We were so close to getting to Gaza

Greeks trying to cut us off

With the Palestinian flag flying proudly from our bow, we are heading to open water. The Greek coast guard are somewhat shy about getting too close to our steel ship with their plastic boat.

First, I apologize for not updating my blog sooner. After our well publicized attempted escape from Greece, I took it for granted that everyone would have heard the story and wouldn’t need to hear my take on it — but several folks have asked for a final blog entry from me, so here it is.

Well, we almost made it to Gaza; we were just 4 miles short of international waters.

The leadership of our Canadian boat, the Tahrir, decided to make a run for international waters on July 5th, after it became obvious that the Greek authorities were following the dictates of the Israeli government, and would not let us leave Greek waters, no matter what we did or what international maritime law said.

After raising bogus concerns regarding our internationally recognized inspections, new water tanks, hot water, captain’s certificate, our ship’s flagging country and finally the width of the ship’s benches (?), the Greeks presented the real reason for holding us in Port: an order from the Greek minister of Public Safety barring any ship from sailing from Greece to Gaza.

So we then noisily marched through St. Nicholas, Crete to the harbour master’s office, waving banners and chanting, “Shame on Papandreou, release our ship!” Once there, our ship’s owner Sandra Ruch immediately submitted new sailing plans to the harbour master for a cruise to Alexandria, Egypt instead of Gaza, but we were still denied permission to leave.

demonstrate in st nicholas

After a couple of weeks of playing a stupid game of charades with the Greek harbourmaster, who made more and more ridiculous demands, we finally played hardball and marched through their sleepy tourist town.

Of course it didn’t matter what we offered or argued. Due to their financial crisis, the Greek government no longer controlled its foreign policy. The US, Israel and the IMF were now dictating the terms for the Greek bailout, and one of those terms was to hold all eight Freedom Flotilla Two ships in Greek ports, including our 27-meter former passenger ferry.

The US boat Audacity of Hope was the first to make a run for it, but it was overtaken and seized, and her captain jailed. After this event, all the Flotilla ships were put under military watch with several local policemen, a squad of elite Greek commandos, and a Coast Guard ship hovering over the Tahrir night and day. Then a huge yacht named the Noa VII arrived, full of Israeli officers, and tried to tie up directly behind us. The port authorities wisely sent them to another local harbour, and the Greek Coast Guard ship then tied up behind us.

As two other Flotilla ships had already been sabotaged by high tech Israeli diving teams, we knew full well what the Noa VII was in port for. We were now sitting ducks, in danger of a sabotage attack from the Israelis but unable to flee the port for our own safety. For the next three nights, the Tahrir’s delegates spent their time doing around-the-clock surveillance watches on all sides of the ship looking for trouble, and many slept on board on the open deck.

On the last evening, I was handed two 12-volt high-power waterproof floodlights, a roll of wire, and some tape and asked to connect them to the ship’s 220 volt power system as quickly as possible, as an attack was expected that night. With these lights on, watchful delegates posted all around and a diver in the water all night, we were safe and still good to go when morning came.

Commandos held 24 hour watch over us after our capture

the Greek authorities had 24-hour guards stationed next to our ship, and had the Coast Guard cutter tied up directly behind us.

Everyone knew we were going to make a run for it that day, so the Greek Coast Guard were ready to block us. They were tied up at right angles directly behind us, so at the first sign of us trying to leave, all they had to do was just pull their ship ahead 7 or so meters and easily and quickly block our exit from the harbour. A squad of elite Greek commandos was stationed at a guard shack only 70 meters away so they could be aboard our ship in seconds. As well, our Greek crew had to resign, since they could not disobey the Ministerial order and risk their careers by sailing with us.

What could we do? First, a new volunteer crew was needed, and lo and behold, amongst our delegates on the ship, we had a qualified captain, navigator, first mate and engineer (myself)! A truly international crew with a Belgian, a Dane, a German and a Canadian. But how to evade the Coast Guard ship?

I suggested an action which worked in Victoria back in the 90’s, when we surrounded the US-flagged Coho ferry in Victoria harbour with kayaks, canoes and sailboats to protest the first Gulf War. Being a seaman, I knew that powered ships have to give way to unpowered ships, so I suggested that we rent a couple of kayaks and get volunteers to enjoy the scenery and sunshine, directly in front of the Greek Coast Guard ship at the moment the Tahrir made her bid for freedom.

Kayaktivists

Kayaktivists salute the Tahrir. Photo by Michael Coleman.

With the rented kayaks quietly moored at the stern of the Tahrir, a mock demonstration was organised to march towards the guard shack to distract the police and commandos. Meanwhile a team of delegates quietly slipped our lines, disconnected our shore power and water line, and pushed us away from the dock.

It all went like clockwork, but the moment the captain asked for power from the engine room, the gig was up. When I fired up the two huge 12-cylinder diesel engines and generator, the whole town knew we were leaving.

I didn’t witness what happened next as I was busy down below, but the commandos came running and the Coast Guard boat sprang to life, all set to quickly cut us off, only to find two kayaktivists (a Canadian and an Aussie) under their bow, enjoying the Greek scenery, and not understanding a word the commandos were screaming at them. The commandos tried to grab them, kick them and knock them over by throwing a huge mooring buoy at them, but they bravely held their ground (water?).

Another delegate tried to “help” the Coast Guard fellows by pulling up a mooring bumper, but due to a language miscommunication, he accidently pulled their boat in instead of releasing the rope. All in all, these brave folks not only allowed the Tahrir to successfully back out of the harbour, but gave us a four-minute head start. Then the race was on.

With both engines giving all the power they had, we were at full speed in no time and heading for open water. We only had to get to the 12-mile mark and we would be in international waters and on our way to Gaza. But the Coast Guard ship, with its load of commandos, gave chase and eventually caught up with us. The soldiers yelled unintelligible orders and waved angrily at us and sprayed water at us, but we were going so fast and were so manoeuvrable they couldn’t board us. I thought we were going to make it.

Getting a shower

Getting a shower from the Coast Guard fire hose

But then a navy Zodiac appeared and picked up the commandos from the Coast Guard boat and deftly pulled up behind us and transferred them onto the stern of our ship. Then, waving pistols and rifles in the air, they roughly pushed through our activists’ attempts to non-violently obstruct them, and stormed the bridge, which was now empty.

The burly Commando Chief then strode out into the midst of the activists encircling the bridge, waving his pistol and shouting, “Who is the captain?” Like a scene from the movie Spartacus, everyone shouted back, “I am the captain!” He was not impressed, and his troubles were just starting.

He retreated back onto the bridge and seized the wheel and pushed the engine’s control levers into full speed forward to take Tahrir back to St Nicholas, but magically the engine levers shifted back into neutral, as if they were possessed by the spirit of Gaza! The chief pushed the levers back to full speed forward and just a quickly they went back to neutral!

A tug-of-war then ensued between the uncooperative engines and the chief. He finally held the controls with all his might in full speed forward, but then one engine magically shifted into full speed reverse so the Tahrir started to go in a circle!

The little ferry eventually tired of this game and both engines shut themselves down completely, much to the consternation of the commander, who turned keys, pulled levers, shouted orders and gnashed his teeth up on the bridge.

When the engine room was eventually invaded by commandos, it was deserted. What a mystery!

The Coast Guard boat attempted to tow the Tahrir but snapped her tow ropes — she seemingly didn’t want to go back. Eventually a military tug arrived and threatened to tow us to a navy base to be arrested and jailed, unless the Tahrir quickly cooperated and steamed under her own power back to St. Nicholas.

So, after some heart-to-heart discussions with the engines and a few repairs, the Tahrir steamed back to St. Nicholas to a bit of a hero’s welcome from some local Greek activists and friends. Unfortunately, while roughly tying us up, the tug violently rammed us and split one of our fuel tanks, dumping many liters of diesel fuel into our bilge.

Greek tug moments before she crashes into us, cracking our fuel tank

For a moment, we thought we were in danger of sinking, but fortunately, the damage was limited to just one fuel-tank bulkhead and some scraped paint on our hull (although who knows who will pay for the repairs?). We were then surrounded by soldiers and police, but Greek trade unionists staged a sit-in to protect us.

Fearing that we were going to be attacked in the night, they slept all night next to us on the pier. At one point, an elderly restaurant owner pushed her way through the line of commandos and handed a huge tray of homemade pizza across to us, shouting that she was was embarrassed by what her government had done to us, and that the Greek people had always supported the Palestinian people.

The Greek commandos, after the seizure of the Tahrir, actually apologized to the activists who they had knocked down and roughed up, stating that they didn’t want to stop us but they had to follow orders. Sandra Ruch and the two “kayaktivists” were arrested for their brazen actions and held in jail overnight. Even the Greek judge showed his compassion for our cause, when he only gave them a 30-day suspended jail sentence.

That night, for one last time, I slept under the stars on the steel deck of the Tahrir, while the Coast Guard boat and crew sat directly behind us and a squad of 5 commandos sat in chairs on the dock next to us all night, just to make sure the Tahrir didn’t pull a “fast one” and make another run for Gaza.

We didn’t get to Gaza this time, but we had a huge impact in publicizing the plight of the illegal blockade of Gaza, and exposing Israel’s cowardly actions in attacking our ships both diplomatically and physically. Of all the eight flotilla ships quarantined by the Greeks, only the Tahrir was able to get away from the dock, let alone make it eight miles in its 20 minute race for freedom. And we are not done yet, not by a long shot.

We still have our ship and we will sail again to Gaza, along with all the other temporarily detained Flotilla Two ships, and we’re likely going to be joined by more ships in Freedom Flotilla Three. The blockade of Gaza was temporarily extended to Greek waters, but there are many other nearby ports that won’t knuckle under to the dictates of the Israeli government, and the Tahrir is heading to one of them as I speak.

Of course we didn’t do all this on our own, as we had the moral and financial support of thousands of Canadians. It looks like we are going to need a little more of that support in the next Freedom Flotilla Three. Please check out our website at www.tahrir.ca and consider making a donation there to the cause of a free Palestine.

Rest assured, we will sail until Gaza is free.
Thanks for all your support and interest,

Kevin

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Colin Smith on August 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Hi Kevin. Sorry you didn’t make it out. A good effort, though. I wish they and the US crowd had followed my advice from before Xmas and got their boat out of Greece if they decided to buy one there. It was obvious that Greece was much too close to the US politically and was not a good place to start from. Turkey would have been better, but if necessary head out into international waters early and just drift around until the boats mustered. I think detention could have been avoided. I’m surprised people ashore didn’t give them a heads-up when it looked like the political situation was going sour. Brave effort, anyway.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim Bus on August 16, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Thanks for all YOUR support and interest,

    Reply

  3. Posted by Tim Bus on August 16, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Please check out our website at http://www.tahrir.ca and consider making a donation there to the cause of a free Palestine.

    Reply

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