By J.M. Garcia
In 1958, when Don Mathes was 8 years old, his parents took him to Los Angeles Harbor to witness what he would later understand to be an act of civil disobedience. He saw four men, led by former Navy Captain Albert Bigelow sitting on the hatch of the Golden Rule, a 34-foot wooden ketch. The crew, comprised of Quaker peace activists, were almost casual in their commitment to the task ahead –– to sail to Honolulu and then the Marshall Islands to protest U.S. nuclear bomb testing.
“They were going to stare down the U.S. government,” Mathes, 70, recalled thinking at the time. “That affected me. They were taking on the government.”
The U.S. Coast Guard prevented the Golden Rule from leaving Honolulu and arrested Bigelow. However, its mission of peaceful protest did not end. On Wednesday, May 1, more than 60 years later, the Golden Rule embarked from San Diego’s Harbor Police public dock on a two-and-a-half-year mission that will take it to Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Okinawa, Korea and eventually Japan to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August next year.
The boat was named the Golden Rule after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission enacted the “Golden Rule” regulation, barring U.S. citizens from entering into the nuclear test zone in the Marshall Islands.
“I hope the message people get from this is that we need to end the whole nuclear era,” Veterans For Peace Golden Rule project manager, Helen Jaccard, said.
The organization spent five years restoring the boat after it sank in a 2010 gale in Humboldt Bay. Between 2015 and 2018, the Golden Rule sailed up and down the West Coast. It has been based in San Diego since September.
“We intend to bring attention to nuclear weapons and support the United Nations prohibition of nuclear weapons,” Jaccard said. “We want people to focus on the human and environmental impact of militarism.”
Planning for the expedition has been ongoing for nearly four years. The boat will be crewed again by four volunteers with varying levels of sailing experience. They will use satellite phones for communication. A tracking device will show their location at all times. The Golden Rule carries more than 56 gallons of fuel should the crew get stuck in windless waters.
“I’ve longed to be sailing with people with a good purpose,” said crew member C Be from Anahola, Kauai County, Hawaii. “It’s important to me that it’s more than a joy ride.”
Be, 49, has the role of morale officer. “To keep spirits high,” she explained. “But I’ve been doing a lot more cooking and cleaning.”
The trip to Hawaii will take about three weeks and be a “pressure cooker,” Be said, with four people living in very tight quarters. They will face squalls and other challenges of ocean sailing.
“I’m not afraid of the elements,” she said. “I know Mother Nature and she’ll teach us to dance with her.”
A new crew will take over in Hawaii as crews rotate for each leg of the journey.
“I’m a Quaker,” said crew member Jamie Skinner. “The man who captained the boat in 1958 was a Quaker. I feel a connection there.”
Skinner, 61, from LaCenter, Washington, has been sailing for years. Recovering from cancer, he said he wanted to do this while he still had the time and strength.
“I have a desire to advocate for peace,” he said. “I like sailing, too. I’d hoped to sail across the Pacific but I haven’t been able to do that yet.
All but one of the crew from the Golden Rule’s 1958 voyage have died. Orion Sherwood, the last surviving member, called for world leaders to stop nuclear proliferation.
“I do not regret our effort to stop the testing,” Sherwood, 89, said from his Salt Lake City home. “Now, we’re in a new cold war. I hope for the Golden Rule’s success. Maybe it will turn the Western world back to a more peaceful approach.”
Mathes shares the same hope. Gazing at the Golden Rule before it set sail, he recalled how his family gave Veterans For Peace an 8mm film Mathes’ father had taken of the 1958 launch. A sailor himself, Mathes helped rehabilitate the boat after it sank. He sanded, varnished, drilled holes and repaired the rudder. In 2017, he sailed it in San Francisco harbor.
“I can still see the crew in 1958,” he said. “Standing up to the government. I don’t know exactly what I thought then, but I do know I was impressed.”
— J.M. Garcia is a freelance writer/photographer in San Diego. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.