I spent four days in London in the autumn of 2002. I attended a lobby for a just peace in Palestine. During an all day illuminating seminar on this topic an idea germinated. A boat was the way to bring some sustenance to malnourished children and useful attention to their predicament. Its size and the symbolism would ensure such publicity that safe and rapid passage through Israeli borders would be ensured.
Was there a port in Gaza? There was a web site for one but it tailed off. I learnt that a French company had started building one with Saudi money and then it was bombed. That meant taking any cargo to Ashdod, an Israeli port dating back to biblical times and lying about 60 miles north of the northern limit of the Gaza Strip. The general details cleared in my mind.
On the 3rd of January 2003 the voyage was announced in our regional paper, the Western Morning News, but without the knowledge of my wife Susan. I had guessed that she would never have gone along with such a scheme. From angry denial, she was then swept along with the many letters and calls of support. I quickly became used to speaking with radio and TV reporters; from Sky and Richard and Judy to our regional stations. Although I am shy by nature, I was happy to do this because it was vital for the success of the voyage and for public financial support. This was an enjoyable experience and I can speak well of the young journalists I met. Their interest and enthusiasm sprang partly from the unusual nature of the project and partly from the large cost to ourselves. This was projected to be £120,000 and having sold our old thatched house, we had some leeway. I recall reminding the Sky man, Mr Lowe, that a new Rolls had come on the market the previous day for twice that and for one fellow to drive.
The dove was an obvious symbol but the olive branch in its beak was additionally poignant for the Palestinian people given the destruction of many, many thousands of olive trees, some of which were growing I am told at the time of Christ. As for the dolphin, I am much involved with Brixham Sea Watch which has campaigned for 13 years against the killing of the common dolphin in the bass pair fishery. This was chosen as a symbol of what man is doing to the natural world. Chris Weatherley’s artist brother Peter produced a design for our flag in three hours from request one night. Banners saying ‘SHALOM’ for the bow port rail and ‘SALAM’ for the starboard were made. But I sail ahead too fast. At first we were going in the Brixham trawler belonging to John Hingley. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency sank that with the rule book – thankfully. We could only have taken 17 tonnes of supplies, had little room and it burned excessive diesel. Then I looked for a ship to purchase and became ‘expert’ at ex-RN tenders, an unsuitable ship for deep waters with hidden disasters waiting in the engine room! One of my expert advisers then suggested chartering a cargo vessel. Steve Gillie of Gillie and Blair, Newcastle was wonderfully helpful but there was an underlying nervousness. He had never chartered a vessel for a private individual before! Within a day or so he had secured a 66 metre Danish cargo vessel, MV Barbara, Marstal with a price of £64,000 to take our cargo from Torquay to Ashdod in 16 days. She was due to sail from Esbjerg to St Peter Port, Guernsey so a leg back to Torquay fell in well.
The proposed sailing day was the 1st of February, 28 days after it was first announced. 40 tons of flour, 5 tons of milk powder, 3 tons of vegetable oil (for cooking) and 1 ton of the cheddar cheese from the Mendips were ordered. Wholesale prices were an eye opener and all food was of the best quality. Half a ton of South Devon honey (little of this now in the land of milk and honey) was added and later caused particular delight. £1,500 worth of basic medical supplies were provided by Dr Hamami from Chalfont. About 100 boxes of warm blankets/clothes were gathered in. 1.4 tons of waste carpet wool were donated. I knew there was over 60% unemployment and it seemed good sense to take something that could be worked.
No religious symbols or national flags (other than those required by convention) were to be flown. This was a voyage of one small group of world citizens to another in their suffering. A 25 metre long banner was made quicksticks by a firm in South Wales. It was to be flown between fore and stern masts with a quotation from Albert Schweitzer – ‘Reverence for All Life’ and above in smaller letters – ‘Justice – Peace – The Brotherhood of Man’. I was to be joined by the trawler skipper and the ‘Busker of Boscastle’ John Maughan – for song, as well as a young man who had been in trouble and who needed broader horizons.
After a frenetic four weeks and more crests than troughs we sailed from Haldon Pier, Torquay on 1st of February. There were many folk and family. ‘Sky’ was there again and alone came down into Gaza from Jerusalem eighteen days later. The pilot eased the ship out into the gathering dusk and my two little grandchildren went on waving until we were just navigation lights.
On day two it was a force 9. The ship was virtually in ballast (she could carry 1100 tons) and the maximum roll was 48 degrees! As the bow crashed down, the ship shuddered to a halt it seemed. Back at base Sue was stuck into endless, doom laden messages from the Israelis but was helped by a remarkable young Palestinian materials scientist – now a trustee. Spirits lifted when a pod of dolphins joined us off Gibraltar. Later hundreds of pilot whales were seen determinedly swimming westwards. There were memorable evenings spent on the bridge with singing led by Heine, the master, and John. We were often alone but for the stars. As we steamed into the eastern Mediterranean it was evident that a cordon had been thrown across it. In one day the officer of the watch was interrogated from 2 US warships, 2 fixed wing planes and one helicopter. These were all under NATO aegis I believe.
Heine Hestoy, Preben the engineer, the young mate Per and the 4 other crewmen got the ship to Ashdod as predicted on the 16th. The Faroese master is a remarkable man. Not many other men or ship owners would have taken ourselves and our cargo to an Israeli port then. We had to ride at anchor out of the harbour along with many other ships because there was a westerly swell but we were treated kindly and docked before others during the night. The hatches were soon open and in a few hours 3 lorries and their trailers were loaded. It was all too good. I then spent 4 hours with the shipping agent getting extra dollars ‘wired’ over. That was partly due to the Israeli MoH which insisted on testing the cheese. One block was ‘swabbed’ and a bill of $736 resulted. A rebate for this likely culture of lactobacillus casei was never forthcoming and still rankles.
By teatime, a further concession allowed our cargo through the separate checkpoint later than usual. The distribution of the food and clothing to the poorest people had been arranged in advance and in an orderly way by my ‘other half’ Adli Hammad who lives in Gaza City with his English wife – a Devon lady. The quality of the food was especially appreciated and the honey caused great delight. I took very little part in this but instead the four of us were taken around the Gaza Strip, including Rafah, in the four packed days there. The two Johns were reduced to tears by what we saw and heard. Before we flew from Tel Aviv, we visited the excellent St John’s Eye Hospital in Jerusalem which I knew of already.
The ‘Voyage of The Dove and The Dolphin’ continues. Our further actions in Gaza are written up in newsletters on www.doveanddolphin.com Charity No. 1100119