Women At The Helm

Women At The Helm

I remember July 10, 1985. Waking to the news that the first Rainbow Warrior had been sunk while docked in Auckland, New Zealand, by a bomb that French secret agents had attached to its hull. It was surreal. Shocking. 

To me, the ship had always exemplified our most noble values, our highest ideals. Until that moment, I had been naïve and thought everyone in the world felt the same way about the Rainbow Warrior as I did. Dutch photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in the bombing. I cried for him and I cried for the ship. I had never cried for a ship before. I had never loved a ship before. 

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The name Rainbow Warrior came from a book containing a collection of Native American prophecies that foretold of a day when the Earth will become sick and the animals will start to die. The stories tell of a tribe that will emerge and save the Earth. This tribe, made up of people of many colours and creeds will be called The Warriors Of The Rainbow and they will speak with actions, not words. 

For Greenpeace, that prophetic dream has come true. 

My dream came true, when I got the chance to climb aboard the third Rainbow Warrior while she was visiting Sydney to raise awareness about The Great Australian Bight and the fight to save it from high risk oil drilling. 

The Bight has more biodiversity and unique animals than the Great Barrier Reef. It is a critical migration route for 30 species of whales and dolphins, and covers the area from Tasmania to Western Australia, including Kangaroo Island. 

Sailing high on the winds of triumph from New Zealand where the government has just banned all new ocean oil drilling, the Rainbow Warrior arrived in Sydney for the ‘Making Oil History Tour’. 

I began the day with 51-year-old engineer Sabine Steiner, who comes from a small town in Germany. She is the only female currently working in the engineering department. Sabine is the Outboard Mechanic and repairs and maintains the two rigid hull inflatable boats used in direct action. I imagined her executing risky, aggressive manoeuvres but she immediately corrected me by saying, “No aggression. Slow is the new fast. To drop in a diver without being seen I have to be sneaky and smart. In Korea, we went early in the morning in the dark in front of a nuclear power plant. Afterwards, the Coast Guard called and asked: ‘Did you just do something?’” 

Sabine recalled her previous life as a social worker and teacher, “You can perhaps help one person or a group of people. Here on the ship, even if I clean the toilets its for a higher purpose.” She remembered a woman she had met in the Philippines who survived the tsunami by choosing between dying or letting go of her mother. “The effects of climate change are in your face and still people say it doesn’t exist,” Sabine states.  

Céline Desvachez is a 26-year-old deckhand from Belgium who firmly believes that women are different to men and bring a special quality of caring. “I am a feminist,” she asserts. “I want to be a role model. I’m proud to be a woman in a man’s environment.” 

Celine believes that if we want change in the world, it will come from more women being in positions of authority. “All the women I meet give me strength. You feel a strong deep connection. There are no words for it,” she says. 

When I ask if she has had to sacrifice anything to be a member of the crew, she laughs and sighs as if it is too dangerous to contemplate; another feeling there are no words for, “It’s a life of nomadism. I’m not rooting in a place. I’m rooting in myself.” 

Maria Martinez Rami is Spanish and at just 30-years-old is the ship’s Chief Mate. She smiles widely but humbly, acknowledging that this is an amazing achievement. It is clear that Maria’s determination and unbounding energy help her overcome just about anything, so I was surprised to hear that one of the most difficult aspects of her job is working in front of a computer when she’s seasick. “Its ok. You keep a bucket close by. You know it will pass.” 

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Working for Greenpeace, Maria sees some pretty confronting things but says it takes a lot for her to feel distressed. She gets frustrated sometimes and this is the really hard part of the work. “I’m a very emotional person,” she admits. “I have to accept frustration; think about it, then let it go. Feeling frustrated stops me doing my job, so it doesn’t make sense to feel frustrated. It passes.” 

 “Like seasickness?” I joke, “Yes” she laughs, “exactly!” 

The Captain, Hettie Geenen, is 57-years-old and comes from the Netherlands. Hettie is not entirely happy with the fact that she is undeniably a role model for women. “There are young people who see me and say, ‘well, it’s possible’. Being a female captain these days is a little bit special because we are not used to it, but it makes no difference if the captain is a man or a woman.” 

Hettie has a collaborative leadership style but doesn’t think that is because she is a woman. She admits sailing is still a man’s world, but she chose to be here so it’s no problem. For her, she believes a mixed crew of both males and females provides the right balance. She describes that when men come aboard they shake hands with the nearest male, naturally assuming him to be the Captain. Hettie simply reaches out, shakes their hand and introduces herself as the Captain. “They are always very nice,” she says. “They say they are sorry, they didn’t realise.”

The crew spend three months on and three months off the ship. When Hettie tells me her home is a houseboat near Amsterdam we laugh but clearly Hettie belongs on water. When I asked Hettie how she keeps her spirits up during times when the battle looks too hard to win she says, “It’s easy. Every little step is something. It’s all just little steps. If on open day a little boy or a little girl gets inspired, it’s a little win.” 

As I watched the ship leave Sydney Harbour, a part of me longed to go too. But, like most, I am not prepared to make the sacrifices required for a life at sea. Besides, if I were to go, who would walk the dog? Can we still be Rainbow Warriors if we stay behind? We think of warriors as being courageous, but Hettie, Maria, Sabine and Celine’s unflinching resolve is driven by a sense of global purpose and responsibility. Their individuality is subordinate to a more urgent identification with humanity and the planet; a call we might all hear if we stop and listen. As Celine said, “...it’s about caring.” Perhaps then, we could all be warriors at heart.

Michelle Lawford is a wildlife photographer, writer, adventurer and advocate for the planet. Her goal is to inspire, excite, promote awareness and action. All profits from sales of her photography are donated towards research and conservation programs that protect wildlife, habitats and support local communities living in harmony with wildlife.

www.wild-photography.com.au

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