Audacity of Hope AP
Pro-Palestinian activists aboard the ship 'Audacity of Hope', set to take part in a flotilla to Gaza, July 1, 2011. Photo by AP
Text size

Agios Nikolaos, Crete - Friday, 4:45 P.M.: J., a red-bearded Jewish-Canadian youth hears enviously from his friend J., a black-bearded Jewish-American youth, that the American ship to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope, sailed out of the Athens port at 4:30 P.M. without waiting for the permission of the Greek port authorities.

Two days earlier, it seemed certain the Canadian Tahrir would sail first, and it was the American J. who was envying his Crete comrades. Through the week, every new demand posed by the Greek port authority to the Canadian ship was meticulously followed. A signature, a document, another signature. An activist flew to Athens and back just to work out a single document. The Canadians turned out to be relentless virtuosi in dealing with the Greek bureaucracy. They didn't give up and they didn't betray a single sign of irritation, despite knowing that behind the exhausting and unusual pedantry of the authorities was a political decision to stop the ships.

On Thursday night it was understood that after the next meeting, scheduled for 10 A.M. Friday, at which point the steering committee will have submitted the final paper to the Greek authorities, the Tahrir will be free to sail. But on Friday morning, steering committee member and linguistics lecturer David Heap said he regrets to say there was nothing new. Go, swim and come back at 11:30, he suggested. Everyone came back at 11:30, only to hear there was nothing new, and to come back at 3:30. At 3:30 there was still nothing new, please return at 5. At ten minutes past five, at the fourth update meeting on the same day, Canadian J. burst into the meeting panting and announced that the American boat had sailed. The steering committee was not present.

At 5:35, Canadian J. - hooked to mobile phone and twitter with the American J. - announced the Greek coast guard is blocking the American ship and there are shouts being exchanged across the decks. At 5:40, an urgent call came in from the steering committee: Everyone get to the marina fast, journalists included. All rushed to the marina, by car or on foot, and there the picture finally became clear.

Since the morning, Heap told them, the authorities started making new demands. First, they were told to replace the boat's radio. One of the French Canadians rushed off and got one. Then it was: You don't have beds on the boats. "Yes we do," the Tahririan sailors said, pointing at some padded benches. The minimum demand is 10, they were told, and you've only got seven, and even these are too narrow. "We can find the legal minimum of bed width if we look." Then, another demand: a water heater on the boat.

The steering committee spent the day negotiating with the inspectors. Then, at 5 P.M., as they were holding a consultation on deck, a coast guard officer appeared in white uniform, accompanied by police, and asked to see their licenses. He then announced he was going back to the office with the documents - in other words, he's confiscating them.

The committee members, led by Sandra Ruch - the Jewish American registered owner of the boat, who has been in Crete organizing the flotilla since March - demanded to get the documents back, with Ruch offering to give the officer copies, rather than the originals. The handful of activists on the deck tried to prevent the officer from going back to shore.

Meanwhile the reinforcements from the hotel rolled in. While in Athens the coast guard was blocking the American ship, in Crete the activists were blocking the coast guard officer. But not for long. When the Citizen Protection Minister announced the government ban on all ships departing for Gaza, the transparent delay tactics became redundant. The officer left without the documents, while Heap told the journalists they could now state the boat is docked at the Crete port city of Agios Nikolaos, named after the sea-farers patron saint.