RAMBLINGS : Sofia Kuczera, warrior princess




Kerikeri's Sofia Kuczera, a deckhand on the new Rainbow Warrior, is following her passion for the oceans and her father's adventuring footsteps. The ship moored in the distance - named Sylfia, a combination of her name and that of her brother Sylvan - is one of six steel-hulled sailing ships her father built.

Green warrior follows her Rainbow

A young Northlander working on board the newest Greenpeace flagship is following her father's love of the oceans.

Kerikeri's Sofia Kuczera is a deckhand on the new Rainbow Warrior, which stopped at Matauri Bay in January 2013 on its maiden voyage to New Zealand. 

The ship was paying its respects to the first ship to carry the name - now on the seabed at the nearby Cavalli Islands, after it was bombed by French secret agents almost 30 years ago - and to the old ship's guardians, the Far North hapu [sub-tribe] Ngati Kura.

Whereas the first Rainbow Warrior was a cramped and ageing fishing trawler, its latest incarnation is a 58-metre, steel-hulled sailing ship purpose-built with the latest in green technology and paid for by worldwide donations.

The new ship will wage environmental battles across the world's oceans, but during its January 9 welcome Captain Joel Stewart told the kuia and kaumatua [tribal elders] gathered on board that Matauri Bay would always be its spiritual home.

For 24-year-old Sofia, serving on the Rainbow Warrior is a privilege and "an amazing experience".

She has sailed on Greenpeace ships for the past three years and currently works three months on, three months off. She is called on to do "anything and everything" but is mostly charged with keeping watch while the ship is under sail.

The new Rainbow Warrior anchored amid the Cavalli Islands

On the new ship she has so far travelled from Spain's Canary Islands to the US, the US to Brazil, Argentina to South Africa, and South Africa to Mozambique.

With the Rainbow Warrior's massive, one-off rig backed up by diesel-electric e-drive engines, "it's a whole different level of sailing," she says.

"It's an honour to be part of the crew. That's because of the history of the Rainbow Warrior but also because it's a state-of-the-art green ship. It really is a privilege."

Sofia also enjoys the sense of family on board.

"The crew come from so many countries and so many walks of life, but they're all so passionate and dedicated to the cause."

Kaumatua [tribal elder] Nau Epiha greets crewman Angelo Musco of Sicily with a hongi [traditonal greeting] on board the Rainbow Warrior

If you think a 24-year-old would be new to ocean-going environmental activism, you'd be wrong. Sofia has more than a decade of sea campaigns behind her, starting in 2001 when her family took part in a flotilla protesting against nuclear waste shipments through the Tasman Sea.

In 2011 she sailed in a flotilla fighting plans by the Brazilian multinational Petrobras to drill for oil off East Cape; before that, in 2009-10, she took part in campaigns in the Mediterranean on the Arctic Sunrise, another Greenpeace vessel, and the second Rainbow Warrior, a ship she first laid eyes on as a 13-year-old in the Tasman Sea protests.

"Even then it was clear to me that that is where my heart lies. It's definitely the job for me, and it was even more exciting when I got to join this ship."

"Now, after all these travels, I realise how privileged and lucky we are in Aotearoa with our natural environment. We've been offered this amazing gift, and it's our duty to protect it."

That duty includes fighting plans to open Northland up to mining, she says.

Kaitaia's Hori Chapman plays the ukelele on the way out to the ship

Sofia puts her love of the sea and passion for the environment down to her father, the late Bernard Kuczera.

Well known in Northland boating circles, Mr Kuczera built six steel-hulled sailing ships, each bigger and better than the last. The ship Sofia grew up on and sailed in the Tasman flotilla, Nanu, was built using sails, winches and other bits and pieces salvaged from the first Rainbow Warrior.

Mr Kuczera  disappeared at sea off the Bay of Islands in May 2012, aged 63, and is presumed drowned.

Sofia and her family sailed his last ship, Sylfia, to Matauri Bay to greet the new Rainbow Warrior and is certain he would have been proud.

Mr Kuczera built his first ship in a coal mine shed 600km from the sea in his native Poland. Curious to see the world he fled the then Communist state in 1978 and eventually wound up in Kerikeri.

"He was an extraordinary man, a great sailor and boat builder and an amazing father. He shared his love of the oceans with me and my brother. The ocean is our backyard and our father always told us, 'You must protect your backyard'. So it's natural for us to stand up and fight to preserve our environment," Sofia says.

"The ocean is home and when I'm on the ocean I definitely feel like he's here with us. This was his favourite place."

First published in The Northern Advocate, January 2013. 

Memories of a fallen warrior

One minute Steve Sawyer was celebrating his 29th birthday.

Next minute the ship he was crewing was on the bottom of Auckland Harbour, sunk in New Zealand's only international terrorist attack, and his friend was dead.

The former Greenpeace campaign director was one of the original Rainbow Warrior crew members on board the organisation's newest flagship when it visited Matauri Bay in January 2013 at the start of its first visit to New Zealand.

Returning to the first Rainbow Warrior's grave amid the Cavalli Islands dredged up a lot of memories for Mr Sawyer, many of them sad.

The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 is New Zealand's only terrorist attack to date

On night of July 10, 1985, the crew held a small celebration on board for Mr Sawyer's 29th birthday, then hosted a meeting in the fish hold for skippers taking part in the protest flotilla to Mururoa. The meeting finished at 11.30pm and the crew left at 11.40pm for another meeting at Piha. The first bomb went off at 11.50pm.

Mr Sawyer learnt of the bombing when he arrived in Piha and raced back to Auckland, where he found most of the crew in the police station opposite the wharf.

The victim was Fernando Pereira, a Portuguese-born photographer and father of two who left home to avoid military service in what was then a dictatorship embroiled in nasty wars in its former colonies.

Mr Sawyer described Mr Pereira as the life of the party, good for a laugh and a song, but also an excellent photographer.

"He always took care of business, and that was his undoing. After the first bomb went off he went down to his cabin, presumably to get his camera - then the second bomb went off and he was trapped."

Mr Sawyer also recalled how the Rainbow Warrior came to be scuttled at Matauri Bay. After the bombing, once it became clear it wasn't worth fixing the 30-year-old trawler, everyone in New Zealand had an opinion about what should be done with the ship. Some wanted it cut up and turned into commemorative coins, others wanted it hauled onto Queen St and turned into a museum.

"But many of us felt a deep connection to the boat and wanted to give it a decent burial," he said.

The first proposal, from the New Zealand Underwater Association, was to sink the ship at Slipper Island off the Coromandel coast. However, when he and other Greenpeace members visited local marae it became clear kaumatua [tribal elders] were against the plan and the association had not done "due diligence".

They returned despondently to Auckland, but that night Matauri Bay resident and former Tai Tokerau MP Dover Samuels phoned to say he had "the perfect place".

Mr Sawyer, who no longer works with Greenpeace but is still involved in climate change campaigns, boarded the new Rainbow Warrior in Whangarei for the trip to Matauri Bay.

He was impressed with the 58-metre steel-hulled ship's green technology, ease of handling and "truly impressive" sailing rig.

Steve Sawyer, a crew member on the original Rainbow Warrior when it was blown up by French agents, on board the newest Greenpeace flagship

Now living in Amsterdam, Mr Sawyer said New Zealand had been an environmental leader for much of the past 30 years. That was now not the case, as exemplified by the country's "appalling approach" to recent climate talks at Doha.

"Hopefully that won't last, and New Zealand will go back to punching above its weight in terms of population and GDP," he said.

The captain of the new Rainbow Warrior, American Joel Stewart, said the vessel was well designed and constructed, and performed well under sail.

It had a core crew of about 15 and took 40 days to sail from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Whangarei, New Zealand,where it cleared Customs.

It could do 11-12 knots under sail but averaged 7. The sails were backed up by a diesel-electric e-drive allowing greater speed and increased wind angle.

The Amsterdam-registered ship was equipped with state-of-the-art waste and wastewater systems and non-toxic bottom paint.

The steel hull was made in Poland with the rest built in Germany.

"It's a real pleasure to sail, and very exciting to have it under full sail - and it's a real honour to work for Greenpeace and help further is goals," Mr Stewart said.


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Copyright Peter de Graaf 2013 : Ramblings designed and built by Peter de Graaf : Last updated April 2013