Ready for a battle, shocked by their victory


John Arlidge
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:51


on board the Solo

For Greenpeace activists on board the MV Solo yesterday their day of victory began at first light 1,200 miles north of the Butt of Lewis. It was 4am and the Greenpeace vessel was steaming through force eight winds and 4m high waves heading for the Brent Spar and the final confrontation with Shell.

At 4.30am there was a hurried knock on my cabin door.Anxious shouts summoned Greenpeace activists from the wooden bunks beside me to the bridge. There, Ulf Birgander, the boat's Swedish captain, told the crew that the second dawn raid on the redundant oil platform was about to begin.

The two men - a 26-year-old Irishman and a 30-year-old Dane who were about to land on the Spar were already in the helideck on the bow of the tonne trawler.They were packing their belongings into bin bags and clambering aboard the Greenpeace chopper.

In the mess room Paula Huckleberry, 45, the American helicopter pilot from Montana, pulled on her survival suit. She was white with nerves. "I haven't slept a wink. I can't get last week's picture of the Greenpeace helicopter being hit by water cannon out of my mind. It's so dangerous out there. If we get hit we could be blown out of the sky."

Ms Huckleberry is Greenpeace's only full-time pilot. She joined the environmental pressure group five years ago.

Her aircraft was pitching at angles up to 30 degrees as the huge waves crashed over the trawler. Captain Birgander changed course to avoid the worst of the swell. Slowly the boat stabilised and Ms Huckleberry climbed into the cockpit. As she gave the bridge the thumbs-up crewmen scampered around the deck removing the chains which stopped the aircraft toppling into the waters on the 20-hour journey from Stornoway.

The helicopter rose slowly, buffeted by 40mph winds, and flew at 300ft to avoid radar detection. It was 20 miles to the Brent Spar.When Ms Huckleberry reached the 463ft redundant oil storage buoy she climbed to 1,500m and swooped low to hover just one metre above the deck. The water cannons on the four Shell oilfield support vessels which nearly brought down the last Greenpeace helicopter were merely dribbling into the ocean as their operators slept. For the second time in two weeks Shell had been caught napping.

Shell contractors had covered the rig's helideck with razor wire so Ms Huckleberry could not land. As she hovered the Irish and Danish eco-raiders leapt on to the platform.The "Brent Spar Two" were now four, all insisting they would stay "as long as it takes to prevent Shell dumping this piece of poisonous waste and polluting our environment". They had no idea how soon that moment would come.

Back on the Solo at 5.30am the radio crackled. On her way back from the Spar, Ms Huckleberry said: "The boys are on the rig. Everything went smoothly. A-OK affirmative. I'm on my way back." Ten minutes later she was applauded back on board.

By now the 450,000 tonne Brent Spar was in sight, its yellow stem clearly visible above the waves. The water cannons were showering the platform with giant jets of water in a belated gesture of defiance.

Several messages and skirmishes later the Shell vessels suddenly turned off their water cannons. "It's a trap," Mr Birgander warned. But then the radio news from the mainland came through.

"Confirmed - Shell has abandoned its plans to sink the Brent Spar." There was jubilation on board - singing, dancing and screaming. Jonathan Castle, skipper of Greenpeace's other vessel in the area, the Altair, said: "This is quite amazing. I thought we were going to lose because Shell seemed so determined to sink the Spar. Maybe now the British Government and oil multinationals will finally agree to review their plans to sink up to 50 disused rigs in the North Sea."

Rose Young, the campaign co-ordinator on the Solo, one of the first activists to occupy the Brent Spar in April, added: "This is a great achievement, a great team effort. Thirty miles from the proposed dump site we have stopped Shell in its tracks. I'm on the crest of a wave. I think I'm going to go away and burst into tears."

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