Restoration work continues on the original peace boat that inspired a generation of activists
The story of the Golden Rule reads like a modern retelling of "David and Goliath": In 1958, the 30-foot sailboat crewed by five peace activists faced off against the massive nuclear might of the United States military — and won. The group's goal was to stop the U.S. from testing nuclear weapons in atmosphere above the Marshall Islands — and more broadly to do away with nukes entirely — and though they were arrested twice and jailed in Hawaii before they could sail into the testing zone, their efforts helped to galvanize the public and eventually led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
Since then, many other protest vessels have been inspired by the example set by Captain Albert S. Bigelow, Orion W. Sherwood, William R. Huntington, George Willoughby and James Peck, and their legacy lives on today in the work of organizations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd. It also survives in the form of the Golden Rule itself, which was sold in Hawaii in 1958, then rediscovered in Humboldt Bay in 2010, albeit somewhat the worse for wear. Though no one seems to know exactly how it got there, the "battered, neglected and storm-damaged" ketch was pulled from the bottom of the bay by shipyard owner Leroy Zerlang after it sank in a storm, and it's currently being restored by a coalition led by Veterans For Peace (http://vfpgoldenruleproject.org).
Once the project is finished — the latest estimate for completion is the spring of 2015, depending on fundraising and how much time volunteers can put into it — the group intends to use the vessel as "an educational podium, floating from port to port" spreading a message of peace, said Chuck DeWitt, the restoration coordinator for the project.
"Our purpose is to educate the public about the dangers, not just of nuclear weapons, but of militarism in today's world. Why it is what it is, and about the discrepancies between what the government tells us and reality," DeWitt said. "I mean, the government tells us that the military is protecting us from terrorists, but in fact they're nothing but a security force for the oil companies and other big multinational corporations."
A pamphlet published by the group declares that, "Our ultimate aim is nothing less than to abolish war as an instrument of national policy. With your help, we intend to restore the Golden Rule with the goal of a 10-year voyage in opposition to war and militarism."
Describing the restoration team as "an eclectic mix of sailors, shipwrights, historic boat lovers and peaceniks," Arnold Oliver, professor emeritus of political science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, said the goal is to have the project completed in time for the Golden Rule to sail to San Diego next year for the National Veterans for Peace Conference in August. From there, the plan is to transport it by truck to Texas and continue up the Mississippi, and then on to the East Coast and the Great Lakes, promoting the idea that the U.S. can go "from being militaristic to being more of a good neighbor internationally."
Oliver became involved in the project in 2012 after reading about the boat in an article by Lawrence Wittner, and has made the four-day drive out to California three times since then to help.
Once the boat is sea-worthy again, the educational voyage is expected to take at least 10 years and possibly longer. Oliver said the change in consciousness — and conscience — that supporters hope to achieve won't happen overnight, but that already a lot of progress has been made in that direction.
"It takes time, and it takes a whole lot of work by a whole lot of people," he said. "When I went to Vietnam in 1967, very few people were questioning the U.S. military, or military spending and what it was doing. There were a few Quakers and people like Albert Bigelow and the crew of the Golden Rule, but I didn't hear about it back in Ohio. There were very few people questioning our bloated — and even more bloated now — military."
Saying that the number of peace advocates has risen significantly in recent years, Oliver estimated that between 35 and 45 percent of people "now have big reservations about what we're doing in the world militarily, especially after disasters such as the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan."
'A WORK OF ART'
With DeWitt working on the boat seven days a week — he's already put in more than 1,000 hours since the start of the year, all pro bono — the group is making steady progress, but like most volunteer projects, it's a constant struggle to keep funds coming in. They've already raised about $85,000 — enough to pay for most of the restoration, as well as the boat's electronics, a new engine, fuel tank and much more — but DeWitt said that until they can afford to hire professional boatwrights to help with the remaining labor, progress will be slow.
"If we had another $25,000 or $30,000, we could afford to hire people to do a lot of what has to be done yet. Mike (Gonzalez, one of DeWitt's helpers) and I are both competent fine woodworkers and we do good work, but everything we do is for the first time, so we have to feel our way through it. Professional boatwrights have already done it a dozen times or more, so they know how to do it and they can come in and get it done — bang bang bang — and we're moving on."
He said the other major expenses still left to cope with are a new set of sails with the Veterans for Peace logo on them — "That will be several thousand dollars right there" — and finishing the interior woodwork. The Golden Rule Committee is seeking help from other organizations, including Greenpeace, to raise funds to finish the project, and they also welcome donations from anyone who wishes to support their mission. (Details about where to send donations are included at the end of the story.)
The ketch is full of hand-crafted detail work made from exotic hardwoods like African mahogany and ipé (pronouced "e-pay"), as well as cast bronze belaying pins, a handmade butterfly hatch skylight and custom-made masts.
"It's just amazing, it's already really a work of art," said Oliver.
A great many people have helped with different aspects of the project, including Fredy and Sherry Champagne, Leroy and Dalene Zerlang, Mike Gonzalez, Nate Lomba, Dennis Thompson, Breckin Van Veldhuizen, David Peterson, Chris Berry, Richard Betournay, Lawrence Wittner, Arnold Oliver, Ann Wright and many more too numerous to list.
MORE THAN 'WOOD AND METAL'
No matter how intricate and beautiful the Golden Rule is, the ideas it embodies transcend its physical form.
"The boat is cool, it's a neat project, but the project is not really about the boat. It's just a bunch of wood and metal," said Oliver. "The project is really about recognizing the example and the legacy set by the original crew. They stood up for social justice in a major way, and they did so using entirely nonviolent means."
Oliver said that while many people might think it's impossible to turn the country around, he sees countries like Sweden that were once warlike but have grown increasingly peaceful with democratization as examples of how fast change can come about.
"I think it is the case that if the U.S. had more influence by the public, there would be less inclination to go to war. The fact that we can't build schools, or take care of children, or have decent health care, or have people with a living wage, at the same time that we have an incredibly bloated military, is grotesque. It's just flat out wrong," Oliver said. "The Military Industrial Complex wants to modernize nuclear missiles and rebuild the infrastructure of mass death. They want to produce nuclear weapons, but they don't want to build schools, they don't want to build roads, and that's grotesque. That's not the sign of a healthy society," Oliver said.
Those who would like to support the project can donate online at http://vfpgoldenruleproject.org or by mail to Golden Rule Project, P.O. Box 87, Samoa, CA 95564. For more information, visit the website listed above, email
or call 419-357-4356.
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