by Dr. Arnold (Skip) Oliver
Golden Rule Restoration Committee, and
Veterans for Peace
"What Golden Rule said was, 'We are not telling you WHAT to think,
but we are saying, in the most dramatic way we can, that there is a
NEED to think.'" Albert S. Bigelow, The Voyage of the Golden Rule,
1959, p. 268.
Sailors dream of boats. We conjure up images about the craft that is
a thing of utter beauty, sails perfectly, and will carry us to
magical places. Some of these dreams are readily achievable, while
others are less realistic, if not downright quixotic. This is a story
about a sailboat dream that some might say is right up Don Quixote's
Those of us who dream about the historic ketch Golden Rule may be a
bit less realistic than most. On the other hand, the Rule has stirred
the imaginations of people ranging far across space and time – from
Hiroshima to Connecticut, and the 1950s up to the present. The boat
is unusual, and her history even more so.
Lets start with the history. The Golden Rule was the very first of
the environmental and peace vessels to go to sea. In 1958, a crew of
anti-nuclear weapons activists set sail aboard her in an attempt to
interpose themselves and the boat between the U.S. Government and its
atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands.
At that time both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were conducting above
ground tests of very large nuclear weapons which produced readily
detectable clouds of radioactive fallout that wafted around the
planet. Radiation contamination began to turn up in cows' and
mothers' milk. Public concern grew, and for the first time many
middle class Americans began to wonder if their government knew what
it was doing.
In 1958 The Golden Rule sailed from San Pedro toward the U.S. nuclear
test zone at Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands, but she never
made it that far. She was twice boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard at
Hawaii, and the crew were arrested, tried and jailed in Honolulu.
But, far from being defeated, their example helped to ignite a storm
of world-wide public outrage against nuclear weapons that resulted in
the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty of 1963, and which has continued down
to the present in the many organizations still working to abolish
weapons of mass destruction.
The example set by the Golden Rule and her crew were also the
inspiration for all the modern environmental and peace voyages and
craft that followed in her wake including the Reynolds family aboard the
Phoenix of Hiroshima, which did make it to the test zone; and later
Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherds, among others. The connection to Greenpeace is
direct. At a Vancouver meeting of activists in the late 1960s Marie
Bohlen, an American inspired by the Golden Rule's exploits, suggested
a protest voyage toward the U.S. nuclear test site in the Aleutians.
The rusty trawler Phyllis Cormack soon headed north and Greenpeace was
Just as importantly, the use of non-violent direct action
as a basic guiding principle by the Golden Rule's crew would also
influence future generations of activists. The seas of the world have
never been quite the same since.
It is in their memory of her crew, and the causes that they
helped to inspire, that the Veterans for Peace have vowed that the
Golden Rule shall again ride the waves of peace.
The Original Crew
Former U.S. naval Lieutenant Commander Albert S. Bigelow was
among those most alarmed by nuclear weapons. In 1945, he had had a moment of epiphany
when he heard the news of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. "It
was then," he recalled, "that I realized for the first time that morally war is impossible." Later, in the 1950s, he joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) and adopted their principles of
Bigelow had also been deeply affected by his family's experience in
hosting several of the Hiroshima Maidens, women who had come to the
U.S. for medical treatment after being terribly injured in the nuclear
blasts over Japan in 1945. Bigelow firmly believed that the nuclear
arms race was nothing more than a "race to extinction" that had to be stopped. (271)
Deciding that action was called for, he and others joined the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. At first, SANE went through normal channels, petitioning the U.S.
Government and requesting meetings with officials. When that brought
no result, it was decided that more direct action was called for.
Thus was born the voyage of the Golden Rule, and the age of the modern
In keeping with their Quaker beliefs, Bigelow and the others came up
with what was then a novel approach: They would sail a small craft
into the test zone in the Marshall Islands, risking their own lives to
do so. At the same time, they determined that their protest would not
be done in secret, but in the full light of day; and that a basic
principle of their actions should be the fullest respect for the
humanity of their opponents. In January of 1958 they wrote President
Eisenhower of their plans.
"How do you reach men," Bigelow wrote, "when all the horror is in the
fact that they feel no horror? It requires, we believe, the kind of
effort and sacrifice that we now undertake." (273)
It is easy to focus on Albert S. Bigelow when describing the voyage
of the Golden Rule. He was, after all, the author of the book by that
name. But he would have been the first to point out that the other
crew members were noteworthy in their own right, and that was indeed
William Huntington was an architect, a Quaker, an international aid
official with the American Friends Service Committee, and a Quaker
representative to the United Nations. He had been a conscientious
objector during the Second World War and was an experienced sailor.
George Willoughby was also a well-known peace activist, a non-violent
war resistor who seemed always to be at the center of the action. He
was a founder of Peace Brigades International and the
Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society, dedicated to
non-violent social transformation.
At 28 years of age, Orion Sherwood was the youngest of the Golden
Rule's crew, and the only Methodist. Prior to that, he had been a
teacher at a Friends school in Poughkeepsie, New York. Known for his
gentle disposition, he was also a graduate engineer, and had studied
for the ministry. After the voyage, he returned to teaching at a
Friends school in New Hampshire.
James Peck, although not a Quaker, had been a long-time
practitioner of non-violent direct action, a conscientious objector in
World War II, as well as a fierce advocate of racial equality. He
struggled for civil rights for African Americans while in prison
during the war, and in the U.S. Navy and merchant marine. In 1938 he
was a founder of what would later become the National Maritime Union.
Peck joined the crew in Hawaii.
Both James Peck and Bigelow later were among the original thirteen
Freedom Riders who in 1961 risked their lives to desegregate
interstate public transportation in the American South. Peck was
savagely beaten by a Ku Klux Klan mob, and Biglow placed his own body
between a mob and John Lewis, absorbing some of the blows intended for
the man who would later become a Georgia Congressman. Lewis recounted
the story at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In 1961,
"Albert Bigelow, and I tried to enter a white waiting room, we were
met by an angry mob that beat us and left us lying in a pool of blood.
Some police officers came up and asked us whether we wanted to press
charges. We said, 'No, we come in peace, love and nonviolence.'"
Bigelow appears to have been the only member of the Golden Rule's
crew who later remained passionate about the sea and sailing.
Returning home to Cos Cob, Connecticut, he became a painter along
mostly nautical themes. A number of his works are among the holdings
of the Mystic Seaport Museum. He continued to sail and teach the
sport. In 1993 the Southern Massachusetts Sailing Association
established a award in his honor, to the junior sailor with an
"enthusiasm for fair sailing."
The Boat is Lost Then Found
The Non-Violent Action group sold the Golden Rule in Hawaii late in
1958. Her whereabouts after that are somewhat unclear until she later
turned up in Eureka, California badly neglected – so much so that she
finally sank in a storm in 2010. She was was raised from the depths
by shipyard owner Leroy Zerlang.
Leroy has had a life-long love affair with Humboldt Bay, its history
and its classic wooden boats. Among his many projects are the local
maritime museum, and its 100 year-old tour boat Madaket which, built
in 1910, is the last of the Humboldt ferries, and the oldest passenger
vessel in continuous service in the United States. Leroy also takes
in strays at the boatyard including dogs and cats, a horse, Gilou the
goat, and even the odd political scientist (That would be me.). He
has a gruff exterior, beneath which lies an equally gruff interior.
He is not much of a peacenik, but is coming around.
So given that background, it should hardly be surprising that when
the badly neglected Golden Rule sank in a storm in 2010 off Leroy's
boatyard, he decided to raise her, find people who would restore the
boat to her former glory. After doing some research on the boat's
background, he was startled to learn that the Golden Rule had played
an important role in the history of the Cold War. He put some feelers
out and was contacted by the Smithsonian Institute, several historians
and finally the Veterans for Peace.
One day in 2011, long time Veterans for Peace activists (and
non-sailors) Fredy and Sherry Champagne wandered into the Zerlang and Zerlang
boatyard. They had heard something vague about a peace boat in need of
restoration at that location. Fredy swears that, when he put his hand
on her keel, the boat spoke to him, asking for another life.
Wandering over to a somewhat puzzled looking Leroy (they had never
met.), Fredy and Sherry asked whether Leroy would provide yard space and
facilities if the Veterans for Peace did the restoration. They shook
hands on the spot, and thus began the revival of the Golden Rule.
The Restorers -
The restoration team is an eclectic mix of sailors, shipwrights,
historic boat lovers, and peaceniks.
The project's master shipwright is David Peterson, widely
acknowledged to be the most talented wooden boat restorer on Humboldt
Bay. He advises boatwright Brecken Van Veldhuizen, a recent graduate of the
Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building near Port Townsend, WA.
Although a stranger to anti-nuclear activism, she loves sailing and
working with wood and boats. To her, the three words that every woman
should most want to hear are, “Lets go sailing!”
The swizzle that stirs the Golden Rule Project cocktail is Navy
veteran Chuck Dewitt, the Restoration Coordinator. Chuck puts
countless hours into making sure that the necessary tools and supplies
are available to the team working on the boat. He is also involved in
fundraising and publicity. Among his other pursuits are volunteering
for the Humboldt Baykeepers in their efforts to preserve and protect
coastal resources, and taking part in a weekly Veterans for Peace
vigil outside the Humboldt county courthouse in Eureka on Friday
evenings. He's been doing that for nearly ten years, having been
outraged by the events leading up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Former high school all-American linebacker, Mike Gonzalez of
Trinidad began volunteering in mid-2012. As a talented wood sculptor
and sailor, he brings much-needed skills
to the project. If you ask him why he volunteers, he responds that he
is a big believer in “peace, love and freedom”, and that to him
sailing and the Golden Rule embody all three. He dreams of sailing
out of Humboldt Bay on a new mission of peace.
The Golden Rule's welding and metal fabricating are ably handled by
Dennis Thompson, a retiree from the military who lives aboard
Andromeda, the 44 foot steel hulled sloop that he built, and welded,
by himself. Andromeda is docked at the city marina in Eureka.
As of this writing the restoration is moving ahead briskly.
Volunteers and shipwrights on the job daily. The hull is fully
planked and nearly faired, and is about ready for painting. The new
Yanmar diesel engine has been installed, the deck beams are in, the
cockpit well is done, and the decks are framed. A new prop and shaft
are being delivered. The interior is starting to go in.
The Original Boat
The Golden Rule is a Hugh Angelman and Charles Davies designed
Alpha-30 ketch. The hull was constructed in Costa Rica, and the final
build was by Les Marsh's "Posami" company in San Pedro around 1957.
In his book, "Voyage of the Golden Rule" (pp. 38, 60), Bigelow
described the boat as a "character vessel", with a "jaunty, rakish
look". She is a ketch with a gaff-rigged main and masts raked sharply
aft. The engine was a twenty-five horsepower "Atomic Four", a name
that gave rise to humorous consternation among the anti-nuclear crew.
Like all sailboats, the Golden Rule design was the product of
compromises, with its particular limitations and flaws. Bigelow noted
(pp. 60-61) that it had been built with coastal cruising in mind; and
the built-in ice chest, large cockpit, and sink were not ideal for
blue water passages. The long bowsprit added looks and character to
the boat, but entailed additional risk to the crew. More seriously,
the gaff rigged main sail could not be permanently stayed aft, which
resulted in a slack forestay and mediocre sailing to windward. The
rig's design made it difficult to stay the masts to the rear, and
serious chafe issues were the result. Somehow, during construction
limber holes had not been drilled in the bilge frames, which meant
that standing water became trapped, and the boat could not be pumped
dry. In spite of these issues, Bigelow called the Golden Rule a
"stout and able vessel" that served them well.
The End of the Beginning
The restoration of historic sailing craft is new to Veterans for
Peace, and we are still working to get our minds around the idea. But
to VFP the Golden Rule is such an important symbol of resistance to
war that we believe she is worthy of preservation. Thus, the Golden
Rule restoration was adopted as a national project of Veterans for
Peace in 2012.
With the able help of many volunteers and supporters, the
goal is to refloat the Golden Rule in 2013 and launch a ten year
voyage in opposition to war and militarism, as well as to illuminate a
key chapter of American history.
After all, if one is going to dream of boats, why dream small?
And here is another big dream – the VFP goal that the United States
abandon war as an instrument of national policy. For the Golden Rule
Project, those two dreams are irrevocably intertwined.
Our website (VFP Golden Rule Project) has information on where to
donate, other items that we need, and updates on our progress.