Besides the great people that I met, I was thrilled with the outreach that the local team in La Rochelle had prepared and continued while we were there. While the boat was docked, they had a table on land in front of the boat. They were greeting people, handing out fliers and answering questions. Overall, the reception was extremely positive. We did run across Zionists who predictably called us anti-Semites; I was there when a couple was talking with some local boat supporters. The volume of the conversation was augmenting. I was thankful for my training in nonviolent communication and asked one of the local supporters if I could speak with the person challenging our mission. I listened to what he had to say and then told him that I was in La Rochelle supporting this boat because I stood for human rights. I asked him if he supported human rights as well. He said yes and I shook his hand. I then told him that I also stood for equality; that all people should be treated equally. He again agreed. I then asked him if I could hug him. Slightly confused he said yes. I gave him a big bear hug and, as I released him I noticed his eyes wide open. The French don't hug very often, and especially not with strangers. If we can agree on those principles then everybody wins and the world is a better place.
I saw the boat Al Awda off from La Rochelle as she headed for her next port-Gijón, Spain, and I returned to Paris. I got a message that I was needed to assist two flotilla boats from Sweden that were in a canal in Belgium. They were three days behind schedule and did not have anyone on board that spoke French. I volunteered and headed that evening to Tournai, Belgium. Rune, the relief captain of the Mairead, Kerstin, one of the Swedish organizers welcomed me and the next morning the lock on the canal opened at 6:30am, and after the commercial ships went through, we took our turn and headed towards France.
Kalle, one of the crew on my boat, had fallen off the boat the previous day. He had been pulling on a rope in the lock and the rope had slipped off the cleat and he fell three meters into the water backward. Holding on to the rope, he had cut open his hand. I have been extremely impressed with the support from the local community who are organized with France Palestine Solidarite'. Claude Leostic, coordinator for the Freedom Flotilla in France, mentioned that there are over 100 chapters of the FPS in France. I wish we had that kind of organization and coordination in the U.S.
One fellow from the local support team brought another passenger to us, drove Kalle and me to the clinic, waited on us to get through the emergency room visit, drove me to a couple of pharmacies, and then drove us about a half an hour away to catch up with the boats which had continued towards Paris. Later in the evening, he and another local organizer caught up with us again; they had gone grocery shopping for us.
The local support for the boats of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was phenomenal. In approaching the town of Campiègne, we tried to pull into a marina but hit ground. We therefore backed out and went a little further down river and found a Belgian pleasure boat tied up to a city park area. We did the same. A journalist saw us and asked if he could do a news story on us. We obliged and you can see the summary and video here.
There again I saw how people are so inspired by the Gaza Flotilla. One man of Algerian descent saw the Palestinian flags and came by the boats. At first, he was suspicious. Then when we talked; he was overjoyed. He said he raises a Palestinian flag in front of his home every day. He and another passerby bought dinner for all the crew at a local Turkish restaurant. He stayed with us all evening. These people were clearly thrilled and energized.
When we got into Paris we learned about the politics of the different suburbs. The suburb where we were docked has a far-right government and would not like our presence there. But the bordering town is a town of 45,000 people and have elected a leftist party which is very supportive of the Palestinian cause. They have a sister town in the West Bank and a street named after that Palestinian town. The next day we motored on with a few local dignitaries, a videographer who does work for the AP, and Boats to Gaza organizers Claude Leostic from France and David Heap from Canada. I did the schedule based on the maps, mileage and an estimate for time in the lock immediately preceding entry into Paris. We left as planned shortly after 8:30 am. As the lock started filling, we noticed that it was filling extremely slowly. I radioed the lock master and asked if we needed to do something because it seemed very slow. He replied that no, it was normal.
A few minutes later the lock stopped filling; we were stuck in the lock. We then saw police boats approaching from the Paris side and a half dozen river police got out and came to talk to us. They did a complete check of all documentation including commercial captain licenses, first aid kits, life jackets for all passengers, oars for emergencies, fire extinguishers (including date of expiration). After a lot of calling by the flotilla organizers to confirm licenses and canal permit numbers, we were allowed to exit the lock. We had been in the lock for two-and-a-half hours.
The police also told us that banners were illegal on the boats; we had large banners on both sides of the boats stating "Boats to Gaza" and "Break the Blockade of Gaza." One of our organizers asked how much the fine was, but the officer said he did not know. She said we were keeping the banners on the boats. But that was just the beginning. As we exited the lock, the police boats stayed with us -- we had an unrequested escort. The police continuously instructed us to increase our speed. They would take off creating a huge wake, jostling our sailboats only to come around and do the same again. There were motorcycle police following us along the shore.
For our arrival in Paris, a large event had been planned in the front of the Arab World Institute on the edge of the Seine near the Notre Dame cathedral. The schedule called for us to be there by 2pm and then we would continue toward Lyon after going ashore for two hours. But the police told us that we were not allowed to stop anywhere in the city of Paris, even to unload the passengers we had taken on. This was despite boats normally being permitted to go to shore for short stops. Our organizers had requested permission to dock for the two-hour period but neither the city nor the police would give a response. The mayors of La Rochelle and Paris had been invited to our events but neither attended. Later we heard that the Israeli ambassador to France had called both mayors discouraging them to participate.
The police boats stayed with us and as we approached the Institute, a third police Zodiac was there to push us away from the shore. The female police officer boat Captain rammed our boat multiple times to prevent us from going ashore. Tied up to the banks were two larger police boats. On land there were many police officers with the crowds. Police on land were blocking access to the water. The crowds on land cheered and waved Palestinian flags as we motored by. The police forced us to keep going past our event at the Arab World Institute.
Despite not being able to stop for our event, I enjoyed the ride up the Seine as I had not seen Paris from the water. The fact that we on the boat seemed to be enjoying the scenery may have contributed to the river police being annoyed; they may have felt powerless. Because they had been with us the whole day since about 9:30am, by 2:30pm they were probably getting hungry. I had gone down into the boat cabin and shown the police a couple of apples, asking them if they wanted them. The officer in charge seemed to be angry while his lieutenant politely said, "Non, merci." Soon we had to stop to get fuel and the police "escorted" us to make sure that we did not turn around and go back into Paris.
The police had held up the lock on the east side of town to get us access without having to wait. I told the police officer that the fueling station he was proposing was too far in the wrong direction and that we wanted to return out of the lock heading back into the Seine. He arranged that with the lock master and we re-entered the lock with a pleasure boat flying an Australian flag. I noted that as that boat entered Paris, the police did not stop their boat, check their papers, fire extinguishers or give them an escort. We definitely had received the "special" treatment as supporters of Palestine. When we finally motored out of town, the police officer was complaining that it was past his shift. He said he did not want to see us again in Paris.