when the police asked us, about four or five in the morning, if we had seen anything suspicious, everybody's eyes lit up and we said, "Oh my God, this French guy was on board!" 

'So we gave them all the information we had. They supposedly tracked him down through Interpol and got the police in Tahiti to question him. It was reported that he had expressed shock and horror at what had happened, had agreed to come back to New Zealand if he could be of any help and all the rest of it. At which point people lost interest in him. 

'My understanding from second-hand reports is that subsequently the New Zealand police were interested in re-establishing contact with him but he had disappeared.' 

Verlon hasn't been seen since. 

Sawyer returned to his account of the evening of July 10: 'Shortly before eleven we came back up above and then myself and the other political pe-ple in the organisation left to go to another meeting on the other side of the isthmus. We got over there just around the time the bomb went off.' 

The double detonations, less than 500 metres from Auckland's main thoroughfare, Queen Street, rocked nearby buildings and were heard several kilometres away. 

MV Explorer, a gulf cruiser moored next to Rainbow Warrior, was lifted against the wharf piles by the force of the blast. Its captain, Warren Sinclair, sent a radio mayday call and dashed over to the Warrior only to hear the second explosion. Several people on board were flung or jumped into the harbour as the 40-metre vessel keeled over. Sinclair said: 'It was just utter chaos —some people swimming, some climbing the wharf.' It was later discovered that at least 20 kilograms of explosives were used. 

Sawyer said: 'We got a phone call at one o'clock, at which point we hopped in the car and zoomed back. The crew were in the police station across the road from the dock, the boat was on the bottom and Fernando (Pereira) was missing.' 

He pieced together his colleagues' accounts of what had happened. 'On board the boat there had been about nine people sitting in the mess room, drinking beer, listening to music and hanging out. The skipper was asleep in his cabin. A relief cook was in her berth down below. The radio operator was asleep in his cabin on the bridge deck. 

'When the first bomb went off, all the lights went out. The people in the mess jumped up, of course. The chief engineer made it to the engine room door in what he estimated to be eight seconds and opened it. He saw the water coming up the steps already in that time — the engine room is 15,000 cubic feet and, from what he said, it was considerably more than half full in eight seconds! 

'So he slammed the door, at which point the skipper came out of his cabin and the order to abandon ship was given. Meanwhile three people from the mess had gone down to the lower accommodation. The first one was a ship's doctor, Andy Biederman. He hauled Margaret, the relief cook, out of her berth and dragged her upstairs and off the boat. 

'Secondly Martin Gotje, first mate, went down to check in the starboard aft cabin for one of the engineers, Hanne Sorenson. She wasn't there so he got back up. Fernando Pereira had followed him down and we'll never know whether he went to check for his cameras or whether he went to check for another fellow who would have been sleeping in that cabin.

 'Martin was most of the way up the steps when the second explosion went off and the aft accommodation crumbled. He was bunged out the side there and the boat was functionally sunk. 

'Of course I was worried sick that it was something we had done, a mistake on our part which had caused the boat to blow up. I sat down with the chief engineer and skipper and discussed it. Basically there was absolutely no way there could have been anything that could have caused explosions like that on board. Diesel fuel does not blow up like that. 

'We were very careful not to speculate in the press until we had some evidence and our first concern, of course, was Fernando. They found his body about 4.30am and Peter Wilcox, the skipper, had to go down and identify him but there wasn't much chance of a mistake at that stage.

 'So we all got kicked out of the police station about six, went back to the office and started a 72-hour period I would prefer to repeat never again. The whole universe was trying to call the Greenpeace office. I mean we were all blown away by it. The crew was an absolute fucking wreck. They were just shattered emotionally, 'cept Wilcox held it together pretty good.

 'For 72 hours I didn't sleep, I was on the phone constantly. TV crews were all over the place, pushing their way into the office, wanting to get pictures of people crying. So I had the onerous job of telling them to fuck off. I was not in a very good state emotionally but I personally didn't have time to deal with grief and shit like that cos I had to deal with the situation.' 

The story has not ended; in fact we are at the opening of a new act. Pete Wilcox is now skippering the Vega heading for Mururoa where she will rendevous with the new mother ship, the Greenpeace (formerly Gondwanaland one and a half times the size of the Warrior), and a trio of smaller peace boats — the Breeze, Alliance and Varangian — which are now underway.

 A month ago a French defence writer was predicting confrontation between the French navy and Greenpeace and said there was talk of ramming the Vega or even opening fire on it. He said the French navy had a special kind of shell which can stop ships but cause a minimum amount of damage. They were used in 1984 against a Spanish fishing boat, and in the process took a leg off one of the crewmen. 

Pete Wilcox told the press he was concerned about what the French press is calling 'the new war in the Pacific' and about 'the very violent talk coming from Paris'.

 Time Out asked Steve Sawyer whether sending another boat down there so soon was not a direct confrontational move. 

'Confrontational move? Hum. Well, confrontational in the sense that we're not going to be cowed by the fact that they blew up the boat and killed one of our people. If we all of a sudden said, "OK, we're not going to do anything," then on some level, whoever gave the order to blow up the boat would have achieved what they set out to do. And we can't let them do that. We can't let them have that satisfaction or that feeling that they can beat us by violence.

 'We've had violence offered before. We've never had anybody get killed or our boat blown up and sunk but we've been rammed and beaten up. 'If you let that deter you then that certainly calls into question the value of non-violent direct action and the value of non-violent protest.' 

No comments: