Activists dock historic vessel in Newport Beach to raise money to sail against nuclear weapons

The Golden Rule is docked at Newport Sea Base in Newport Beach through Sunday. The "peace boat" was used in protest voyages against atmospheric nuclear testing in 1958.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A stiff breeze blew Friday as the Golden Rule sat in Newport Harbor. The boat’s sail, emblazoned with a peace sign, made a resounding snap as if to punctuate the mission of the craft and its crew.

The humble 34-foot wooden ketch is a “peace boat” made famous as the vessel a group of Quaker peace activists tried to sail to the Marshall Islands in 1958 to protest atmospheric nuclear bomb testing.

The restored boat, a project of the group Veterans for Peace, is docked at Newport Sea Base this weekend to help raise funds for another Pacific voyage, not to stop bomb tests but nonetheless to reiterate an anti-nuclear message.

Gerry Condon, president of the Golden Rule Committee, said the United States was lucky to avoid nuclear conflict during the Cold War.

“Now there’s nine different countries that have nuclear weapons,” he said. “They’re all modernizing them, there’s further proliferation going on, and in the immediate time there’s actually an active threat of a … nuclear war with North Korea.”

The plan had been to sail the boat around the Gulf Coast, up the Atlantic coast, into the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River. But after tensions began flaring last year between President Trump and North Korea, the team decided to take the Pacific journey of the original crew.

Dave Patterson, a crewman on the Golden Rule, teaches visiting elementary school students the flag semaphore signals for "N" and "D," or "nuclear disarmament," the basis for Gerald Holtom's design for the international peace symbol.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

According to Golden Rule project manager Helen Jaccard, the boat was built in Costa Rica and San Pedro not long before peace activists tried to sail to the Marshall Islands to interfere with U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing. Activists had tried other tactics, such as demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns, but decided to step it up.

“They were very open,” Jaccard said. “They told the government and everybody: ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to put our lives in the way and interfere with this testing.’”

The first attempt was halted after the gaff broke and a crew member became seasick.

Going against a federal rule barring entering the test area, the sailors, under the direction of skipper Albert Bigelow, set out from Honolulu and were returned by the Coast Guard.

They tried a second time out of Honolulu and were arrested.

Inspired by the Golden Rule crew, another American sailor, Earle Reynolds, in a boat named Phoenix of Hiroshima ventured into the test zone at Bikini Atoll and also was arrested. Reynolds was an anthropologist who had studied the effects of radiation on children affected by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

The publicity from the protest voyages kicked off a movement that helped lead to a testing moratorium and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, banning nuclear testing in the air, water and space, Jaccard said.

At an appearance in Hawaii, someone called the Golden Rule project a “happy protest,” Condon said. And he agrees. The ketch’s back story, aesthetic and creative messaging have broad appeal, he said.

“Really, how many people even on the conservative end of the political spectrum are excited about nuclear war?” Condon said. “Who wants a nuclear war? Nobody.”

Golden Rule crewman Dave Patterson, an Air Force veteran who lives in San Diego, doesn’t want the decision to launch a nuclear strike to be in the hands of any one person.

“No one human being is stable enough to make a decision like that,” he said.

Wil Van Natta, skipper of the Golden Rule, looks out over the bay in Newport Beach on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

Skipper Wil Van Natta, 62, said he told his parents at age 15 that he wouldn’t join the military.

But the Golden Rule speaks to him because it combines two of his loves — he has spent his life on the water, most of it involved in social causes, he said.

“It’s just an honor to be a part of this effort, and I’ve never met a more unambiguous group of people working for the most essential issue of our time,” Van Natta said.

A Golden Rule fundraiser from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Newport Sea Base, 1931 W. Coast Hwy., aims to collect money for a voyage to Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Guam and Okinawa. The event will feature a silent auction and the premiere of the documentary “Making Waves: The Rebirth of the Golden Rule.” Adelia Sandoval of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians will perform a welcome ceremony.

Tickets are available for $30 at

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD