Three Days Before the Mast

by Karen Topakian


If I were still onboard the Rainbow Warrior III by 8:30 a.m. I wouldn’t be reading a Paul Krugman NYT column. I would have already eaten breakfast and spent the last 30 minutes cleaning up in the mess.

Life on board the Warrior runs by schedule.

The written instructions on the wall of the mess list the 8 a.m. tasks that everyone chips in to accomplish. Wipe the tables. Sweep the floor. Wipe the counters. Put the full rack of dishes in the sterilizer. Push the button. Wait 90 seconds till the big button turns green. Empty the rack of steaming dishes, cups, glasses and silverware into their respective bins. Take the trash and recycling to the garbage room. Make sure everything lands in the proper bins. Or you will anger the resident garbologist.

Once the crew and staff complete these morning chores, it’s time to work scrubbing decks, repairing lines, charting the course.

I found a workspace at an empty desk in the campaign room. Sitting at a computer while at sea requires mastering the art of wedging yourself into a spot where you won’t roll across the floor. Avoiding nausea while reading computer lines that undulate with the waves. And then, of course, remembering to look up and look out that glimmering sea.


At 10 a.m. the crew assembles in the mess for break. The deck hands and crew deserve this break because they undertake physical labor all day. My labor could hardly be called such but I took the break anyway to show solidarity and because I was told I should.

This break time as in every break time, includes the making of “toasties” or grilled cheese sandwiches. Bread and cheese assembled and placed inside the two paddles of the Panini machine. Coffee and camaraderie. Everyone cleans up after himself or herself. By cleaning off their dishes in the tub of hot soapy water and placing it in the sterilizer rack.

Break time ends and it’s back to work.

In the kitchen, Ronnie, the cook, and Chris, his assistant, prepare lunch, served exactly at noon. Music from the galley wafts through the mess and the lounge. If you know the lyrics, you can join in. I rarely heard a song twice except for Bill Withers, “Lovely Day,” which the kitchen crew sang joyfully at top volume.

The galley sports a sign that changes daily indicating the number of days the crew of the RWIII stand in solidarity with their brother and sister crew members of the Arctic30, taken at gunpoint by the Russian military in international waters for protesting arctic drilling by the Russian owned Gazprom oil company.

By the time I left the ship, 28 of the 30 had received bail. Leaving 2 behind bars waiting for a bail hearing or in the case of Colin, waiting for an appeal to his denial of bail.


The crew of the RWIII remains acutely aware and ever vigilant about the status of their fellow crewmembers. The captain of the Arctic Sunrise, Peter Willcox, should be joining the RWIII in January to start his 3 months at sea. Instead, he waits in St. Petersburg on bail but still charged with piracy and hooliganism which combined equal a sentence of 22 years in a Russian prison. Until they are all released, the charges dropped and our ship the Arctic Sunrise returned to Greenpeace, the sign in the mess will remain. Ronnie will return to the Philippines soon, taking the sign with him. Changing the number daily.

At noon, Ronnie and Chris lay out on the sideboard a hot meal of vegetables, pasta, rice or potatoes, sometimes meat, sometimes tofu and a big pan of salad. Every thing carefully labeled vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free.

Crew and staff grab plates and silverware walk down the aisle filling their plates as much as they want. Grab a seat. Everyone sits with everyone else. If you didn’t know Joel Stewart captained the ship, the seating order wouldn’t indicate it.

Joel, a man of quiet strength with a passion for environmental protection, strong beliefs in the innocence of the Arctic 30 and love of the sea, nature and sailing. His personality does not dominate the ship nor does anyone’s. At meal times you find yourself next to the folks in the engine room, the deck hands, the boson or anyone else on board. All equal. All interesting. Conversation drifts to ship life, to the best form of mass transit, to tips on avoiding nausea. Kindness extends to those new to ship life. After lunch, another clean up. Then back to work. At 3, break time and cleaning time occupy everyone on the ship.

Crewmembers work in shifts to cover a 24/7 schedule. In the cabins below deck, someone is always sleeping. So quiet prevails. Any chatting and socializing takes place in the lounge adjacent to the mess or on the deck.

The cabins line the perimeter of the ship, providing everyone with a porthole plus 2 bunks, storage cupboards, a bench seat and table, a shower and small sink. Communal toilets, a one-bed hospital and a laundry room occupy the center of the lower deck. Crewmembers personalize their cabins with photos and posters.


The only crewmember who doesn’t share a cabin is the captain who sleeps above deck behind the bridge.

At 5 p.m. deck and crew work ends. Time to grab a beer and hang out. Cross training often occurs at 5 on the deck or in the helicopter hangar. At 6, Ronnie and Chris lay out dinner. More food. All labeled. All delicious. Many crewmembers enjoy a wine or beer with their meal. After dinner, another round of clean up. Then on to one’s own personal activities or watching news related to the Arctic30.


On my first night at sea, I couldn’t face sitting in the mess. My stomach churned at the sight of food before me. Penny, the bosun, ushered me outside to the fresh air on the deck. She drew her big warm coat over my shoulders as I sat in the threshold to her office (a room neatly filled with tools and repair equipment), handed me a small bowl of white rice and asked if I wanted a little soy sauce. She carefully poured a few drops on the top. I mixed it in with a metal soupspoon turning the white rice brown and ate it with gusto. She sat with me while I gobbled it up. Next she handed me an apple. “Take this to your bunk,” she said. “It’s always good to have a little snack in your pocket.”

I left my bowl with her, pocketed the apple and descended to my bunk to sleep for the night.
Once I lay down, I felt the nausea abate. The ship rocked me to sleep and rocked me awake. Many hours later, I awoke, reached for the flashlight under my pillow aimed it at my wristwatch, 2:50. After turning off the flashlight. I reached for my apple wedged in the top left hand corner of my bunk and ate it, lying down in the dark. Penny was right. I could feel it absorbing the acid rolling around in my stomach and filling up the empty spots.

I fell back to sleep and didn’t awaken until early dawn.

The next afternoon, I descended to my bunk with a churning stomach. Instantly I fell asleep until a loud horn blared followed by an all ship announcement – fire drill. I scrambled out of my bunk, grabbed clothes, shoes, eyeglasses and a coat. Forged up 2 flights of stairs to the helipad for muster (Emili, the 2nd mate, gave us a thorough orientation on the first day of sailing that included where to go and what to do in case of fire or any other emergency).

Crewmembers snaked flat fire hoses on the deck and through the ship. The rest of us stood in a semi-circle braving the thick pea soup fog until we heard the all call to return to our bunks or work. Once delivered, I lumbered back to my bunk shed my clothing and lay back down.

That same evening I went to bed again during dinner, unable to keep my fluttering stomach from erupting. Another all call sounded around 7:30 p.m. announcing, “Dolphins on the bow.”

Once again I threw my clothes on over my nightgown, donned my boots and jacket and headed to the bow in the inky dark night. Emili led me to a spot on the starboard side of the bow to see phosphorescent dolphins cavorting, slicing swimming in the bow wake. (Phosphorescent plankton clings to the dolphins’ skin.) We cheered. We whistled. We laughed as they clearly enjoyed the rushing water from our bow. After a half hour of watching with great delight, I returned to my bunk to sleep for another 11 hours.

On Thursday night, Hettie, the 1st mate, announced, “Dolphins on the bow.”

This time I was awake and ready to stand for 90 minutes cheering on our fellow mammals under a clear starry night. Not knowing whether I should look up to admire the bright star filled sky or look below to the scores of illuminated dolphins cascading through the water in perfectly choreographed movements. Swimming fast toward the hull, making a quick 180 degrees before slamming into the ship. They swam over, under, and next to each other. Streaming away from the bow toward the open water in formations of 2, 4, 5 or 8. Then swimming back. Someone yelled, “incoming” when we could spy in the night light a few swimming in to join their brethren in this nighttime game.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect moment. Leaning over the bow with the crew of the Rainbow Warrior. Everyone laughing, smiling and enjoying the beauty that surrounded us. I don’t know who enjoyed the experience more, we mere mortals or the dolphins. I’m convinced that marine mammals know Greenpeace. And know that we are there to protect them and their habitat.

Scientists tell us seeing these glow in the dark dolphins occurs once in a lifetime, and I saw it twice, two nights in a row.

The dolphins swam with us all night long until the morning light.

That same night, I hung out in the bridge with Adrian, the 3rd mate from Panama who lives in Russia. He told me about his life outside of Moscow with his wife and little boy. So many of the crewmembers leave families behind for 3 months at a time. Keeping in touch online, with Skype and by satellite phones. After 3 months, they hop off and return to their homes where they receive shore pay. Then back on board for another 3 months at sea. At every port, crewmembers arrive while others leave. Always rotating. Always changing. Just like the sea and the weather.

The next morning, on Friday as we headed to our final stop on the US west coast, San Diego, I felt well enough to work on my computer on board the ship. Deep in thought, I heard the call for more dolphins. In the shining daylight, I leaned over the starboard side to watch our grey and white friends swim next to the hull with grace and speed.


My three days aboard the Rainbow Warrior will last a lifetime. When I left the ship on Sunday night, I hugged the crew and said goodbye. Joel repeated his standing invitation to come aboard again.

As I sit at my desk on solid ground in San Francisco, I know no one will call me to watch dolphins or see whales spouting far in the distance. It doesn’t matter, I’ll always hold deep inside me the magic of the Rainbow Warrior III.


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