September 11th 2002 - The crew assembles

The Irish Nuclear-Free Seas Flotilla begins to congregate on September 11th and the unmistakable irony of the date is not lost on any of the participants.

I made my way to Busaras in Dublin to meet up with the people who I would spend the next week living in close contact with, and we take a bus from there to Arklow, where the boat that we would sail on, The Spinner, is docked.

The Spinner is a 32 foot sloop, which means that she has one mast and two sails.

The Spinner’s skipper is Brendan Rohan, a retired Irish Army Commandant and businessman, originally from Annalore, near Clones, now living in Dunfanaghy in Donegal.

The first mate and ships cook is Dundalk man, Neil McCann, an eminent barrister, now living and working in Dublin, but as a past Chairperson of Dundalk TC, and son of his name-sake and major fruit importer, he is no stranger to the town.

The other crew member is Donal McCarthy, from Dublin, who aged 16 is the youngest sailor in the Irish Flotilla.

When we arrived in Arklow with our luggage and supplies, we found that we were still some distance from the boat, but luckily Brendan found a taxi driver at a nearby petrol station who agrees to take us to the harbour.

It turns out that this man has a fishing boat of his own and when he hears that we are sailing with the Flotilla the following morning, he refuses to take any money from us and wishes us the very best of luck with our endeavour.

This was to be the first of many similar encounters that we experienced throughout the week that followed, such was the level of support that we received from ordinary people in Wales, England and the Isle of Man.

The Spinner is docked next to Tuscair, skippered by Paul Barrett, owner of “All at Sea”, a sail training organisation based in Arklow, who is one of the organisers of the Irish Flotilla.

PaulÕs crew includes Emer Ni Laoghaire, a wardrobe supervisor for TV and film, and Dave Smith, who is Site Co-ordinator for Irish Seedsavers Association based in Scariff, Co. Clare.

Dave explains that this organisation is dedicated to saving the gene pool of vegetable, fruit and grain seeds, from the major companies who dilute the genetic information of our food seeds.

We all have a relatively early night in anticipation of our departure for Holyhead the following morning.

September 12th - We set sail with the support of many

We all get up early to ready ourselves and the boat for the sail accross the Irish Sea. This is to be my first ever experience of sailing so I’m very excited.

Jill Turner, a journalist from Ireland on Sunday, arrived late last night and will sail with us on Tuscair.

A television news crew and photographers arrive at about 8 a.m. and there are interviews and photographs for about half an hour before we set sail. Brendan is dressed for the occasion, in a Donegal tweed kilt, a Nuclear-Free Seas Flotilla t-shirt and an army beret.

Five boats set sail from Arklow that morning: The Spinner, Tuscair, Stealaway, Christina and Cheers.

As we move out of the harbour for our expedition on the high seas, along the harbour walls are lots of local people who had come out to show their support for the flotilla and they beep their horns and wave to wish us well as we set sail.

The morning is hazy, which Brendan tells me means air pollution, but as we sail along our course to Holyhead the day brightens up beautifully and a warm sun shines down on us.

Neil and Brendan tell me that this is not the first anti-Sellafield campaign that they have been on. The last protest took place on the June bank holiday weekend in 1994, when they sailed The Spinner from Mulroy Bay, round Malin Head and down the North Channel to the Isle of Man. There they picked up three more campaigners, Nuala Ahern, now Green MEP for Leinster, Pol Brennan of the highly successful traditional Irish music group Clannad, and local therapist and author Dolores Whelan. They then sailed on to Sellafield where they held a ceremony in celebration of life and the sea and in protest of the operations of the Sellafield plant and its use of the Irish Sea as a personal sewer.

Nuala Ahern is to join the Flotilla the following day and will be sailing through the night on Macalla along with Henk Haazen, one of the organisers of the world-wide Flotilla who has also been a member of the Pacific Flotilla which protested against the MOX ships around Australia and New Zealand.

Pol Brennan had dearly wanted to patricipate in this Flotilla but was unable to do so due to recording committments. Even so he is here in spirit and keeps in constant telephone contact with The Spinner.

As we sail across the Irish Sea I am surprised that we see so little wildlife, even the gulls we see are few and far between and we never see a seal, the water seems so empty. However you would never think to look at the water that the Irish sea is the most polluted sea in the world.

As the sun sets and the sky grows dark a blanket of stars becomes clearly visible overhead. It is such a beautiful sight and it strikes me that I am sharing this sight with all of the sailors who had ever passed this way before or ever will again, and in a strange contrast to this, I also imagine that there is no-one else in the world, just the four of us, the boat, the powerful sea and the complex canopy of stars overhead.

As we near Holyhead the wind rises and the sea becomes quite choppy. I steer the boat into the harbour with the wind but the sea spray in my face, and it is one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had, and if I’m honest also a little nerve-wracking!

We arrive in Holyhead at about 11p.m. tired but happy and eager to meet up with the people from the other boats in the flotilla and find out the latest news on the current location of the Pacific Pintail and Teal.

September 13th - We all meet on board the Rainbow Warrior

The Macalla, which means echo in Irish, arrives in Holyhead skippered by Dutch man Henk Haazen. With Henk are Ron Van Der Hoerst, the Flotilla organiser in Ireland and MEP for Leinster, Nuala Ahern.

After a happy reunion between Nuala, Brendan and Neil, we all go out to the Rainbow Warrior, which is docked a short distance away from our smaller boats, for a breakfast briefing.

The breakfast is enormous and delicious, and after we are all full, the Argentinian Captain of the Rainbow Warrior, Daniel, welcomes us all aboard and hands over to Henk.

“It’s great to see everyone here, from all walks of life, and many different countries to make the statement, through peaceful and lawful protest, that we want to put a stop to these ships,Ó he says.

“Eleven peace boats stopped these freighters in the Pacific, so that they could not attempt to sneak by the Flotilla under the cover of darkness. We should never underestimate the power of what we can do by our pres-ence here, to bear witness to, and protest their passage” he adds.

Then all of the skippers go to a meeting to discuss the possible options open to the Pintail and Teal and to plan what we will do in response to them.

Leinster MEP Nuala Ahern explains why she took part in the Flotilla

While the Skippers meeting took place I speak to Nuala Ahern MEP, who spent her childhood years in Omeath. “Living so close to the Eastern seaboard, I have always been conscious of the dangers associated with Sellafield.

“I campaigned against the siting of a nuclear facility at Carnsore Point in the late ‘seventies, but my strong involvement in the anti-Sellafield campaign really began in the early ‘nineties, when they proposed to reprocess spent fuel there. I knew Neil McCann who was Chairperson of Dundalk TC, and I became very involved in what developed into the STAD campaign,Ó she says.

“After I was elected as a MEP in 1994, I continued to campaign against Thorpe and made numerous complaints in the EU against that plant and now also the MOX plant; I was personally devestated when the MOX plant got the go ahead, and I’m now looking to the Irish Government to fund epi-demology studies on the East coast of Ireland,Ó she adds.

Nuala explains: “I’m taking part in this Flotilla, because I believe that the most effective form of protest is to be here in person. This shipment is capable of being made into an effective nuclear bomb right here in the Irish Sea, and BNFL are insisting that this is not to be a one off transport.

“This is not a normal situation. It is deplorable that any commercial organisation, albeit wholly owned by the British Government, should be permitted to risk the health and the lives of so many, in the interest of profits. Sellafield, through its discharges of radioactive material directly into the Irish Sea, poses a serious threat to our health and environment and we want this stopped.”

Sheer madness to allow Sellafield to continue, says Jim Corr

After speaking to Nuala I bump into our own internationally acclaimed pop star, Jim Corr. Jim has given the Nuclear Free Seas Flotilla his full backing and has sailed from Dublin on the Rainbow Warrior.

I askhim what had prompted his involvement in the campaign and he said: “I’m here to help raise public awareness of the dangers posed by the Sellafield plant.

“I am extremely concerned, like a great number of people from Ireland, Britain and the Channel Isles about the transportation of nuclear material on our seas. It is sheer madness to allow this to continue.

“The whole Sellafield issue is one which is very close to my heart and when my mother died, at just 57, from a rare lung disease we had to consider if there was a Sellafield link to her illness, when doctors could find no specific reason for it except that it may have been caused by something which she inhaled during her childhood.

“It is no secret that after the Windscale, the old name for Sellafield, fire in 1957 a number of girls in Dundalk subsequently gave birth to babies with Down’s Syndrome, one of the birth defects associated with nuclear emissions.

“BNFL are notorious for their accidents, mistakes and their dirty practices. They dump 10,000,000 litres of radio-active waste into the Irish Sea every day. The lobsters found off the Cumbrian coast are 150 times more radio-active than those off the West coast of Ireland, they actually qualify for classification as nuclear waste. And the land ten to 15 metres around Sellafield has radio-activity levels higher than those found around Chernobyl.”

Greenpeace International Campaigner, Shaun Burnie, adds to this that this waste is discharged through a pipeline directly into the Irish Sea, but under British and international laws and conventions this would be illegal if this material was first put into barrels.

He says: “It is plainly ridiculous that this inconsistancy be allowed to continue. It is a blatant double-standard and it cannot be acceptable for an organisation to spew material into the sea which if it was simply barrelled would be recognised for the hazzardous waste that it is, while pumping it through a pipe means that it can legally be ignored.”

The skippers finally come back from their meeting, as surveillance helicopters fly overhead and we left the Rainbow Warrior to return to our own boats.

The skippers have discussed a number of options because at this point it is not clear whether the MOX freighters will come up through the Irish Sea on their way to Barrow-in-Furness or if they will go around the West coast of Ireland and come in from the North.

The general feeling among us is that they will come up the Irish Sea, but we have to be prepared for the alternative as the last definite sighting of the ships by the Greenpeace spotter planes was on the 12th, with a partial sighting on the 13th, so they seem to be travelling at full speed which could indicate that they intend to take the longer West of Ireland route.

The skippers have planned a sail-by around the Rainbow Warrior, for the following morning.

September 14th - The Flotilla sails together,            then strategically decides to divide

Shortly before 11a.m. all of the boats in the Flotilla sail from the harbour out to sea and pass by the Rainbow Warrior, in formation, a number of times. The main purpose of this is to practice sailing and man-oeuvering together, in forma-tion, and taking the instructions of the lead boat, but the feeling of unity and being a part of something that is good and right and bigger than any one of us, is unmistakable.

The weather is amazing, it is a particularly warm and sunny day, as if in support of our endeavour. The whole event is extremely poignant, to think that all of these boats and their crew have come from far and wide to protest against the pollution of the Irish Sea and the unnecessary transportation of nuclear material through it.

The sail-by consists of 19 official sail and motor boats, one dinghy from an official boat and the Rainbow Warrior, but a number of local boats and a couple of kayaks come out to support the Flotilla. It is all I can do to stop myself from bursting into tears at the sheer enormity of what is being done.

At 4 p.m. the skippers get together for another meeting on board the Rainbow Warrior. It seems that we will be sailing South to Fishgard at 2 a.m., but all we can do at this point is wait for the skippers to come back, as all decisions are theirs.

Finally Brendan comes back and tells us that it has been decided to split the Flotilla into a Northern and a Southern fleet. This is to ensure that no matter which route the Pintail and Teal take to Cumbria, they will have to pass at least some of us along the way.

The bulk of the boats are going to sail South towards Fishgard, as their plan is to create a line of boats across the entrance of the Irish Sea, and to achieve this the larger, number of boats will be required.

The rest of us are going to Barrow-in-Furness to await the arrival of the pariah ships in their home harbour.

The Southern fleet set sail during the night, but not before Nuala Ahern decids she is coming North aboard The Spinner.

September 15th - We head North with Nuala            on board

The Northern fleet set out for Barrow-in-Furness at 5.30 a.m., while the sky is still dark.

The Northern fleet consists of two Irish boats: The Spinner; and Celtic Legend, out of Carlingford skippered by Dundalk man Tim O’Hanlon who is accompanied by his father Joe; White Heather from the Isle of Man; and Swn y Mor, which means Sound of the Sea, a Welsh boat, which had been a lifeboat and was responsible for saving over 100 lives, now based at Glasson Dock near Barrow-in-Furness.

As we leave we still have no news on the precise position of the MOX ships. We travel to Barrow side by side with White Heather. It is a lovely calm passage and we are able to exchange gifts with each other along the way.

That evening we receive word that the pintail has been sighted at 1.30 p.m. 150 nautical miles south of Ireland. At this point it is still impossible to tell if they intend to go up the west coast of Ireland or to steam on to arrive in Barrow tomorrow morning.

We contact the police at Barrow-in-Furness to inform them of our intentions to peacefully protest in Barrow Harbour. This is important as the entire area can, under law, be closed down for an hour before and an hour after the arrival of the ships, so we are hoping that this won’t be done and that we will be allowed to stay in the harbour during their passage, to bear witness to and protest against this offensive and dangerous shipment.

The Spinner and White Heather arrive at Barrow-in-Furness in darkness and are kindly led to our moorings by Swn y Mor who arrived earlier with Celtic Legend.

Being his local port, Dr. Warren Scott, the skipper of Swn y Mor, knows the waters better than anyone else and this is one of the reasons why he is also elected as Admiral of the Northern fleet.

September 16th - Marine police protect our right      to protest

The marine police come out to our boats to meet us. They speak  very  sympathetically and say that they are here to uphold our right of peaceful protest and their primary objective is to make sure that everyone is kept safe through-out.

At 11 a.m. we all assemble for a meeting on Swn y Mor to finalise the details of exactly how our protest will proceed. Warren will then go to the police with these intentions.

John Bowler of Greenpeace International is at the meeting and tells us that by yesterdays calculations the Southern Flotilla is expected to get visual contact with the MOX ships at betweem 3-5 p.m. today, but that that will soon be confirmed by spotter plane.

There is a great feeling of excitement as it now seems that both the Southern and Northern fleets will be in a position to protest, and during daylight hours.

Warren says: “I’m simply a sailor who’d like to see these shipments banned by international treaty. I’m not an eco-warrior or a Greenpeace activist and most of the others on this Flotilla are the same. I’m just a normal everyday family man and yachtsman who is protesting these transports.”

“What we are doing here is simply a start, but little actions lead on to greater things. this is a beginning but a highly positive one. We have a multi-national gathering here with skippers and crew from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.

Mike Clarke, Skipper of White Heather adds: “The Manx government also want to see Sellafield closed down, so the objections to it are growing.”

Warren continues: “The publicity has been amazing. A few weeks ago not all that many people knew about this and what we are doing, but now I doubt if there is anyone in Europe who is not aware of this action, and that was what we set out to do: to raise public awareness, throughout the world but particularly here amongst the British people that these shipments are highly toxic and will continue unless something is done to stop them.”

Tim O’Hanlon, skipper of Carlingford boat, Celtic Legend, is originally from Dundalk but now lives in Dublin where he manages Loop Recording Studios.

He tells me: “I strongly object to BNFL and the manner in which they transport their deadly fuel throughout the Irish Sea, which they continually and blatently pollute. this may be an international issue but it is also very much a Dundalk one and that is why I am here

“I also believe that protests such as this one are extremely important to make people aware of what is happening around them. I was at a wedding in Preston recently, which is about 20 miles south of Sellafield and many of the people there had little or no idea of what we were doing or why. It was like a media blackout, but the media simply can’t afford to ignore us now.

At about 2.30 p.m. the Police Inspector in charge comes to our boat, with a number of other officers on a RIB and says that he is very happy with our plans and that he will fully accom-modate us.

We are delighted with this news and the fact that the police are being so friendly to us throughout, they even suggest a few places where we could eat that evening and say they will see us tomorrow. All they ask of us is that we stay out of the way of the ships route and naturally the skippers all agree.

Marvellous news from the Southern fleet

The news has come through that at 3.10 p.m. today the Southern fleet took up its intended formation, stretching across the Irish sea from a point South-East of Co. Wexford and South-West of Fishgard.

The Pintail passed the Dublin yacht, Noble Warrior by less than 200 metres, and also close-by were Macalla and Way of Life.

Prior to the Pintails arrival amongst the Flotilla boats the Captain of the Rainbow Warrior informed the MOX ships via the emergency channel - 16, that the protest was peaceful and would not interfere with the navigation of the vessels, but in a blatent breech of maritime safety regulations neither ship responded.

We now know that our expected time of arrival for the ships is correct at about 9 a.m. but we intend to be ready at 7 a.m. just in case.

In the evening we take the inflatable and go into the town as we need to get some provisions. As soon as we reach the shore we meet up with a man called Terry and his son. Their kindness and support is remarkable. They go out of their way to get us diesel and oil and to take us shopping.

While Terry goes for the diesel we go for a meal and are again surprised by the interest and good wishes of the people we meet.

We say our farewells and return to White Heather, where we have been invited to a cheese and wine party. Then to bed in anticipation of our early morning meeting with the Pintail and Teal.

September 17th - The day of reckoning is upon us

Everyone is up and ready by 6.30 a.m. and some of the police come aboard for some Earl Grey tea. John and Wendy from the Irmgard have come back on their dinghy, Elf.

They had been with us in Holyhead but had had to return home as some of their crew, who were required to sail the boat, had to go back due to other committments. They were so disappointed, however, at the prospect of not seeing the protest through that they came back on the dinghy and make our numbers five.

The sense of anticipation is emence and we hear that we are the headline story all over the television news and the papers. At 7 a.m. we spot the pilot boat on its way out to sea, so we know it won’t be long now.

At 7.15 we leave our moorings and fall into our arranged formation with Swn y Mor leading, The Spinner next, then White Heather, and Celtic Legend, as the large police launch accompanied by seven police inflatibles and two surveillance helicopters advance out through the channel to escort the nuclear shipment to the lock gates of the BNFL dock.

Suddenly another boat flying an Irish flag appears. For a while no-one knows who they are but Warren makes contact and discovers that it is Deputy Arthur Morgan, and invites him to join in behind our boats.

We make visual contact with the Pintail at 8.15 a.m. and we turn our boats back in towards the harbour in readiness to sail along beside her as she approaches the port.

By 8.25 a.m. she is along our starboard side and we sail along beside her, up Walney Channel, for about ten minutes, falling in behind her as she overtakes us.

At 8.50 a.m. we are about 200 metres away from the lock gates with the Swn y Mor only about 50 metres from the Pintail. At this point we turn away having  achieved our objective.

Although the protest was a complete success we are all rather subdued from the sight of this huge vessel carrying its deadly cargo.

As the ship came closer to us the black-suited, black-helmeted armed nuclear police, on board were clearly visible, and the water hoses spraying gallons of water along the side of the ships hull was a bleak reminder of just how ominous the cargo really is.

Back on our moorings the sea is almost eerily calm and Nuala says that the sight of the deadly MOX ship was to her like looking at the “Death Star”.

We go into town again that afternoon and Nuala speaks to RTE before she has to leave for Brussels. We meet more people who tell us that they really appreciate the stand that we are making. One woman says: “Thank you so much for what you’re doing, we’ve been living under the shadow of this since the ‘Fifties. It’s high time that BNFL were stopped.”

We get word at about 5.30 p.m. that the Rainbow Warrior will be with us in about an hour and we’ve also been invited to a party on board White Heather so everyones spirits lift.

Timo and Maria from the Rainbow Warrior come and join us on board White Heather and everyone is in top form, they have to leave early but the rest of us party on and sing songs into the night.

September 18th - The crack was ninety in the Isle of Man

We say our goodbyes to Warren, his wife Jill and daughter Helen, and Tim and Joe, and we set sail for the Isle of Man with White Heather at 8.25 a.m.

Tim and Joe leave with us but as we are heading for Douglas and they are going to another part of the Isle of Man we know we won’t see them there.

A short time after we leave the channel we approach the Rainbow Warrior where she is anchored. Her captain and crew all wave as we pass by, also waving furiously in a very poignant farewell.

At about 11 a.m. we heard that the Northern Flotilla has made the newa in Australia.

We dock in Douglas around tea-time and Fenella, White Heathers First Mate and first rate cook comes aboard The Spinner with some delicious cake, which we have with Bailey’s coffees.

After some well deserved and long showers at the Yacht Club we all enjoy a wonderful dinner together in a local restaurant called Coasters.

September 19th - Homeward bound

Fenella takes us on a short sightseeing jaunt around the Island after a huge breakfast in a local cafe.

Then we make our way towards the ferry terminal and take the Seacat back to Dublin, after what has been quite probably the greatest experience of my life.