The cast was in place. The activists in their colorful three-week-old costumes, the Greek Coast Guard in snappy blue uniforms with gun holsters on the thigh, a contingent of the Greek Army carrying their M-16s and wearing that natty camo gear and flack jackets. They brought their SUVs as well and scattered them around. We were all assembled on the concrete pier that had become our neighborhood, a neighborhood that included the various British, French and Australian yachting people who seemed to be in a continual state of languid amusement.
I had the honor of taking the first scene. I hadn’t read the script, but I was told that, during the afternoon’s safety drill for the activists, I would not … be needed … on the … boat. OK. Got it. I stood by the dock lines and waited for the twin Caterpillar 3414s to turn over. Then I slipped the bowlines off the bollards, and sauntered back to hand the stern lines to Peter Wolter, who, as an ex-German Naval office, knew how to get the 2-inch lines off the cleat. By this time, the boat was moving aft. The Coast Guard vessel, which had been tucked into the corner of the pier right next to us — for just such an eventuality — was beginning to collect blue and camo uniforms the way a a pot of honey collects wasps.
Near the bow of the Coast Guard boat were two rented beach kayaks. One carried Soha Kneen, from Ottawa, and the other, the Australian Michael Coleman. Michael was able to reach the anchor of the patrol vessel — just to steady himself — and they were both far enough under the bow that the captain could not be made aware of them by the frantic crewmen buzzing about the deck. The dock-lines were causing trouble too — I was standing on one of them — so the patrol vessel attempted to back and shunt, jamming the gears, while Michael and Soha began to sashay their kayaks in front of it. The only effective weapons against kayaks, short of running them over, seemed to be the two-foot spherical fenders, which one of the crewmen began to wield, wrecking-ball style, but only after I had helped him to get it untied from the life-lines. I’m so bad at knots, but I’m persistent.
The Tahrir, given a few minutes of freedom, was now in forward gear and gathering speed toward the harbor gap. The army personnel who were not able to get aboard were now leaping into their SUVs, but getting their M-16s caught in the doors. The patrol vessel was still dancing with kayaks, but now several yards off the pier. And the chase began.
The Tahrir is a former troop ferry, retired to the tourist trade, then sold to Canada Boat to Gaza. She’s able, but not built for speed. At about 80 feet, she can manage 15 or 16 knots in distress, but is happier at 10. Of course, it took the Coast Guard only minutes to catch up. Their 60-foot, Norwegian patrol vessel can shake its ass like a runabout.
After only ten minutes of chase and a mile or two of open sea, the Coast Guard faced their next problem: what to do with the Tahrir. The water canon seemed like a good idea until they opened the valves and soaked themselves like kids at a water park. No one ever told them, in their Coast Guard training, not to piss into the wind.
The first ones to actually threaten the Tahrir’s progress toward international waters were two machine gunners in a big Zodiac. They roared up along-side and, despite bouncing off the Tahrir a couple of times, were able to scramble aboard. Once they made themselves part of the the tour, the Tahrir came to a halt. There were some sharp words exchanged but they took over the bridge in pretty short order.
However, a chorus line of elderly activists climbed up on the bench that runs across the front of the wheelhouse and placed their butts comfortably against the windows. And the mustachioed army officer, who they soon named “Super Mario”, had even bigger problems than a line of large butts blocking his forward vision; it seemed as if the throttle-transmission control — a very large version of the device that most of us have seen on any standard recreational power boat — was not responding, at least not in the expected way. When Super Mario pushed forward the vessel went aft. When he pushed aft, it went forward, but only sometimes. When it wasn’t responding in reverse, it responded differently for each of the twin engines, skewing the Tahrir about in random directions.
Super Mario may never know that our very own engine gremlin, Kevin Neish, who has spent a career as a diesel mechanic, was in the engine room. He had uncoupled the transmission and throttle links and was watching for what the bridge seemed to want. Then he decided what he wanted, and did that. Of course, all of this unpredictable behavior made it dangerous for the patrol vessel, which stood off several yards in bewilderment while the blue-jackets shouted at each other on their phones.
In the end, the activists had to pay for their fun. We all ended up spending a rocky night tied against the shipping dock while the police, Coast Guard, army, harbor masters and, I’ll bet, the Minister of Civil Defense in Athens, decided what to do with us. Naturally, civil servants like to have someone specific to blame because the next step is into court. A perfect person to blame would, of course, be the person in charge of the Tahrir when the crime was committed. Oddly, just before I cast off the dock lines at the beginning of this episode, our professional captain and two paid crew-members, were fired. When the authorities demanded to know who was at the helm, at least 30 of the activists offered their guilty souls. (In fact, the ship was on auto-pilot at the moment of apprehension. It was “Mr. Northstar” who should have been jailed.)
Instead, three of us were put in the clinker. Sandra Ruch, since she represents the owners of the vessel, as well as Soha Kneen and Michael Coleman, because they “Kayaked” the Coast Guard.
In this tourist town with a strong leftist tradition, we were soon joined on the dock by hundreds of the curious and sympathetic. We learned that here on Crete, the Communist Party, are the people who will bring you blankets and stay up all night to make sure you are not arrested by the State.
The night wore on through various incarnations of bureaucratic theater of the absurd. With no power or light but plenty of rock and roll against the dock, no one could have slept, but at dawn, they were up again and on their feet. It took more than a night and a day, but in the end, with our lawyers aboard, the Greek authorities decided that having a scruffy boatload of activists on the dock that as built for Mediterranean package-tour cruise ships was not good for business. They soon relented and moved us back to more comfortable quarters in the marina.
Some of the Coast Guard and even a couple of the army personnel came aboard to see whether they were going to make it into the papers. Of course, Miles Howe had caught them in many flattering and unflattering poses. They crowded around his camera to review the takes, stopping him every few frames to pick out a good shot — one that their girlfriends would appreciate. “That one. There. Can you put that in my email? Please?” asked a young coast guardsman who had been caught in an heroic pose against the Palestinian flag fluttering at our bow.
“No”, Miles would reply, “You stopped our boat. You don’t get any pictures until you let all my friends go free.” This was followed by dejected and apologetic looks. No one’s heart is in this, but they too are trapped by an order from the Greek Minister of Civil Defense that prohibits all vessels of any flag that set a course for Gaza from leaving a Greek port. There are a lot of lawyers — maritime, shipping, civil and criminal — who will have a lot to say about that, but not for a while yet.
In the meantime, “OK,” says Miles, “If you bring me a gyro, you can have your pictures.” Later, I spotted Miles on the fore-deck enjoying his dinner.
Soha Kneen, the kayaker, has become a hashtag on Twitter. You can follow her as @SmithSofia. You can find more about the Tahrir’s departure and capture in just about any major newspaper in the world. But I’d like to recommend Miles Howe’s account at http://halifax.mediacoop.ca/boat_to_gaza. We are also accompanied by the famous Israeli journalist, Amira Hass who has insisted on camping out with us. Amira writes for Haaretz (Haaretz.com). Jesse Rissen Rosenfeld, writing for Toronto’s NOW Magazine, took a similar stance and lent his moral support. Another happy camper, Jim Rankin has been filing features and blog posts for the always fair-minded Toronto Star. The CBC’s Alexandra Szacka stayed with us right up to arrest with her camera man Alexey Sergeev. Peter Wolter, representing the German paper Junge Welt, helped cast off the lines and may actually … well I shouldn’t say more. Jase Tanner and Santiago Bertolino have miles of video in the box and are still shooting. Kenan Gurbuz covered us for the Turkish press, Hassan Ghani and Adam Apostol held out through day 16 when their Press.TV producer pulled them back to London. Daria Aslamova, a notable Russian journalist — look up her name — added a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the press corps. In fact, you could say that the only interested news organizations that were not allowed to send a correspondent were Palestinian.