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The Occupation of Alcatraz and a Ship Called 'Free"

Gar Smith
Saturday November 30, 2019 - 09:56:00 PM

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on October 26, 1980. It is being reprinted to salute the 50th anniversary of the Indians of All Tribes Occupation of Alcatraz on November 20, 1969.

It was an odd match: the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz and the Fri, a trim Baltic trader built in Denmark in 1912. But it led to the adventure of a lifetime.

When the Fri sailed in through the Golden Gate in 1968, bearing a cargo of Danish ham and Guinness Stout, it marked the first time in a generation that commercial cargo had been successfully brought across the Atlantic by sail.

The Fri became celebrated in 1969 when she slipped through a government-imposed blockade to deliver food, water, and farming supplies to the Native American activists who had occupied Alcatraz Island. And I was onboard.

A few years later, the ship would cause an international incident when her crew boldly sailed smack into the middle of the French Nuclear Test Zone in the South Pacific to halt a planned atomic blast. 

In 1971, when the Fri and her new crew left the Bay Area and sailed back out to sea from Sausalito, I drove to the bluffs of the Marin Headlands for a final look as she sailed for Hawaii. Standing in mute vigils across the headland hills, other members of the Fri's large extended family were similarly squinting into the mirrorflash of the afternoon sea, trying to hold onto the small, gray silhouette of the vanishing gaff-rigged ketch. 

I never thought I would see her again. At the same time, I secretly hoped I would. 

 

The Alcatraz Occupation 

I got to know the Fri in 1969. It was several months after the battle for People's Park in Berkeley. Native Americans had just landed a small boat on the abandoned prison rock of Alcatraz and reclaimed the property as Indian land. The Coast Guard retaliated by cutting off water and electricity to the island. Over in Berkeley, we were trying to figure out how to break through the blockade and resupply the Native American "re-settlers." The Oak Barrel Winery in Berkeley had promised to provide some empty wine barrels, but how to get them—filled with water—to the island? 

'I've found a ship," said Gwen Hunter, a bewitching Nez Perce woman who was working with me at the University of California's Center for Research and Development in Higher Education. We were pursuing the art of lunch-break activism and Gwen had hit gold. "A man named De Vall says we can use his ship. It's a very big. Her name is 'Free'—spelled FRI." 

Problem was, the ship needed work. A Caribbean storm had opened her stern off the coast of Venezuela during the crossing from London. She was far from seaworthy. "Well then, let's fix her up!" 

We plastered the Bay Area with posters inviting volunteers to a "Gala Caulking Party." 

Restoring the Fri 

My first sight of the Fri came at the gates of the Anderson and Christophani Shipyards in Hunters Point. Fri was already in drydock, a huge ark hanging in the air, braced and shimmed into a mammoth cradle. More than 20 feet wide and measuring 105 feet from stern davit to jib-boom, her barnacled, salt-blistered hull waited to be scraped, caulked, plugged, cemented, and painted. 

Norman De Vall, the ship's copper-bearded captain (destined to become a progressive Mendocino County Supervisor) explained that we only had the shipyard for the week and had to be gone by seven o'clock Monday morning, when the union workforce returned. The ship had to be in the water by then, drum-tight or not. 

The work continued night and day with a crew of rank amateurs for the most part—students, secretaries, housewives, carpenters, Native Americans and even a couple of curious hitchhikers who stopped by on the way to Point Reyes and joined the caulking effort for four hours. De Vall estimated around 800 person-hours were lavished on repairing the ship during that hectic weekend. 

Among those who showed up were Arden Rose, a rakish truck driver who always carried a leather-fringed copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Arden had served as a fighter pilot and during one late-night conversation in a dimly lit corner of the ship, he held us spellbound with his stories—including the time he and another pilot flew their jets to a high altitude, executed a 180-degree roll, and cut the engines, allowing the planes to start falling back to Earth, upside down as they watched the lights of the Bay Area slowly growing brighter/closer, beneath/above their cockpits. 

And then there was a scruffy gent with faded jeans and an East Coast seaman's cap who showed up one morning to lend a hand. He turned out to be none other than Ramblin' Jack Elliott, folk singer and raconteur par excellence. 

Jack knew his way around ships, and he spun some tall tales to entertain us as we worked. One story involved a ship at risk of sinking during a ferocious storm. In the desperate process of tossing cargo overboard to lighten the vessel, the ship's cook tumbled into the lashing waves. Unable to save him, his fellow sailors tossed the ship's heavy iron stove over the gunnels and, as it crashed into the waves, they yelled out: "Here's yer stove, Cookie! May it keep you warm on yer trip to Hell!" 

While most of us were busting knuckles prying copper sheathing loose and looking for traces of wood-eating Tordado worms in the oaken hull, Ramblin' Jack was busy with the makin' irons and hammer, whamming twisted strands of fibrous oakum into the seams between the wooden planks. This was the first stage of the caulking process. 

Nearby, smoke curled from the door of a small shack on the dock. Inside, a fire was heating tar until it was hot enough to pour from a cauldron into small hand-held pots. We learned to carry these long-handled pitch-pots onto the ship and then scuttle backwards down the deck, dribbling dark lines of smoking tar over the packed oakum to form a watertight seal. 

We made it. Sometime before dawn on Monday, the Fri slid back into the Bay, her bottom paint still gleaming wet but her deck and sides as tight as skin. 

 

Off to Alcatraz to Support the Occupation 

A few days later, I got a call at four in the morning. It was Norman, phoning from his 19th century farmhouse in the Orinda hills: "Would you like to help take the ship out to Alcatraz?" 

I tumbled out of bed and, 30 minutes later, clambered into Norman's pickup truck. Gwen, bundled against the cold, was already aboard. So was Norman's Labrador pup. We rolled through the deserted streets until we reached the Oakland estuary. Just past Anderson's Yacht Harbor, we turned down an oil-stained, gravel road and stopped. The tide was out and only the Fri's two tall masts were visible in the distance. Beneath the stars—and a couple of 100-watt lightbulbs—farm tools, wooden wine barrels, clothing, and crates of canned food were already being carried over the sea-sawing catwalks to the ship. 

Norman vanished down the engine room hatch and made ready to rouse "Greta," the Fri's diesel engine. After first heating the cylinders with an acetylene torch, the throttle was popped and, with a booming burp, the motor rumbled to life, chugging away like a cement-mixer. Casting off the spring lines, we pushed away from the pier and pointed the ship west, up the foggy channel, with the Alameda Naval Air Station on our port and Jack London Square to starboard. 

As the Fri approached the Yerba Buena lighthouse, Norman asked me to take the helm. I never followed in order with greater pleasure. In fact, I would have swum the distance just to ask. 

As I pulled my cap down against the stiffening breeze and wrapped my hands around the wheel, a powerful magic seemed to move through my body. The diesel throb that energized the ship was vibrating up through the deck planks and the helm, connecting with my knuckles and knees. 

Buffeted by the tardy punch of the waves reverberating through the ship's wooden frame, my blood and bones began to undergo a seachange. It started to feel as if my limbs and nerves were slowly extending out and through the ship like thin roots stretching into a rich, wet soil—reaching into every beam, plank, and bolt from transom to bowsprit. Rocked by the force of the water humping the windward hull, I felt as if it was my own body that was sinking and rising in the troughs. As the bow cleaved the water like the blade of a hand, I felt I knew how exactly where the rudder lay from a sensation deep in my hips and spine. Locked in this magical, kenetic embrace, the ship carried us toward the Bay Bridge. As we passed beneath, I looked up at the bridge from a new angle—rising overhead higher than any kite I'd ever flown—and there above us, was a crescent moon, shinning bone white in the predawn sky and appearing to sail like a coin thrown through the harpstrings of the bridge. 

We made it to Alcatraz and, after an hour's work, the offloading was complete and we headed back to the East Bay for another shipment. 

As we approached the Oakland dock, Norman pointed to a truck on the pier. "Think you can place the ship right under it?" he asked. I gripped the helm as Norman gunned the engine. At that moment, the ship was headed straight for the dock. Just when it seemed a collision was inevitable, Norman cut the engine and yelled "Full to port." I began turning the spokes on the helm as fast as I could until the rudder locked. The Fri 's bow slowly wheeled to the left as the ship continued to silently glide sideways, with its hull now parallel to the dock. When the Fri generously drifted precisely into the appointed spot, I could not have been more pleased—or more surprised—to have had my hands on the wheel. 

It was the first time I had ever been out on the waters of San Francisco Bay. I caught a bus I was at work at UC Berkeley by 8 AM. 

Pete Seeger Visits the Fri 

Following her supporting role the re-occupation of Alcatraz, Fri's growing notoriety occasional drew a celebrity or two to the ship's Oakland berth. One day in 1970, while I was working on board the Fri as one of the ship's stewards, an unexpected guest showed up on the Oakland dock—folksinger and peace activist Pete Seeger. 

Pete showed up unannounced, trailed by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Gene Marine (who was lugging Pete's guitar case).
After handshakes and nautical comparisons with Pete's beloved ship, the Clearwater (the two old wooden ships had much in common), Pete glanced at the sky and asked: "Mind if I take in the view?" 

Norman replied with a smile and a nod and Pete jumped to the railings. In a split second, he was scrambling up the ratlines, heading for the topmast.
His joy was radiant and contagious. And, swaying at the top of the ship's mast, he was at that moment—as at so many moments in his life and in our times—head and shoulders above the rest. 

 

The Fri Halts a Nuclear Bomb Test 

In 1970, the Fri was purchased by Vermont-born David Moodie and his two brothers, Steven and Michael. Their idea was to sail the ship to New Zealand and keep her working as a cargo vessel. But fate had other plans in store for the ship. 

In 1973, while making repairs at Opua Bay, the Fri's crew was approached by a group of New Zealanders concerned that France's proposed atomic testing in nearby waters might dust the South Sea with fallout. The ship's crew, appalled to learn of the French plans, signed their names to a declaration on May 13. It read: "We are prepared to die or to suffer the consequences of nuclear radiation to ourselves and our unborn selves in the belief that these tests are a crime against the planet Earth." 

The Fri sailed into the middle of Muraroa Attoll, site of the planned atomic blast, and dropped anchor. The dramatic floating sit-in interrupted the French preparations for seven weeks. On July 17, the Fri was boarded by armed French commandos and her crew was arrested. (The French Navy attached tow-lines to the Fri's stern in an apparent attempt to cause the ship to sink while being towed backwards to port.) 

After the ship and crew were released, it was time to chart a new course. The crew decided that the Fri would embark on an international peace odyssey, carrying letters from the people of the South Seas to the people of the superpowers pleading for an end to the nuclear arms race. This quest would eventually take the Fri halfway around the planet and back to Denmark and the waters of her birth. 

A Reunion in Denmark 

It was in Denmark that I chanced to meet the Fri again. It was in 1980 and I had traveled halfway around the globe—from the opposite direction—to report on a United Nations conference held in Copenhagen. On the first day of the meeting, a friend in the Danish anti-nuclear movement happened to mention a "beautiful ship" that he had heard was about to visit the local waters. Without thinking, I blurted out, "Is it the Fri?" 

"You know her?" he smiled. "She's due here tomorrow." 

The next day I was waiting onshore as the Fri rounded the Nyhaven seawall at high noon. It was the same day the city of Copenhagen declared the adjoining street a gagade—a walking street, forever closed to cars. As the Fri approached, the Canal Bridge snapped slowly to attention as sirens wailed and canon boomed over the harbor. Fri slid home to the applause of 1,000 sun-soaked Danes. 

After a span of nine years and many adventures, the Fri looked a bit different. She had a different coat of paint and there was a windmill spinning merrily on her mizzenmast, producing electricity for the ship. But as I scrambled on board I found Capt. David Moodie still had the same quick smile and gentle resoluteness that carried him through that high-risk gamble in the French nuclear test zone. 

'We've been over something like 60,000 miles since leaving San Francisco," Moodie said over coffee and Danish pastry in the Captain's Cabin (a commons area that he shares with other crewmembers). The present crew of 15 included Portuguese, German, Dutch, Danish, English, New Zealand, and American sailors: four women and 10 men. Most were vegetarian, all were pacifists. The Fri is run socialistically, like a commune. Everyone shares the work on rotating basis. Everybody stands at the helm: everybody does the dishes. "This is a labor-intensive outfit here," Moodie grins, "We have no unemployed." 

Since leaving San Francisco, Moodie told me, the Fri had sailed to Tahiti, Suva, Fiji, the New Hebrides, Saipan, Japan, the USSR, both Koreas, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, India, Sri Lanka, Namibia, England, and Holland. 

In China, the Fri was briefly detained by government gunboats. In Namibia, she attempted to deliver banned books to the black citizens of a South African nation still dominated by white farmers and businesmen. 

What has Moodie gleaned from these encounters? 

"The first lesson learned is this," he tells me. "On a round planet you can't run away in the straight line without coming back to the same problems." 

 

Confronting a Nuclear Reactor 

Two days after tying up in Copenhagen, the Fri was preparing to confront a new problem. A nuclear reactor 20 km away on of the coast of Sweden had been shut down following a serious accident with its cooling system. People in Copenhagen were concerned. They had come up with a plan to demonstrate their concern but they needed a vehicle. Would the Fri help? 

"That is exactly what the Fri is all about," Moodie told me enthusiastically. "This ship manages to get from one place to another because of the support of local communities. We undertake actions with the ship not because we have an ideological or political master plan but because the community that we are visiting needs the ship to express its own will." 

And thus was born the Great Nautical Anti-nuclear Balloon Barrage. 

Early on the morning of July 31, the Fri crew and a brigade of Danish anti-nuclear activists disappeared into the ship's cavernous hold and began inflating 2,000 balloons. Whiiisst! Whiiisst! Whiiisst!  

With two tanks of helium puffing away below decks, the hatch covers were soon straining to contain a swelling swarm of bright yellow balloons. Each balloon bore the Smiling Sun image of the worldwide anti-nuclear movement and the Dutch slogan, "Atomkraft? Nej Tak!" ("Atomic Power? No Thanks!") 

In a choppy sea, under slate-gray skies, Fri lead the charge toward the Swedish coast and the site of the damaged Barseback nuclear reactor. Following in her wake was the Danish ketch Nordsstjsernen, loaded with friends, journalists and cases of Tuborg Gron beer. A little tugboat bravely flying the red and yellow banner of the Free State of Christiania (a Hippie community established inside a former Danish military enclave), and a tan-bark skiff (inexplicably flying the flag of the Danish Railway System, topside-down) brought up the rear. 

Out on the open sea, hovercraft ferries and the Flying Boat to Malmo blasted by as suit-and-tie commuters raised their glasses to toast the slow but determined progress of our bizarre armada. 

After an hour, Barseback appeared on the horizon—two faceless, towering gray blocks of cement standing in the fog between green fields and the breaking sea. Two sinister chimney stacks penetrated the air, ominous as a pair of long-range cannon extending from twin gun turrets. 

With a whoop of air-horns, David, Chris, Jen and the rest of the Fri crew swung back the hatch planks and the balloons tumbled out like school kids at summer recess. The sun cracked the clouds and a thousand yellow balloons flew up into the cold blue sky. Messages and addresses tied to the balloons would later help establish the "fallout pattern." A surveillance helicopter that had been dispatched to monitor the flotilla, swung away from the protest ships, which were now circling in the water like a giddy, tattered ballerinas. While the crews of the protest flotilla exchanged shouts and hugs, the helicopter disappeared up the Oresund Channel frantically chasing the departing balloons. 

Back on the Long Blue Trail 

The Fri turned north. She would call at Helsingor that afternoon, a stone's throw from Hamlet's castle. As soon as the ship was tied down, the crew got to work wresting a series of surprises from her hold. A solar collector was winched up and swung ashore. Next up was a parabolic solar cooking mirror followed by information about the wind-charger on the mizzenmast. Finally, fund-raising T-shirts and buttons—the perpetual artifacts of every grassroots campaign—were carefully laid out for public perusal. 

As usual, Captain Moodie welcomed one and all aboard. The visitors crept below to stare at the 'biodigester" in the foc'sle—which soon be turning waste into fuel. They gathered in the hold—which had been transformed into a movie theater—to relive the Fri's 1973 battle to keep the South Pacific free from nuclear testing. Other visitors settled down to talk with the crew in the galley amid the smell of wood, oil, and smoke. Sunlight boring through the iron-braced glass hatches stenciled designs on the oak floor and slowly sliding down the base of a mainmast built from Oregon Sitka spruce. As the hours passed, tall tales, recipes, addresses, jokes, political theories, and activist gossip were offered and swapped. 

Back in the Captain's Cabin, a tan but tired David Moodie lit a hand-rolled cigarette, shook his shaggy head, and reflected on the Great Balloon Barrage. "That was the weirdest cargo we've ever hauled!" he laughed. 

Later in the day, a crowd of local visitors who had greeted the Fri's latest landfall, returned to the dock to entertain the ship's crew with a brass band and gifts of homegrown vegetables. 

When I asked David if the ship would be returning to San Francisco, Captain Moodie lifted his eyes to scan the clouds and blue sky framed in the overhead hatchway. Bringing his eyes back to the quiet shadows of the ship's cabin he smiled, and spoke a single word: "Eventually." 

A week later, the Fri—all 100 oaken tons of her—slid into Aalborg, her homeport for all but the last 10 years. It marked a return—after a trip that had taken the ship through the Seven Seas and all the way around the world.