Five badass moments of small boats taking radical climate action

Everybody loves a good David vs Goliath narrative, so it’s no surprise that a fleet of plucky kayaktivists in Seattle have captured both hearts and headlines when they paddled out to take on Shell’s behemothic Arctic drill rig this weekend. In the interests of movement history, here’s five of our favourite instances of small boats taking on big fossil fuel infrastructure in radical climate action.

(NB – these are all examples taken from the global north – if you know of any southern examples, please comment as we would love to include them.)

1) The Paddle in Seattle - 2015

According to the Guardian, “Hundreds of activists decked out in neoprene wetsuits and life jackets took to the waters of Elliott Bay on Saturday. In kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and other vessels, they sent the message that Royal Dutch Shell should cancel its plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean…  Eric Day, with the Swinomish Indian Tribe, was one of many Native American paddlers who brought their canoes to the event. Drilling in the Arctic would hurt those who live off the land, he said.“This is our livelihood. We need to protect it for the crabbers, for the fishermen,” Day said. “We need to protect it for our children.””


2) The Pacific Climate Warriors - 2014

Hannah Fair wrote that: “In October 2014 thirty Pacific Islanders from twelve countries came together to put their bodies (and their visas) on the line. From the highlands of Papua New Guinea to the Rock of Polynesia, these young people, warriors and activists came, united and blockaded coal ships, occupied banks, wept at the destruction of the Australian bush and sang, danced and laughed with joy…. with seventy plastic kayaks, a few hundred Australians, and five handcrafted canoes, the flotilla managed to stop ten out of eleven coal ships due to collect their cargo that day from Newcastle, New South Wales; the world's biggest coal export port. We held the waters and the beach for ten hours, while police aboard jet-skis impeded our vessels, at one point dangerously capsizing our largest canoe. The outrigger was snapped but the warrior spirit was not broken. With prayers and powertools the Vanuatu canoe was back on the water within half an hour.”


3) The Great Rebel Raft Regatta (G.R.R.R.) – 2008

In 2008, the World Development Movement (as we were then called) was one of many civil society organisations pushing to prevent the first new coal-fired power station in 30 years from being built. The Camp For Climate Action took place in the summer of 2008 near the existing power station and the G.R.R.R. was one of many actions that took place. The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination documented GRRR : “Organised together with climate campers and the Space Hijackers, The Great Rebel Raft Regatta (The G.R.R.R) was part of the day mass action for the Camp for Climate Action that targeted the coal fired power station at Kingsnorth (Kent) in 2008. The G.R.R.R involved two operations: Operation IKEA brought 14 ready made rafts secretly to both shores, whilst Operation Treasure Island involved participants using a treasure map to find 10 inflatables (and a bottle of rum) buried in the woods. Despite a ban, 1400 police, 2 high speed ribs and a Sea King helicopter, 123 rebel rafters managed to make it onto the water. One raft even managed to disrupt the operation of the death factory by blocking the water intake pipe.”


4) Rising Tide Flotilla shuts down world’s biggest coal port

In 2009, a water –based blockade organized by Rising Tide Australia closed down the Port of Newcastle for the day. The Port of Newcastle, 100km north of Sydney on Australia's east coast is the world's largest coal port, transferring coal mined in the Hunter valley for export. Over 500 protestors launched kayaks, canoes and small boats to blockade the harbour. Newcastle Port Corporation cancelled all ships coming into the harbour for the day due to safety concerns. Rising Tide spokeswoman Carly Phillips says restricting coal ship movements is a huge victory. "We would like to show a strong message to the Government that everyday Australians are sick of politely asking for change," she said. "We'd like to see a just transition away from the coal industry towards a renewable energy future."


5) The Lobster Boat Blockade – 2013

Two Quakers used a small lobster boat to successfully block a 40,000 ton coal shipment at the unloading dock of Brayton Point Power Station in New England, the single largest emitter of CO2 in the region. In a surprise move in the ensuing court case against the boat-blockaders, the local District Attorney, agreed that because the actions of Ward and O'Hara at Brayton Point were reasonably reflective of a broader danger (that of climate change), all charges, beyond paying some minor damages, should be dropped.

Anyone in the UK who is inspired by people taking radical climate action in the face of government’s failure to adequately deal with the problem should come along to the Reclaim The Power mass action camp near Didcot, Oxfordshire, from the 29th of May to the 2nd of June.

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