Greenpeace warrior

2010-07-20 00:00

MIKE Fincken (43) captains the Greepeace flagship vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, which features in TV news reports from time to time for its daring exploits while challenging environmental violators such as “policing” marine areas where illegal fishing is taking place, coming between whales and harpoons, or blockading coal ships or vessels transporting illegally logged timber.

He has been captain of the vessel since August 2006 and describes his introduction as a “trial by fire”.

“On my very first night as captain we intercepted a Mayday broadcast from a stricken yacht off the coast of Corsica. We went to rescue three Portuguese women sailors. On my third day, anchored off the port of Marseilles, it was my turn to send out a Mayday signal when we were boarded by a mob of angry French tuna fishermen threatening massacre. Fortunately, I passed the test and have been captaining the boat ever since. I share the helm on a three-month on, three-month off basis with a few other Greenpeace captains.”

Fincken said the job brings with it “a refreshingly varied, and because of the nature of the work that we do, somewhat unpredictable day. There is rarely such a thing as a typical ‘day in the life’. A day at sea, when we are sailing, will include reading the weather and making choices accordingly: when to run with all the sails out and when to seek shelter from storms. I spend a couple of hours each day poring over weather charts, estimating speeds and calculating distances.

“I also keep a sea watch alongside two mates and together we ensure the safety of the boat and we train the crew. The basic running of the ship requires a crew of 15 trained personnel: the mates, engineers, deck-hands or sailors, a cook, etc. They come from around the world, sometimes 15 different nationalities, men and women, young and old. Everyone has their own part to play in the functioning of the boat: navigation, sailing, engine maintenance, cooking, etc. We work together and then share our meals and free time, lingering in conversation. However, the number of people on board can swell to twice that when we do coastal and regional campaign work. This can include campaigners, specialist divers, boat drivers, activists, volunteers, logistical teams, reporters and photographers, among others.”

Fincken’s journey from landlocked Estcourt, where he grew up, to the high seas was forged through the circumstances of that time. “1986 was a time of turmoil and compulsory conscription for young boys to join a civil war. I ran away from the violence to the passive majesty of the sea. When I climbed the long, steep gangway to a white-hulled general cargo ship bound for Hong Kong I knew I had found home. I never looked back and planet ocean is still my home, nearly a quarter-century later.”

He spent seven years at sea with Safmarine and, when a navigation officer living in Cape Town in 1992, he attended an adult education class in organic gardening in Fish Hoek. “That was my turning point, my ‘aha’ and very soon after that, I became a member of an environmental group on the Cape Peninsula. I discovered this environmental group with boats, Greenpeace, in 1994, while loading a cargo of lumber in Vancouver.

“In 1996, having completed the required sea time and passed my master mariner examination, I returned to Vancouver as a volunteer to join the Greenpeace boat Moby Dick, to protest against clear-cut logging in British Columbia. I served 10 years as a mate in the Greenpeace fleet. I was visiting my parents in Pietermaritzburg when the telephone rang. It was the Greenpeace International office in Amsterdam asking me to join the 53-year old Rainbow Warrior as captain — my first command.”

In his time at sea, Fincken has crossed every ocean. “The world has become smaller for me as a result. There are many places I have often been to and some regions I have not been to at all. One voyage took me from Japan, through Panama and on to the Suez Canal, around India to Taiwan. It took six months, stopping in various ports along the way, but it was the closest I have come to a circumnavigation.”

As to why Fincken has chosen this path, he said: “If I see a horrible crime in progress, a rape or a murder, and I turn my head, then I become an accessory to that crime. Similarly, once I’d realised that pesticides kill earthworms I had a moral obligation to act. In action I learned about more atrocities: they changed form and place, but they grew in number to cover the entire planet — land and ocean. There was widespread pillaging in progress and very few people around me seemed aware. My own gradual awakening led me to the urgent sense that I had to take action or waste my lifetime.

“Greenpeace has been sailing boats in nonviolent protest since 1971. In this time we have honed our skills to become a formidable opponent of environmental destruction. We are winning battles. For example, the peat land forests of Indonesia, orang-utans’ habitat, are being destroyed in order to grow palms for palm oil, a product used to make KitKat chocolate. Greenpeace has been actively campaigning to bring this to everyone’s attention, using both land and sea activities. In April, campaigners dressed as orang-utans and unfurled banners to get the attention of shareholders at Nestlé’s annual meeting.

“Online supporters sent tweets to shareholders throughout the meeting via a fake Wi-Fi network which sent shareholders directly to when they connected. The net result was Nestlé committed to a new policy to make the manufacturer of KitKat identify and exclude companies from its supply chain that own or manage ‘high risk’ plantations or farms linked to deforestation.

“The Rainbow Warrior is well-equipped with several inflatable boats that are speedy and easily manoeuvrable in the water, and diving equipment. We also have sophisticated media and communications on board which enable us to spotlight the destructive practices that we bear witness to, and publish them to the world.

“This ‘bearing witness’, a principle that has its roots in Quaker philosophy, has always been central to the work that we do — there is creativity and mischief in our campaigns, but never aggression or violence — at least, not from our side.

“As captain, one of the most important things I can do is bring everyone together and facilitate the peace and warmth required to live happily and creatively in close quarters.

“Working at sea can be intense, working at sea with Greenpeace equally so and the work that we do perhaps means it is more so. Greenpeace and the values which direct our work are inspired and driven by people who hold a passionate and deeply felt commitment to the responsible custodianship of this planet,” Fincken said.



USING nonviolent direct action, Greenpeace campaigns on a wide range of environmental issues ranging from championing renewable energy to cautioning against genetically modified organisms, conserving ancient forests and averting climate change. Central to this work has been our continued focus and presence in the world’s oceans, given the particular and often acute environmental concerns they face. Greenpeace has three boats registered in Amsterdam, flagship Rainbow Warrior, Arctic Sunrise and Esperanza, which spend most of their time at sea defending the planet.

Greenpeace has an office in South Africa if you would like to help:



Schooled: Estcourt High School.

Qualifications: Mastermariner.

Family: Small immediate family in Pietermaritzburg, engaged to Jemima, a poet who lives in Wales.

Lives: Mostly on the Rainbow Warrior, but sometimes in McGregor, Western Cape.

Reading: Maritime history and Stephen King.

To relax: Meditation, walks, writing in my journal and killer Sudoku.

Favourite snacks: Rice cake with cashew nut butter and sliced banana. If I’m feeling decadent, a square or two of chocolate before breakfast goes down a treat too.

Bad habits: A somewhat macabre sense of humour.

Strengths: Understanding the world we live in to be a field of play.

Makes me angry: Over consumption and excessive packaging on products.

Proudest achievements: My master mariners (Class 1) certificate of competency, which took 10 years to reach, and captain of Rainbow Warrior, which took 20 years.

Lessons from my parents: Unconditional love andsupport.

Regrets: Falling 10 metres from a friend’s balcony and landing flat on my face on the concrete driveway when I was 12. It had been raining and I was leaping from one balcony to another, either chasing or being chased by a friend and his water pistol.

Dreams: Always.

On my ‘bucket list’: Time spent on the computer.

Want to be remembered: With a smile.

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