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In the Zerlang & Zerlang boatyard on northern California’s Humboldt Bay, Jim Summers sands over an imperfection in the wooden table he has just finished building. Cigarette smoke clings to the mist in the air, which has slipped through the open door of the workshop. Summers is almost ready to put the table aboard the Golden Rule, a nine-meter wooden boat that he and other members of Veterans for Peace (VFP) have spent five years rebuilding.
“We’re all a bunch of crazies,” Summers says of the group.
Putting down his tool, he gazes at the fired-up wood stove. Its heat is necessary even on this summer day in Eureka—the biggest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, although its population is only 27,191. “We tend to be boat people, druggies, drunks,” he continues. “But we’ve tapped into something bigger than us.”
That bigger thing is restoring this once-dilapidated boat—the world’s “original peace ship”—which first sailed in 1958 to stop nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, some 7,700 kilometers southwest of California. Fifty-seven years after that original voyage, VFP plans to sail it around the United States, protesting nuclear weapons and war. The first leg of the voyage will take the crew to the VFP’s national convention in San Diego, which begins on August 5, more than 800 kilometers and a 10-day voyage away. But that requires the boat to actually leave Humboldt Bay. Right now, six weeks from launch, it has no engine, no main mast, and no rigging, and the team is throwing around an awful lot of F-bombs.
Summers wipes sawdust from the polished tabletop. In such accessories and in its outward appearance, the Golden Rule looks sharp. The boat’s sky-blue and fog-white hull shines, with lacquered wood around the edges and at the stern, where the words Golden Rule, Humboldt Bay, CA, proclaim themselves. The boat’s pretty face represents a big change from when boatyard owner Leroy Zerlang, a big, bearded man who always wears a ball cap, first found it.
Back in 2010, Zerlang dragged a boat from Humboldt Bay’s bottom, the words Golden Rule painted on the stern. The boat belonged to a local doctor, reportedly the tour physician to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. He had owned the boat since 1995. This was the second sinking during that period and the second time Zerlang had rescued it. But this round, the doctor had no interest in fixing the Golden Rule. Zerlang could do as he pleased with the boat.
Local old salt Chuck DeWitt, a white-goateed man with perpetually smiling eyes who used to run Humboldt State University’s research vessel, heard about Zerlang’s acquisition and trekked up to his apartment, one story above the boatyard’s offices and the pet goats he keeps.
“What’s the Golden Rule?” DeWitt asked.
Zerlang pointed outside, where a wooden corpse rested on the sand. The boat’s belly had ulcers, its deck had scars, and it had none of its organs, like a tourist who wakes up in a bathtub of ice less one kidney.
“Disgusting, broken-up boat,” DeWitt said.
But Zerlang had plans. Admittedly, those plans at first involved a chainsaw, a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon, and a bonfire. But then he googled “Golden Rule” and discovered the boat wasn’t just a doctor’s plaything—it had history. Zerlang would spend the next five years funding its restoration, and DeWitt would become the restoration coordinator and the project’s official historian.
The Golden Rule began its peace seeking with Albert Bigelow, a former Second World War navy lieutenant commander. But after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the war ended, Bigelow converted to Quakerism, in 1954. A year later, Bigelow solidified his peaceful philosophy when he hosted two of the twenty-five Hiroshima Maidens, schoolgirls who had been disfigured in the bombing, at his home during their trip to the United States for reconstructive surgery.
This experience led him, two years later, to help form the group Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons. For one of the group’s early demonstrations, members protested nuclear use by sailing toward the Eniwetok (now known as Enewetak) atoll’s nuclear test zone in the Marshall Islands. The US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had been doing nuclear tests in the region since 1946, and off Eniwetok specifically since 1948. In September 1957, the commission announced that it would begin another round of testing the following April. The commission went on to bomb Eniwetok 22 times. To publicly announce his group’s intention to halt those tests by placing themselves among the fallout, Bigelow penned an open letter to US President Dwight Eisenhower. This advertisement, DeWitt claims, was the most important part of the project. “A 30-foot [nine-meter] boat with four guys in it is nothing,” he says. “It’s meaningless. It’s a needle in a stack of needles. But it’s the publicity—the propaganda it produces—that changes the world.”
On April 11, as the Golden Rule sailed toward Honolulu, on the way to the Marshall Islands, the AEC barred access to its Pacific proving grounds, making entry into the Eniwetok test site illegal. But Bigelow did not stop the boat, as he and the crew saw the law as unconstitutional and asserted that it had not gone through the proper administrative channels, had exceeded the AEC’s authority, and was preemptive. They hadn’t even docked in Hawaii, let alone set sail for the atoll yet.
But they did plan to. The crew steered into Honolulu’s harbor to stock up before the journey to the Marshall Islands, and Bigelow described the events that followed in his book The Voyage of the Golden Rule. After a brief stay, they decided to set sail for Eniwetok in spite of a restraining order issued by the US attorney. The coast guard stopped them for an inspection just 3.2 kilometers into the journey. As the officers looked over the boat, a call came over their radio: the federal government had issued a warrant for the crew’s arrest. Forced back to Honolulu, the crew members were brought up before a judge who found them guilty of criminal contempt and sent them to jail. The next month, after their release, the scene essentially repeated itself.
“All of this was headline news,” says DeWitt. “The US government was putting Quakers in jail for protecting the human race.”
The news reached Earle Reynolds, a researcher from the National Research Council’s Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission who had spent three years in Japan studying the bomb’s effects on children. He was resting in Hawaii after a circumnavigation of the globe in his boat, the Phoenix of Hiroshima. When he heard about the Golden Rule’s troubles, he turned his own boat toward the Marshalls to take up the mantle.
And in 1971, a group from British Columbia was inspired by the Golden Rule’s ride and followed suit in Alaska, to protest Russian nuclear tests in Amchitka. “They called their boat Greenpeace,” says DeWitt. “[The Golden Rule] is the mother of Greenpeace.”
The original peace boat’s proponents claim its consciousness-raising led directly to the anti-nuclear protest movement of the 1970s and ’80s, which included demonstrations at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in southern California and rallies following the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, and to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. But that kind of cause and effect remains hard to pin down. The boat might actually be a needle in a stack of needles. Although it’s true that the press covered the Golden Rule’s journey at the time, most people today have not heard of it. The same is likely to be true of the revived project, which has the same goal as the original one, more than a half-century later, suggesting the message didn’t penetrate as deeply or lastingly as Bigelow and his crew would have hoped.
Nevertheless, after boatyard owner Zerlang learned of the Golden Rule’s biography and advertised it, the boat became a collector’s item. A Second World War museum in Hiroshima wanted it; the Smithsonian wanted it; Quaker universities back East wanted it. But Zerlang turned them all down—he thought VFP, in a project headed by DeWitt, should breathe life back into its sails.
Zerlang himself isn’t a veteran, a pacifist, or even necessarily a peaceful person—but he hated to see such a beautiful boat beached. He donated space, electricity, tools, hatches, and time. VFP—whose slogan is “Exposing the true costs of war and militarism since 1985”—took over in 2010 and, ever since, has been putting the boat back together and planning ways to continue its mission for peace.
While Summers continues sanding his table, DeWitt, as restoration coordinator, stands on the Golden Rule’s deck. “It’s going to be a propaganda machine,” DeWitt says. Then, “I call it a weapon of mass education.” But both the “mass” and “education” parts of that statement need some nailing down. The VFP members plan to sail to the conference in San Diego, making waves in ports along the way as they stop and speak about their mission. But where the boat goes beyond the California coast, when it will do so, and how the crew plans to spread the word aren’t quite concrete.
The restoration team members, who know they need to finish even if they’re not 100 percent sure what they’ll do after the trip to San Diego, scurry frantically around DeWitt, stuffing smoked salmon into their mouths as they dash between boat and workshop. The boatyard resembles a ship graveyard, where you could scavenge enough parts to build a small, rusty, and rotted flotilla. “It’s too bad Steinbeck’s dead, because we could make Cannery Row look like Valley of the Dolls,” DeWitt says. It’s unclear what this means, exactly.
He heads toward the workshop, where Helen Jaccard, an associate member of VFP and the partner of Gerry Condon, who is the organization’s national vice president, stands with her hands on her hips, a fanny pack encircling her waist. Her T-shirt, adorned with tie-dye and a peace symbol, almost a uniform for older hippie types, billows in the breeze. She has been living in a camper at the edge of the boatyard for the better part of six months, having contracted “Golden Rule Fever.” “We’re in the transition phase right now,” she says, “where people are starting to think more and more about why we’re doing this rather than just ‘We’re doing this.’”
Conflict sparks at the transition zone, though, between the hard-core boatbuilders (ship-firsters) and the hard-core activists (peace-firsters). The ship-firsters—mostly those like Zerlang, who build and sail boats professionally and aren’t members of VFP—are most concerned with getting the boat to sail; the peace-firsters—mostly the VFP activists—want to make sure everyone can speak eloquently to each port’s press.
Jaccard walks into the workshop, where Summers still caresses his table like the face of a lover. They speak about the weather—its constant “shittiness,” the low-flying clouds that might actually just be fog, and the fog that might actually just be rain.
By the warming stove, silent, sits Steve Neinhaus, fiddling with wires. Jaccard says, “He’s our science officer,” by way of explanation.
Neinhaus smiles and points to the side of his head. “Minus the ears,” he says.
Jaccard’s eyes dart back and forth, as she waits to get the joke.
It’s a reference to Spock, the starship Enterprise’s science officer on Star Trek, Neinhaus tells her. For the journey, he’ll be in charge of any research they do, like the potential collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to measure radiation along the route. He’s already carrying around a Geiger counter, clicking as he walks, and reporting radiation levels in Eureka every day.
Nuclear concerns hit home in Eureka. In 1958, the same year the Golden Rule took her first voyage, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) announced plans to build an atomic power plant here, on Humboldt Bay. In its first two months of operation, the plant underwent emergency shutdowns twice. Then, faulty fuel rods spewed excessive radiation, and 1971 saw a near meltdown, which led Science magazine to name the plant “the ‘dirtiest’ of the nation’s power reactors.” The final straw occurred in 1976, when PG&E closed the plant for seismic retrofitting and refueling, and geologists found that a geologic fault, believed to be dormant, was actually active. PG&E concluded that upgrading the plant to meet Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements would be too costly and decided to shut it down permanently. But decommissioning is technically still in progress. And in 2004, PG&E announced it had lost three fuel rod pieces (fuel rods contain a nuclear power plant’s fissionable material). The announcement ignited a fair amount of concern. Today, the plant has yet to be completely dismantled. The Golden Rule team, though, doesn’t seem to see their town’s problems as noteworthy, but as unremarkable drops in a big bucket. These days, Neinhaus, the science officer, is most concerned about wafting alpha particles from Fukushima’s damaged reactors. And they do put nuclear power and nuclear war in the same basket—nuclear is nuclear—although the latter is meant to kill and the former is meant to be a sustainable, efficient energy source that cuts down on carbon emissions.
Neinhaus looks up when a young woman with three facial piercings walks through the door and keeps walking, ignoring him. Breckin Van Veldhuizen has worked for Zerlang for four years and is one of two team members actually trained to build boats. She says she lived as a professional hitchhiker and train hopper before enrolling in the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, Washington, one of dozens of institutions in the United States to offer boatbuilding training.
“Lots to do,” she says, passing the smoked salmon. “We have a meeting tonight.”
The meeting takes place across the harbor, at the Woodley Island Marina. Just a few minutes into the discussion, the attendees around the conference table begin to murmur. Some claim they should spend grant money printing peace symbols on their sails. Others, like Van Veldhuizen, disagree. She leans back in her chair with one knee up by her chin. “They aren’t a necessary expense,” she says. “They’re flair.”
VFP member Peter Aronson flares back. “This is the Golden Rule Peace Ship Project,” he says, “and its mission extends beyond the boat itself.”
Zerlang, at the head of the table, brings a big yellow highlighter to his mouth and smokes it like a cigar, puffing in and out. “My only comment about the sail graphics,” he says, “is my friend was polishing the brass bell on his ship as the boat was sinking.”
After they finish arguing about sail graphics, they argue about the wording of deck signs—whether, for instance, the one that says, “CAN MILITARISM BRING PEACE? SAILING FOR PEACE IN A WORLD WITHOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS,” should be split into two signs.
After a few minutes, Zerlang stops the discussion. “We have to get this boat down there,” he says, “all the way to San Diego.” He continues smoking his highlighter. “And we’re talking about signs.”
And not just talking—fighting. They may aim for world peace, but if the personal is political, their message is mixed. Their motto, though, is clear: “We already have T-shirts that say ‘Fuck war / go sailing,’” says Summers.
A week later, the GPS, radar, sonar, VHF/DCS paging system, and automatic identification system have arrived—in time for the public launch on June 20. But that’s just a ceremonial engine-powered jaunt around the bay, a prelude to the actual voyage. And in fact, the Golden Rule actually does a trial run two weeks later, on July 4, with only one sail. The other two sails are finally hoisted on July 11. During these final days, the mizzen falls over, and the stuffing box, which stops water from getting into the boat’s hull by sealing off the propeller’s shaft, gets so hot during a test run that it nearly catches fire.
The launch date moves again, to July 16, to coincide with the anniversary of the Trinity bomb test. The Trinity was the first nuclear bomb ever detonated; the US Army lit it up in 1945 as part of the Manhattan Project. Then the event jumps to July 18, and then to July 19. But bad weather and “engine trouble” toss the date into further uncertainty. With all the strike-through marks on the calendar, it begins to seem that perhaps peace, or at least the peace boat, is doomed.
Finally, on July 22, Jaccard proclaims they’ll (probably) go at noon the next day. Her Golden Rule Fever unbroken, she will be one of the crew.
At 11 a.m. on July 23, the crew scurries around the boat at the Eureka Public Marina. The fog has lifted, and the sky is as blue as the water. People in tie-dye and VFP T-shirts mill about, talking to local news crews. Noticeably absent among the entourage are Nienhaus, who was set to be captain until a week and a few interpersonal conflicts ago, and Zerlang. The new captain, David Robson, and first mate Jan Passion stand around looking serious, each with one leg up on the edge of the boat, like Captain Morgan. But Jaccard hangs on to the rigging, chatting with spectators.
“It’s like sending your daughter off to college,” someone in the crowd yells about the Golden Rule.
A few minutes before noon, they turn on the engine, preparing to motor out of the marina. It looks like, against all odds, they will not only take off today but also at the scheduled time. Then, with hardly any ceremony at all, the crew begins to release the Golden Rule from the dock.
“Cast off bow!”
“Cast off stern!”
As the Golden Rule backs away from the dock, the crew and spectators gather to yell in unison, “Thank you, Eureka!” then, “Fuck war, go sailing,” and finally, “Godspeed!” as if they have practiced.
“They’re actually going,” says DeWitt from the dock. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
And then, as if mugging for photographers, the boat simply stops. A collective intake of breath sucks air out of the area as the crowd realizes that 10 meters from its starting point, the Golden Rule’s hull is stuck in the mud. The crew rocks the boat back and forth for a while, trying to seesaw it out. It just lists to one side and then bobs back. Crew members stand and peer at the dock.
“Should we call Leroy [Zerlang]?” asks Van Veldhuizen, watching from the dock.
“I’m pretty sure the moment they cast off, he’s done,” replies Tiffany McKenzie, Zerlang’s office manager.
The audience decides the boat should wait for high tide, which will lift it and its mission out of the mud that screams to be a metaphor. “At least we’ll make the six o’clock news,” says DeWitt, “and everyone will see the marina needs to be dredged.”
But like some action hero, a tugboat whips in and pulls them from their sticking point. Then, without another word from anyone, the Golden Rule motors out into Humboldt Bay.
Back on the dock, DeWitt wipes his brow and looks toward shore. “I’m done,” he says, “I need a vacation.”
As the Golden Rule heads out of the harbor, the crew raises her three red sails. The VFP name and logo—a dove carrying an olive branch—fly on the mainsail. On another sail, a peace sign flies. The third is blank. Their message, like their motto, is clear, even if they and the project don’t have smooth sailing. And one thing is sure: they will have a long journey to San Diego and wherever their weapon of mass education travels next.
The crew, thrown together and isolated like a small island nation for 10 days, will probably be tense. And like a small island nation, their politics may not have much of an effect on the larger world. But fuck war: they are going sailing. The ketch glides along the jetty and out to sea, a bright red spot blooming against the horizon.
The Golden Rule reached San Diego on Saturday, August 1, in time for the VFP convention, and is currently making her way back up the California coast.