Hello there, friends and followers. Remember me? It’s been a while since my last post for which I apologise, the excuse I’m running with is, “It’s the dead of winter and I’ve had nothing notable to say.” Life on the Island has descended into a familiar shuttered bleakness of grey skies and howling winds and days spent in front of screens instead of on beaches, time indoors punctuated only by long dog walks and obligatory journeys to work. But, for the last couple of days at least, the monotone of Penghu’s winter was broken by the sight of a Rainbow on the horizon.
A Rainbow Warrior, to be more precise. A few weeks ago I learned from my friend Sharon, who works tirelessly on various good causes around Taiwan, that Greenpeace’s newest incarnation of their famous campaign and research vessel would be dropping its anchor in Magong for a few days during their tour of East Asia. Sharon was looking for volunteers to help keep ‘Night Watch’ on board the ship while it was moored here, in order to let the crew have a rest and catch up on some much needed sleep. Within a few seconds of her post appearing on the info exchange I run for expats and visitors, I had eagerly pledged my availability to help out, spurred by the thought of being able to go aboard the spectacular ship and meet its crew. It’s fair to say that Penghu in winter is a lonely, isolated place and the thought of getting to hang out with an international crew of Greenpeace activists and sailors, while at the same time making myself useful was motivation enough for me.
I was contacted by a woman called Hsuan, who confirmed the dates and my watch times. If my joke about ‘not letting any French sabateurs get past me’ was understood, it was politely ignored! Two weeks later, after a long week in the classroom I made my way to the gangway of the towering yacht, its tall masts dotted with red lights which cast a glow over the otherwise empty key side. The arrival of this unusual ship in the small harbour had created quite a stir locally, with dozens of pictures appearing on my facebook newsfeed. As Greenpeace isn’t a particularly well-known organisation here, there was plenty of curiosity about the purpose of the vessel. I’d done a bit of research, learning from the Wiki page that it was a ‘purpose built state-of-the-art motor-assisted sailing yacht’. Using wind power harnessed in its large sails as its primary method of propulsion, it had a special diesel-electric hybrid engine as a back-up and employed various green technologies on board to make it as environmentally-friendly as possible. Up close, with its handsome green hull, emblazoned with the famous, cheerful Greenpeace typeface, it was quite the sight.
As I hovered uncertainly around the shifting gangway, noticing the ‘Greenpeace Crew Only’ sign hung across the entrance, I saw a group of people sat around a table on deck and a moment later I was invited on board. Stooping under the sign and making my way across the swaying metal bridge, I joined them. Tanned, weather-beaten faces smiled from under grizzly beards and a variety of different accents greeted my ears. Before I had chance to make conversation however, Hsuan showed up to introduce me to the ship and explain my duties on my watch, which would begin in a few hours at the intimidatingly early time of 4am (I’d been assigned the last watch of the night, from 4am-8am). I immediately liked Hsuan who had a quick, warm smile and radiated kindness and good humour. Along with a young Taiwanese guy who was doing the watch before me, we walked around the ship, learning our duties. Starting at the stern (the back) where we would need to periodically check the mooring lines, we headed up some steps to the bow, where we’d do the same. Having confirmed the lines were still in place, that they weren’t pulled too tight or falling too slack, we headed back down and inside the ship, which was toasty warm. Below deck, Hsuan told us our main job was to check various places around the ship for smoke, fires or alarms. The Air Conditioning Room was the first stop, before the Mess Room, the Galley (kitchen) and then up to the Bridge. At each place Hsuan would invite us to look around before saying with a little smile, “No fire. Very good.” We repeated the mantra after her. Fires on ships, we all agreed, are very bad. From there we headed up the bridge, which lay dark and still, illuminated by the array of glowing dials and displays. Here we would check for any alarms which were sounding and check the wind speed. Should it exceed 30 knots at any point, we were to wake up Hsuan and the officer on duty. Should we discover any problem, anywhere, in fact, and we’d need to wake them. There was a cabin plan on the wall which would help us locate the right cabin.
Exiting the bridge, I noticed a sign on the Captain’s Door which made me smile. I’ll post it below somewhere. After the bridge, we headed down into the belly of the ship, tip-toeing through the crew quarters, past the pairs of neatly arranged shoes and hanging clothes. Each cabin had a colourful curtain draped over its door, which helped me remember who it belonged to. I made a mental note of Hsuan’s orange curtain, decorated with a salamander. After checking the laundry room, another potential fire-risk, we donned ear defenders before heading into the engine room. An impressive array of machinery met my eyes and ears, dominated by two large, yellow engines. Here I would again check for fires, oil leaks and alarms before continuing my rounds. “No oil. Very good.”
That concluded the patrol, which I wold need to do every hour during my four hour shift. The whole thing took about ten minutes. We were also shown where we could make coffee and get something to eat. When I wasn’t patrolling the decks, I would sit next to the gangway, making sure no unauthorised people tried to board. Although it seemed clear nobody really expected any incidents and that it was unlikely I’d have to wake anybody up, I still felt a weight of responsibility on my shoulders. For a few hours, I’d be the only one awake on this 23 million dollar ship and at the risk of sounding self-important, the ship and its crew members would be in my hands. Better stay awake and do a good job, then. I made a few notes on my phone, took a photo of the cabin plan and practiced the route a couple of times with Charlie, the guy on watch before me. Then I chilled out with the crew members who’d stayed up for a little while, observing and listening to their conversations. Music pumped from a speaker and somebody produced some flashing LED balls on string and began whirling them around in a hypnotic dance, while others swigged beer and watched. A modest, muted little party and a close-knit group of friends and colleagues, with a unique job and a unique lifestyle. I noticed how tired everyone looked and learned that the crossing from mainland Taiwan had been a rough one. It felt good to be able to help them all get some rest.
At around midnight it was necessary to remove the gangway, as the low tide meant it had come to rest and drag on the keyside. I helped push it ashore and watched as expert hands tied knots to allow it to be dragged back into position in the morning. Looked like nobody was getting on or off, for the time-being.
A bunk had been prepared for me so I could get some shut-eye before my watch and some time after 1am I retreated to it, clambering up, fully clothed and as quietly as I could as not to disturb the unknown person slumbering beneath me. I awoke two hours later, and just before Charlie appeared to wake me, stiffly and with some difficulty I half-crawled and half-fell down the ladder, blinking sleep and fuzziness out of my brain. It was 3.40am and Charlie and I had a coffee before he went to bed, leaving me alone on the eerily quiet deck.
Excitement and adrenaline had removed all traces of sleep from my mind now and I completed a round of the ship. Stern mooring lines, good. Ditto for the bow. Inside. No fire in the AC room. Very good. Mess room and Galley also quiet and flame-free. Up to the Bridge. Silent and glowing. Quick nosie around and a cheeky selfie. Down to the crew quarters. Washing machines not on fire. Engine room hot and noisy but not on fire and no oil on the floor. Had I forgotten anywhere? Best check the phone. Nope, all good. Back to my post on deck, thermos of hot coffee in hand. Job’s a good ‘un. The experience recalled distant memories of manning a petrol station during night shifts as a student, only a lot more exciting. A truly unique night, it’s fair to say.
I killed time in between patrols by taking photos and selfies in various places and making a live video which my family and a couple of friends tuned in for. Time flew by and it wasn’t long before the inky black sky gave way to the blueish glow of dawn. The night had passed uneventfully, with the exception of an alarm going off in the bridge, a distress call from another ship at sea. By 7am crew members on the ship were starting to emerge, huddling around with cigarettes and cups of coffee. “Another beautiful day to be alive,” observed the ship’s medic, an American from Hawaii with a surfer’s tousled hair and sunny disposition. I agreed with him. At 8am the ship sprang to life, an alarm sounding to rouse crew members for their morning cleaning duties. Decks were swept and mopped, tables wiped down, bins emptied and mooring lines adjusted. The flag was erected and the gangway was set up again, leaving me free to disembark. I made a chilly ride home, climbed into bed and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
That evening my wife and I were invited back to the ship by Hsuan, to have dinner with the crew. The Ukrainian cook had prepared a feast, or at least it seemed that way to this Islander, starved of western food as I am. I chatted with different crew members, marvelling at the international crew and how like a family they seemed, close bonds forged by long weeks and months at sea. There was Maria from Spain, warm, friendly and the Chief Mate on board the Rainbow Warrior, second-in-command to the Captain. Then there was Eric, the Chief Engineer, a charismatic and funny Dutchman and Fred, the ship’s bosun, a thoughtful, reserved Frenchman who lived in Thailand when he wasn’t sailing on a Greenpeace ship. I met Felipe from Portugal and Anna Sua from India, and others whose names I forget but whose kindness and warmth made an impression on me. I found myself both admiring and slightly jealous of their unique community and lifestyle, wishing that I could sail the seas with them and join their campaigns and adventures. I became resolved to become active with Greenpeace and help their cause.
The Rainbow Warrior was in Taiwan as part of its campaign on microplastics and to conduct sampling research, as well as organise beach clean-ups and coordinate with the local Greenpeace offices and fundraisers. They opened the ship to local volunteers who’d helped clean a notoriously rubbish-strewn stretch of coastline in Longmen, where the northern swells push vast amounts of plastic up onto the beaches all throughout the winter. The clean-up was hampered by Penghu’s famous winds but they still managed to make a considerable dent, for which they have my gratitude. The government here doesn’t do nearly enough to protect Penghu’s pristine beauty from the plague of ocean plastic so its fantastic that we got some help this winter.
That evening I played tour guide and took Hsuan, Maria, Eric and Fred to see the bright lights of Magong in order to sample a few of the local beers and introduce them to Penghu’s infamous nightlife scene. We visited Shooting the Breeze and Freud (check Top 5 Hangouts) where I continued to learn more about life on board the Rainbow Warrior and other Greenpeace ships, before returning to the ship at around midnight. As I arrived back, the crew were preparing to remove the gangway again and I only just made it just in time.
The wind had built steadily throughout the day and night, meaning that my second night watch promised to be more exciting than the first. Double watches had been organised, pairing us volunteers with crew members that would be able to deal with any problems as they arose. I was paired with Po Paul, an eccentric Canadian fond of Star Wars, Rick and Morty and his rather dashing black fedora. The wind was blowing at 40 knots, and a mooring line had already snapped and had to be replaced. Hsuan was taking the watch before me tonight, as Charlie had become marooned on a smaller island where he was completing his national service. The main danger that night would be the mooring lines, which were under a lot of strain as the gale force winds pushed the ship away from the keyside. There were two at the back, two in the middle and six at the front which would rhythmically slacken and then pull tight with a creaking protest every few seconds as the ship swayed and rolled in the wind. I went to my cabin, finding it locked. My Chinese cabinmate had decided he didn’t want a cabinmate, it seemed but luckily Fred offered me his spare bunk which I gratefully crawled into for two hours broken sleep and i struggled to get used to the pitching motion. A few crew members had joked that it was like being at sea and that’s certainly what it felt like.
Once again I preempted my wake-up call by about five minutes, filled my flask with coffee and then joined Hsuan and Po Paul as she explained which mooring lines she was worried about. Po Paul told me to watch the back of the ship and do my rounds while he’d keep a close eye on the bow lines from his spot on the Bridge. Duties assigned, I began my second watch. Sure enough, at about 6am, one of the mooring lines snapped. Amrit, the officer on duty had warned us the day before that should one break, we would hear it from anywhere on the ship, an “unmistakable sound, like a gunshot” and sure enough, that’s what it sounded like. Po Paul woke Amrit, and they assessed the situation. With one line gone, there would be more strain on the remaining ropes, which pulled taught. Another line needed to be tied to the mooring point, but with no gangway and no way to get on the keyside, short of making an intimidating jump across the shifting gap and onto a slippery rubber fender, there wasn’t much we could do, until morning arrived and a helpful passerby agreed to catch the line and loop it over the iron mooring point. Luckily, the remaining lines held and we didn’t end up floating out to sea! I felt a little useless the whole time, unable to do much to help as the work was dangerous and I wasn’t insured and I was more than a little relieved when 8am arrived, ending my duties. As Po Paul put it, “Not my problem any more!” I rode home and collapsed into bed once more to sleep away my Sunday.
Xiao Yen and I returned to the Rainbow Warrior one last time that evening, bearing gifts of local tea, beer, Xiao Yen’s handmade art and Star Wars mugs for the crew, and to say goodbye to our new friends. I’d spent most of my waking hours that weekend on board and it already felt familiar. The next morning it would sail on to Hong Kong and I felt a pang of regret that it wouldn’t stay longer, grateful to have made new friends but sad that I probably wouldn’t see them again. We exchanged contact details with a few people and took part in an ice-breaking activity that had been organised for trainees that were joining them for the trip to Hong Kong. Then we disembarked for the last time, wishing the magnificent ship fair winds and a safe onward journey, hoping we’d see it again one day. My wife commented on how nice everybody had been and I found myself , “Well, they’re Greenpeace. Being good people goes with the territory.”
I’d like to take an opportunity now to thank and commend Greenpeace for the amazing work they do around the world, in their efforts to protect the planet, raise awareness of the threats we all face and take action against those that put our shared home at risk. The crew I met were without exception generous, hard-working, driven individuals and I wish them well on all their future ventures. If you’d like to learn more about Greenpeace and support the work they do by donating, volunteering or sharing their content online, you can find a link below.
That’s all from me today. Merry Christmas from the Island.