NAWILIWILI — Zoe Byrd has been protesting the U.S. government’s nuclear testing programs since the 1970s, but next month, the movement will take her to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where she will spend weeks at sea on a 33-foot, 60-year-old wooden boat in cramped quarters alongside three other people she knows virtually nothing about.
If everything goes as planned, she’ll end up on a tiny, isolated island chain near the equator that served as a testing site in the 1940s for some of the largest hydrogen bombs ever produced, parts of which to this day remain contaminated with lethal levels of radiation. Byrd is living on board The Golden Rule in Nawiliwili Harbor for the next couple weeks until it’s time to motor over to Big Island, where the boat is scheduled for inspection and maintenance.
In January, she and the rest of the crew will set sail from Hilo and cross the Pacific, stopping at The Marshall Islands and Guam before ending up in Japan by August, in time for the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 2015, Byrd lived in a small town in northern California. At age 54, she joined a website that connects boat captains with potential crew members, despite the fact that she had never sailed before in her life.
She found a captain preparing to embark on a 10-day journey spanning a thousand nautical miles, who agreed to let her crew. She packed her things. Her friends thought she had lost her mind.
“They all said I was crazy,” she said, laughing.
During the two-week journey, Byrd learned a lot about the captain, a man from France who built the 55-foot steel-hulled boat with his own hands 35 years before and had lived on board ever since.
“He lived inland, and he always dreamed of sailing, and he decided to sail as a lifestyle,” she said, describing how the man set about building a boat out of steel. First, he needed to learn to weld so he got a job with a welding company.
Byrd said the man explained his situation and asked if his employers would let him work there for a year, moving from one department to another so he could learn as many different skills as possible.
“And they did!” she said. “After that he quit, and he started welding his boat together.”
The whole family sailed around the world together, but after three years on board, his wife decided this wasn’t the lifestyle she wanted for her and her children. She gave him an ultimatum, and he chose the boat.
Byrd and the French captain sailed to the edge of a bay in British Columbia and waited around for a few days, but as soon as conditions were right, she said, “it was 10 days offshore to San Francisco.”
It took her a week to get comfortable, and then they sailed into gale.
Waves rocked the boat until she was too seasick to stand, and she spent 24 hours curled up in a ball on the floor of the cabin, “just thinking, ‘Oh my God, how many more hours?’”
Eventually Byrd and the captain made it to San Francisco, and her fascination with boats and sailing continued. The following year, she went to a wooden boat festival in Washington state, where she saw The Golden Rule and learned its history.
“When I heard about the peace boat, I was like, I’ve gotta meet them — gotta, hopefully, crew,” she said.
Byrd started volunteering on the boat at ports along the west coast, where The Golden Rule docked for public events to raise awareness about the radiation left behind by nuclear testing and crewed on a 2017 trip from northern California to San Diego.