Ian Cohen, current Green Senator, NSW, tackles US nuclear-capable warship, Sydney Harbour, September, 1986
Image: © Robert Pearce/Sydney Morning Herald
Some see God; for others, enlightenment is a blinding, beatific flash of light. Me, I meditated on the grey steel nose of a warship. Late one night, I peeked over my bed sheets and there it was, my very own vision spectacular, ridiculous, an illusion of danger, a dance of life on the very nose of death, indisputably a nonviolent action in the classic sense. To hold on to the nose of a warship and surf a great, grey wave up the harbour was the ultimate statement; Aussie surfboard diplomacy…
In 1986, Sydney was the major venue for the Australian Navy’s 75th anniversary. This included the arrival of the largest international assembly of allied vessels in a foreign port since World War II…
The first ships entered the harbour to be greeted by a large banner on North Head reading: “NO DEATH SHIPS!” As the warships convoyed in, our boats announced over the megaphones the arrival of these nuclear-capable ships. Motorised vessels played cat and mouse with the ships…
Relying on well-developed tactics of our own, Gerry Smith drove the zodiac a distance away from the main fleet but manoeuvred directly in front of the approaching ships. For a few nervous moments we sheltered beside Fort Denison, Sydney’s historic fortified island, the nearest thing to hiding in the bush out in the middle of the harbour. With a nod and a wise smile from Gerry, our forever calm pilot, we skimmed down the harbour straight at the oncoming destroyer, the USS Oldendorf. When we were about 50 metres in front of the warship we stopped dead in the water. I jumped off. Gerry executed a quick U-turn and disappeared before the police realised what was afoot.
I paddled for the ship. An armada of small support boats in front of it was bearing straight down upon me. The boats could not break ranks for fear of collision, and if they stopped they were in danger of being hit from behind by the warship. I paddled my way through the lines until nothing separated me from the warship. I turned and paddled hard. In the choppy conditions it was imperative that I had momentum at the point of contact. I grabbed hold just as the ship appeared in my vision from behind. As I strained, the nose of the ship began to propel me along.
The hardest part over, I was positioned for the ride of my life up Sydney Harbour. I waved to police and protest craft alike, smiling from ear to ear. That is, until I sighted a boat ten metres in front. On board were cameramen with monstrously large lenses pointing at me. I pulled an excruciatingly intense face; after all, nuclear warships were no joking matter.
Ian Cohen, current Green Senator, New South Wales
from Green Fire, Harper Collins, 1997