It’s funny stuff, marine paint: thick and gloppy, it sticks to painted metal to cover up rust patches, and also sticks to your hair, clothes and skin every chance it gets. Painting would not have been my activity of choice on an hot September afternoon at sea, but skipper Mika was adamant about dealing with rust spots on the Estelle, so that is what we did on some of my watches. Everyone on board is acutely aware that if the Estelle suffers the same fate as other Freedom Flotilla Coalition ships in recent years, rust spots would be among the least of our worries. Notwithstanding the obvious dangers the future might hold, Mika has had more than a quarter century’s relationship with this unique tall-ship-fair-trade-commercial-sailing-and-training-vessel, including loving repairs and ingenious refits, and he wants her to look her best, no matter what.
There is an impressive amount of professional marine expertise on board the Estelle, from skipper and officers to engineers and able seamen. Why have these grave mariners have left good jobs in commercial shipping to donate months of their time to breaking the blockade of Gaza? “Because I want to look at myself in the morning with a good conscience” able seaman Charlie tells me. “Because I believe in human rights everywhere, not just in Sweden,” replies first officer Joel.” Their calm resolve holds no illusions about the dangers they may face, only a deep commitment to using their practical talents to help free the only port on the Mediterranean which is closed to the same commercial shipping which makes up their normal livelihood.
The sailors were keen to learn about my experiences on the Tahrir (Canadian Boat to Gaza) last November, when we were illegally boarded by force in international waters just 45 nautical miles, tasered, abducted and imprisoned in Israel for six days before being deported. But smuggled videos of heavily armed Israeli naval commandos or the inside of Givon prison did not phase them in the least: their consummate maritime professionalism is matched by an unshakable commitment to this mission, come what may.
Everyone on board is also committed to responding with complete nonviolence to whatever challenges they may face from the Israeli military. If there is any violence, we know it will come from the heavily armed soldiers boarding the vessel and not from the unarmed crew, who along with delegates on board (including parliamentarians from several countries) have been undergoing serious training in nonviolence for many days now. We also know that whatever the distance from the coast, Israel has no legal right in international law to interfere with maritime shipping towards the port of Gaza, any more than it has any legal justification for harassing and shooting at Palestinian fishing boats.
One of those delegates is retired Canadian MP and United Church minister Jim Manly, who was seen off in Naples by his son and grandson. Jim told us that this brief family visit reminded him of the importance of sailing to end the blockade in order to bring hope to the children of Gaza (where more than half the population is just 18 years or younger). Jim represents the Canadian Boat to Gaza campaign, including our new project, Gaza’s Ark , and the Estelle’s humanitarian cargo of solidarity includes an anchor and a ship’s radio for the construction of the Ark in Gaza.
It is impossible to meet the Estelle’s sailors and not be impressed by them individually and collectively, as proved time and again in the ports visited around the coasts of Western Europe this summer. Drawn by the majestic beauty of a tall sailing ship and legendary musical performances, crowds lined up in the sun and rain to visit the Estelle and learn about her mission. They invariably left moved by the encounter, and more attached than ever to the cause of ending the illegal blockade of Gaza. From dockworkers in Barcelona to fishermen of Corsica, from ex-freedom-fighters in La Spezia to throngs students in Naples: there are now thousands all over Europe and throughout the world whose hearts and minds are sailing eastward with the Estelle towards the shores of Gaza.
As the Estelle sails towards history, we know that this will likely not be the last voyage to challenge the blockade of Gaza. Alice Walker told us last year that the Flotilla movement to free Gaza is the Freedom Ride of our time. And like the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, our movement is not deterred by the violence of those who oppose us: we continue to return because our belief in civil rights demands no less. Seamen like Joel and Charlie are not going to abandon the Palestinians of Gaza, whatever happens to the Estelle in the coming days. In fact, they told me they are ready to go on to work on Gaza’s Ark, to share their technical expertise and their practical commitment to nonviolent direct action as we build hope in Gaza in order to challenge the blockade from the inside outward. Whatever the direction – toward Gaza or from Gaza – we continue to sail until the blockade ends and Palestinians enjoy the freedom of movement that is their inherent right.
Eventually I got the gloppy marine paint out of my hair and beard but I cannot get the Estelle and her courageous crew out of my heart, nor can I get the plight of the Palestinians of Gaza out of mind. Whether we are on board a ship in the Eastern Mediterranean or among the growing number of land crew and land passengers who support the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, this movement continues to strengthen and grow, despite behind-the-scenes state efforts to discourage our grassroots, people-to-people solidarity.
On land and by sea, our course remains the conscience of humanity.
David Heap is a steering committee member with Gaza’s Ark who was on the Tahrir last November as part of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, and who sailed with the Estelle for a few days prior to her departure from Naples on October 6.