50 Years Ago the First Greenpeace Voyage was Ratified in the Fireside Room


Above 1971: Robert Hunter on the first voyage of the Greenpeace boat
Photo by Robert Keziere | Keziere writes: “My contact sheets indicate the photo was taken at sea, eastbound, somewhere between Akutan Island and Sand Point, Alaska. Our ship was underway to the customs office in Sand Point, alas, away from Amchitka Island and the Cannikin nuclear test. Understood at the time.”


Above: Fireside Room circa 2020

Vancouver Unitarians have deep roots in the peace and environmental activism that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Few people know that 50 years ago, a meeting in the Fireside Room ratified the first voyage of a fishing boat renamed “Greenpeace,” or that the inspiration for the name occurred in the church courtyard

According to Rex Weyler, in 1969, Dorothy and Irving Stowe formed the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee” to oppose a series of underground nuclear tests by the U.S. Atomic Commission, at the island of Amchitka in Alaska.

The origin of Greenpeace International can be found in the the Don’t Make a Wave Committee.

The name of the committee was inspired by fears that shock waves from the underground nuclear detonations at Amchitka would cause a major earthquake and tsunami.

In 1970, the Don’t Make a Wave Committee (an eclectic group of academics, students, anti-nuclear activists, ecologists, journalists and “visionaries”) held an emergency meeting in the Fireside Room at the Unitarian Church on Oak Street.

Without a boat or the funds to charter a boat, the committee unanimously ratified a plan to sail a boat to Amchitka, a remote island at the eastern tip of the Aleutian Islands, 2400 miles north of Vancouver British Columbia.

The plan was to sail into the test zone of the Cannikin, a five megaton underground nuclear bomb, to create media attention and prevent its detonation. — A five megaton nuclear bomb has the explosive energy of five million tons of TNT, or almost 400 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb.

As the meeting in the Fireside room wound down, people drifted into the church courtyard and congregated in small groups to continue their conversation. The committee co-founder Irving Stowe flashed the “V” sign as he left the meeting and said, “Peace.”

Ecologist Bill Darnell responded, “Make it a green peace.”

A hush fell over the assembly. Everyone heard the magic in the two words. Over the next few days, people talked about the hypothetical boat as if it existed. Some called it the “Green Peace.”

Above: Courtyard outside Hewett Centre circa 2020

Above 1970: Amchitka Concert, backstage at the Pacific Coliseum. On the right, from background to foreground: Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Elliot Roberts (Joni Mitchell’s manager) and Phil Ochs

Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs and the band Chilliwack performed in the historic Amchitka Concert on October 16, 1970, before an audience of 10,000 people, at the Pacific Coliseum in East Vancouver.

The money raised (just over $17,000) was used to charter a fishing boat named the Phyllis Cormack, based out of Richmond BC, for the now legendary voyage to Amchitka Island.

The Phyllis Cormack renamed the Greenpeace for the anti-nuclear expedition to Alaska set sail on September 15, 1971, with a crew of 12 activists.

The fishing boat got as far as Harbor Bay in the Aleutian Islands before it was intercepted by a U.S. Coast Guard ship named the Confidence and ordered to sail to Akutan. At Akutan Bay, the captain of the Confidence boarded the Greenpeace boat.

In a dramatic turn of events, while the captain of the Confidence was in the wheelhouse of the Greenpeace ordering the “leaders” of the anti-nuclear expedition to leave American waters, a letter and petition from the crew of the Confidence was hand delivered to the Greenpeace. The petition signed by 18 crew members of the Confidence stated they fully supported the mission opposing nuclear weapons.

The Cannikin nuclear bomb was detonated on November 6, 1971. Due to public opposition it was the last nuclear test at Amchitka.

The Don’t Make a Wave Committee was renamed Greenpeace in 1972.

The first voyage of the Greenpeace boat to Amchitka is considered the inaugural expedition of the eponymous Greenpeace International, one of the most successful environmental organizations in the world today, headquartered in Amsterdam with (as of this writing) offices in more than 55 countries.


Environment • Social Justice • Stories from the Past