As they attempt to set sail for Gaza, here is the shocking true story – so far – of the furtive, captain-less ship Tahrir.
The world media have been fascinated by the misadventures of this year’s “Freedom Flotilla,” their attempts to leave port and break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Israel’s offshore seizure in March of hundreds of tons of Syrian arms, mortars and missile systems intended to support Hamas’ armed conflict with Israel has done nothing to change a prevalent opinion among pro-Palestinian activists that Israel’s naval blockade constitutes an offense to humanitarian principles. Prevalent in the minds of many is last year’s “Freedom Flotilla” disaster, in which an Israeli boarding party responded to violent resistance on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara with lethal effect, killing nine activists (some reportedly eager to martyr themselves) and injuring many more. Now, as Israel and Turkey attempt to repair the diplomatic damage done last year, a number of boats have gathered in the Mediterranean to have another run for the coast of Gaza.
Politics and the prospect of a bunch of seasick, sun-stroked hippies challenging the Israeli navy aside, many aspects of the operation have already shown it to be outlandishly irresponsible and dangerous, as evidenced by scattered reports from mainstream news outlets and direct dispatches from the participants themselves. I would like to shed light on the story, so far, of only one boat, the Tahrir.
The owner of Tahrir is Sandra Ruch, a Canadian. Alas, with a wink we are told by activists she is only the “owner on paper” of the boat. I do not know what this means, but in light of what has happened I assure you it will not be deemed a quaint mystery by home port authorities or the vessel’s insurers. And who is the captain of this boat? The captain of a seagoing vessel has solemn and sole responsibility for the lives, health and welfare of his passengers, his crew and his ship. “Ultimate, sole responsibility” has for ages defined the unique, prestigious title: Captain.
Who is the captain?
When Tahrir first attempted to put out to sea in Crete, in violation of government orders, and after her passengers spent considerable time trying to impede the coast guard by encircling their patrol-boat in kayaks, the vessel was finally chased down, about 15 minutes from port, and boarded.
When overtaken it was found to be at full throttle and on autopilot with no one in the wheelhouse.
When questioned, passengers and crew affirmed alternately “we are all captains” and identified the captain as “Mr. Northstar,” in reference to the Northstar autopilot unit. The captain has not yet identified him or herself.
A marine autopilot, of course, does not have eyes and ears and cannot avoid collision: It simply steers to a compass heading. Advanced models and installations can enable a link-up with GPS and RADAR to give the captain a warning alarm when something uncharted comes into range (1-10 miles for boats like Tahrir, over 25 for big ships), but these capabilities are only used far off-shore, never within a few minutes of port where traffic is relatively heavy and unpredictable, and are in any case completely negated by the prospect of an empty cockpit or wheelhouse. Running any boat on auto at full throttle without an operator near the wheel anywhere near an active port is so unspeakably dangerous as to be unheard-of.
What if, barely out of port, in or just out of marked waters, the vessel, without a soul at the helm, had plowed into an LPG tanker and blown up half the town? Ran into any other vessel and killed the lot? Ran aground or into a navigational aid with violent force, killing and injuring her occupants while dumping a few thousand gallons of diesel and other chemicals?
This single (to my knowledge unprecedented) set of deadly chicaneries, ending with the “secret captain” ruse, comprise – where to start? – a blanket violation of every written and unwritten Law of the Sea.
Sadly, there’s more.
The Tahrir is towed back to port. Many of the activists are arrested and released.
Jesse Rosenfeld describes himself as a “journalist on assignment in Greece covering FreedomFlotilla2.” He is also an activist-participant. As Tahrir settles at her berth in Agios Nikolaos, he reports:
“There is no electricity on the boat, and the stench of diesel is strong in the cabin of the Tahrir.”
He refers first to a serious “Gass,” then “diesel leak from the impact of being brought into port.”
The “impact of being brought into port”? What does this mean? That a fuel tank, or line, ruptured when the boat bumped against a tow-boat or the dock? It is inconceivable that a short, professional tow in relatively protected waters could result in a fuel leak. Did mysterious sea-Jews emerge from the bilge to cut fuel lines underway? Or did mysterious “real owners” and a “ghost captain,” knowing this was a one-time deal and a one-way trip, fail to address pre-existing problems in their hurriedly purchased boat?
Whatever the reason, for a time the vessel continues to endure a major fuel leak in port, which is an emergency hazard threatening all neighboring vessels as well as the port itself. The leak is so serious as to be generating fumes in the “cabin” (Rosenfeld probably means the wheelhouse, where he says the activists happily gathered to sing what he calls “Anarchist and Communist” songs). And they are also dealing with a faulty generator and subsequent, intermittent loss of electrical power. The generator problem, we learn, is an ongoing condition, one which, given a switching error, could have shut down the autopilot while they were screaming out to sea, transforming Tahrir into a completely unguided (but enthusiastically manned) torpedo.
I have only once endured and repaired a “major” fuel leak. It happened offshore, in a storm, and it ranks among my most trying adventures at sea. But any mariner would be slightly horrified by the thought of such a problem accompanied by (the generally completely unrelated problem of) a total loss of electrical power.
A large fuel – even a diesel – leak is a rare but quite dangerous situation on any boat. Coupled with a lack of electricity it presents the possibility of being unable to fully evacuate fuel from the bilges of the boat, as well as a limited ability to ventilate the boat and engine room, which even with less-explosive but highly toxic diesel fuel is critically important. Any conscientious operator knows the potential “deadly cocktail” would have been catalyzed by high ambient and “full-throttle” engine temperatures, the inherent dangers of any unsolved onboard electrical problem (fixing them often means generating sparks), and an untested crew or manifest with (likely high) sensitivity to noxious fumes and general seasickness.
No electricity also means no high-power VHF radio for emergency, safety and bridge-to-bridge communications. No RADAR, no depth-sounder, no weatherfax, no electronic navigation. No single-sideband for long-range calls for help (and no “air conditioning,” by the way, which is amusingly the principal thing the activists complain about). And all this, potentially, in a hot, deadly bath of noxious, volatile fumes at sea, while the engineer goes about the business of sparking the generator set back to life!
In short – I’ve thought about it – I can’t even tell you what kind of fool would have set out on this trip, under these conditions, in this shameful way, with anything approaching this set of onboard problems.
And yet the primary concern of the activists is first to blame the coast guard for returning them to the safety of port (one lady from Denmark yells at the Greeks: “Israeli soldiers! We don’t like you!”) and then to make all haste to again defy coast guard orders in order to transit half the Mediterranean in a disabled, substandard deathtrap with a cowardly, homicidal “captain” (who will surely lose his licenses and endorsements for life once his identity is known).
The entire situation, and evident decision-making process, boggles the mind.
Who would make such decisions, one after another? Who would place the lives of passengers and crew – not to mention other boats, other crews, port workers, inhabitants, and rescue operators – at such extraordinary risk?
The admitted actions of the activists of the Tahrir are already, in aggregate, so blatantly unsafe, so in violation of standard maritime practice and basic seamanship, so utterly unacceptable as to be almost unbelievable.
And yet, as they languish in port, the activists proudly, incomprehensibly, confirm:
We did it!
Franklin Raff is a non-professional crewman, engineer and owner/captain who has cruised, raced and delivered yachts of various kinds in coastal U.S. waters, the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.