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Features / Obituary: death of a ‘gentle Greenpeace giant’

Jon Castle visiting Bressay in June 2005. Photo: Jonathan Wills

WHEN Greenpeace set up office in Lerwick’s Commercial Street in May 1995, it was the start of an extraordinary campaign that changed the way the oil and gas industry operated.

The Brent Spar campaign was THE catalyst for stimulating a legislative process that eventually saw the ban of dumping oil installations into the sea and, as a direct consequence, the growth of a decommissioning industry.

And it was the moment when the environmental pressure group of North Sea local authorities, KIMO – which still has its secretariat based in Lerwick – gained international recognition and influence.

Now, more than 20 years after the memorable events of summer 1995, one of its most prolific actors, Captain Jon Castle, has died. Jonathan Wills, who reported on the events for Shetland News Agency at the time, has submitted this obituary:

CAPTAIN Jon Castle, the quietly spoken Guernsey mariner who became famous during the Greenpeace operation to stop Shell dumping the derelict Brent Spar oil storage tank in the Atlantic, has died at the age of 67.

Jon had many admirers and some good friends in Shetland, which was a forward base for the Greenpeace campaign in 1995. He was one of the daredevils who scaled the Brent Spar from inflatable boats as tugs prepared to tow it to the deep water where Shell planned to sink it.

After occupying the Brent Spar for weeks, the international team of activists, led by Jon Castle, was dramatically evicted from the rusting hulk by officials who landed on board in a metal cage, dangling from a crane on the StayDive rig. Jon and his crew faced charges. They were released in Aberdeen but soon Jon reappeared over the Shetland horizon as skipper of the chartered Greenpeace vessel Altair, doggedly pursuing the Brent Spar and her tugs towards the dumping ground.

The Spar was then re-boarded by protestors who cut the wires to the detonators of the scuppering charges, designed to be set off by radio control. Jon then engaged in some constructive insubordination (his hallmark) and persuaded the master of another Greenpeace ship, fitted with a helideck, to alter course unofficially and rendezvous with him.

An extraordinarily skilled and daring helicopter pilot, Paula Huckleberry, braved the Norwegians’ fire hoses and landed more protestors on the Spar. At this point Shell backed down, faced with appalling publicity after pictures appeared on TV of the tugs trying to shoot down the helicopter – and also embarrassed by a highly effective boycott of Shell filling stations in Germany and elsewhere.

The Brent Spar campaign was credited with defining the term ‘Corporate Responsibility’, in global use today.

Throughout all the drama, Jon remained imperturbable, making friends with the reporters who crowded his bridge and cheerfully replying to provocative radio calls from Shell’s tug skippers (who remembered Jon from his anti-whaling campaigns in Norway).

At one point supporters prepared a safe house for him in Shetland, where he could have hidden if necessary, but his usual tactic was to surrender to authority and then use the subsequent court appearance and publicity to make gentle but highly effective statements explaining why he did what he did.

Immediately after the victorious Brent Spar campaign, Jon went to the Pacific to oppose and obstruct a proposed French nuclear test in the Mururoa atoll. He later commanded Greenpeace ships all over the world, and most recently, was a captain in the Mediterranean, rescuing refugees.

Brent Spar was Jon’s most famous ‘action’. He’d made his reputation in Greenpeace as a leading member of largely autonomous teams of activists who protested against whaling and nuclear proliferation. His plain language and quiet, humorous but determined way of speaking, rooted in his Quaker beliefs, inspired confidence in his comrades and made superb television.

It must be admitted that Jon did not take kindly to what he regarded as ‘corporatism’ when Greenpeace management tried to make the organisation more cost-effective, disciplined and, in his view, over-centralised.

One of his best actions was in March 2008 – a two-man invasion of Diego Garcia to protest against the American bomber base there and the UK’s persistent refusal to allow the evicted Chagos Islanders to return to their home. With a fellow former Greenpeace skipper, Pete Bouquet, he sailed the Musichana, a worm-eaten old yacht (donated by a sympathiser) from Singapore to the Diego Garcia lagoon, where he anchored and radioed the British Indian Ocean Territories officials on the island to tell them they and the USAF were acting in breach of international law and United Nations resolutions.

This brilliant operation got less publicity than it deserved – paradoxically because the Greenpeace publicity machine (or ‘bureaucracy’, as Jon had come to describe it) was not involved. He was arrested, as usual, charged with “entering territorial waters illegally” and proceeded to politely lecture his captors on their immoral and illegal conduct. He was threatened with terrorism charges but, the longer the island’s authorities hosted Jon, the more ridiculous that idea seemed. So they threatened to impound the yacht. Fine, said Jon, she was in a sinking condition anyway and he’d be glad to see the back of her. Shortly afterwards, they allowed him and Pete Bouquet to fly home. The Chagossians, alas, are still denied access to their homes.

Jon returned twice to visit his old Shetland pals, once in 2005 for a holiday with a Finnish friend, and again in 2008, shortly after the Indian Ocean expedition, when he turned up as skipper of a dredger deepening the north entrance of Bressay Sound. Asked about the Diego Garcia action, he said: “You should bear witness to a crime, even if you cannot stop it happening.”

Over the past year Jon was in poor health and his annual Christmas card failed to arrive. We made inquiries and heard he was confined to bed. We had just been watching his brilliant appearance in the classic 2006 German film Brent Spar – the Power of the Consumer when we heard that our gentle Greenpeace giant had passed away on Friday, 12 January.