Photo: Delia Bense-Kang.

Standing on the glossy, newly painted aqua-blue deck of the Golden Rule at the launch party for her second expedition, its hard to believe this boat was destined to become firewood just a little over five years ago. 

Hauled from the muddy clutches of Humboldt Bay by master mariner Leroy Zerlang back in 2010, the Golden Rule just a skeleton of a ship with broken ribs, a hole in her hull, and two missing masts. Somehow, the words “Golden Rule” remained painted on her stern, and Zerlang decided to give them a quick Google before proceeding to chop the boat into firewood. That five-second Google search turned into a five-year project, as it revealed this wasn’t just any rotting vessel, this was the first ever peace boat. 

The Golden Rule originally set sail in 1958 in attempt to raise awareness and put an end to military atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. A crew of four retired military men, captained by former US naval lieutenant commander Albert S. Bigelow, sailed from San Pedro towards the nuclear test zone at the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Arrested by the US Coast Guard and jailed in Honolulu, the crew never made it to their destination, but their trip was far from a failure.

Although never reaching the Marshal Islands, the Golden Rule and her crew succeeded in igniting a storm of world-wide public outrage against nuclear weapons, leading to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Possibly even more impressive, the Golden Rule and her mission inspired the contemporary environmental and peace vessels we know today such as Greenpeace and the Sea Shepards. 

Photo: From the Golden Rule website.

Word got out about Zerlang’s new-found treasure to the local Veterans for Peace organization and members of the community, and prompted an all-hands-on-deck effort to restore the Golden Rule and get her back out on the water. Five years, countless volunteer hours, and $250,000 later, the newly restored Golden Rule made her maiden journey to San Diego and back last summer, in 2015. Just like in 1958, a crew of four sailed her, once again advocating for peace and a nuclear-free world. 

Within the week she will set sail on her second voyage, this time heading north to cities including Portland, Seattle and Puget Sound. One of the main intentions is to sail her in various Fleet Weeks, the celebration of the military fleets in their ports of origin. During these events it’s the Golden Rule’s job to sail alongside the fleet as a shiny example of peace. The voyage is expected to take a couple months, but the Golden Rule will be back, as Humboldt Bay is her new home port and she is here to stay.

The Golden Rule is so much more than a pretty wooden boat. She is a symbol that transcends time and has a message that brought people together back in 1958 and continues to do so today. People of all ages from veterans to millennials have worked together to restore and sail the Golden Rule. 

Standing on the docks, fondly looking at the boat, 26-year-old Golden Rule Project secretary, Libby Tonning aka Zippo, explained why she got involved with the project. “It’s not something that happened during my generation, but I became interested in her history and I just love boats,” she stated. 

Tonning has dedicated the past few years of her life to this boat. She even has a copy of original captain Albert Bigelow’s book, The Voyage of the Golden Rule, an Experiment with Truth. She read to me her favorite passage, in which Bigelow writes: “Golden Rule was not one man, or four men in a boat or four men in jail. There were many men and women, thousands joined and shared in the adventure. I call them plank owners. A plank owner is a nautical term describing a member of the original crew of a vessel. The plank owners of the Golden Rule are those who supported the voyage. They are just as important as part of the adventure as those who said and those who were jailed.”

“I love this quote because it still holds true today,” stated Tonning. “It isn’t just the committee, or those who sailed, or restoration team. Thousands of people helped by donating and discussing her in media outlets, and she’s finally doing what she’s supposed to be doing again.” 

Check out the Golden Rules website for more information and to follow along with the journey HERE.