Ships crisis leaves environmental pressure group high and dry

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The world's most famous private navy is in crisis. Even before French forces seized two of Greenpeace's three remaining ocean-going ships, the environmental group was pondering what to do with its ancient and potentially unsafe fleet.

Now it has no idea when the Rainbow Warrior II and the Greenpeace will be returned by the French, following the raid by troops near Mururoa Atoll. There are fears that the old boats may have been disabled to the point where it is no longer worth repairing them.

Five years ago the global environmental group had seven deep-water vessels, including an ice-breaker. After it sold its powerful salvage tug Solo to the Dutch government this summer there were just three.

And now, after the French action, it effectively has just one. This is the ex-trawler Moby Dick, smallest of the three and first in line for replacement.

This is a dire state of affairs for an organisation whose success and fame is inseparable from its vessels. "The ships are Greenpeace," said Ulrich Jurgens, Greenpeace International's head of campaigning. "They are essential for direct action."

But the average age of the three is 37 years. "We've got antiques out there," said Walt Simpson, head of Amsterdam-based Greenpeace Marine Services. "Anything over 20 years old is getting on for a ship."

Greenpeace International has decided it needs a minimum of four ocean going ships. There are controversial plans to commission an environmentally- friendly "supership" at a cost of pounds 8m. A graduate student at the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, has drawn up plans for the ship for his PhD thesis. It would be a showcase for low or zero pollution technology as well as meeting Greenpeace's unusual breadth of requirements.

But Greenpeace International, which has had its funding sharply reduced in recent years, would have to raise almost all the pounds 8m from scratch. Since it will not accept grants from governments or companies and dislikes large bank loans, it would have to launch a special appeal.

Mr Simpson, a former US merchant navy captain, said: "It would be a great idea if we had the money to spare. But I can think of much more effective ways of spending pounds 8m on our ships." By the end of the month he should have completed the purchase of a second-hand ship to replace the Solo. And by the year's end he hopes to have bought another second- hand vessel. Those two purchases will cost at least pounds 3m.

The Greenpeace and Rainbow Warrior II are now anchored at Hao Atoll near Mururoa, having been towed there by the French Navy. Mr Simpson said he had no idea when they would be returned or how well the French would protect them with the typhoon season looming.