Why Raise the Phoenix?

As the daughter of the designer, builder, first owner and “skipper” of the Phoenix and as first cabin girl (1954-64), here are my reasons for raising and preserving the yacht Phoenix. Apart from being part of my own personal history, my home from the age of 10 until I went off to college, the Phoenix is a part of American and world history.

The history of the Cold War. The history of the peace movement (American, Japanese, and international). The history of the anti-nuclear movement. The history of wooden boats—of wooden boats used as peace and protest vessels and as the means of delivering humanitarian help to war-torn parts of the world—from Ernst Friedrich’s Pax Vobiscum in the 1920s and early 1930s directly down to Greenpeace.

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The Phoenix was designed and built in Hiroshima, a city reduced to ashes by the first nuclear bomb dropped on human beings. She was built by a physical anthropologist, my father, who had been sent to Hiroshima by our Atomic Energy Commission in 1951 to do a 3-year study on the effects of that bomb on 4,800 children who survived. 

She was named for a mythical bird that rises from the ashes of its own burning (Western mythology) and appears only in times of universal peace (Eastern mythology).

Launched in 1954, the Phoenix took our family, Dad (Dr. Earle Reynolds), Mum (Barbara Reynolds), Ted (16), myself (10) and three Hiroshima yachtsmen on a pleasure cruise around the world. (The firstborn,Tim, had gone back to the States for college.) Remarkably, this inter-racial combination, formed only nine years after Americans and Japanese had been at war with each other, lasted for three years in the intimate confines of a 50-foot boat.

In Honolulu, on our way back to Hiroshima in 1958, we met the four-man crew of a smaller yacht,Golden Rule, intent on sailing into the Pacific Proving Grounds to protest the dangers of atmospheric radiation from current nuclear tests on the world’s environment.

The U.S. had just issued an injunction making it illegal for U.S. citizens to enter an area covering 390,000 square miles of open ocean–the very part of the ocean we had to sail through to return to Japan.

Listening to these honorable and courageous men give their reasons for putting their lives in harm’s way was like listening to George Washington or Patrick Henry. Our own outlook on life became much more serious. From seeking our own pleasure, we were now concerned about the health and safety of everyone in the world.

My dad was one of a handful of men on the planet to know the dangers of nuclear radiation. He was a scientist but he believed somebody ought to do something to stop nuclear testing, Within a month the scientist became an activist–and so did the rest of our family. For Niichi Mikami, our one remaining crew member from Hiroshima, it was a foregone conclusion that he was anti-nuke—his uncle’s body had never been found in the rubble of the atomic bombing.

When Golden Rule attempted to sail and was towed back to Honolulu, its crew jailed, they bequeathed their charts of the Marshall Islands and their (four) gas masks to the five of us. The Phoenix cleared for Hiroshima, Japan in June, 1958 and by the end of the month we were on the edge of the zone–being tailed by a Coast Guard vessel.

The next morning, when we were well within the zone, the vessel pulled alongside. Two armed sailors in starched uniforms jumped aboard and put my father under arrest. An American destroyer escorted us to Kwajalein (under protest), where three of us were flown back to Honolulu for my dad’s trial. Ted and Nick Mikami stayed with the ship. (My mother flew back to Kwaj later to help them sail the Phoenix–upwind–back to Hawaii, a voyage lasting 60 days without her captain and with insufficient crew.)

Dad was tried, convicted for entering the zone and acquitted on appeal. We sailed back to Hiroshima, completing our circumnavigation. In 1961, when the USSR resumed atmospheric nuclear testing, our Reynolds family sailed the Phoenix to Nakhodka to protest Soviet nuclear testing. Again we were stopped and this time turned away by the captain of a Coast Guard vessel.

In 1963, the USSR, the United States and the United Kingdom signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water. Golden Rule and Phoenix may well have helped bring this treaty about.

In 1967 Earle and a new crew sailed the Phoenix through the American 7th Fleet to North Vietnam to deliver medical supplies to civilians injured by American bombing. Two additional trips to Vietnam followed in 1967 and ’68 …

Fifty-two years after the Phoenix and Golden Rule became a tag team united in history, long after the original crews had lost touch with each other, both boats were found derelict on the California coast in 2010, within 225 miles of each other.

Golden Rule had been beached and abandoned, her masts gone and her hull stove in. Veterans for Peace adopted her as their project and restored her over the next 5 years.

Meanwhile Phoenix, also a mastless hull, was offered on Craig’s list: “FREE: 50-foot yacht.” John, the young man who took possession was towing her up the Sacramento River to work on her when she hit a dock, sprang a leak and gradually sank in 25 feet of brackish water. John signed her over to Dr. Naomi Reynolds, Earle’s granddaughter, bringing the Phoenix back into the Reynolds family.

The yacht Golden Rule has been restored, re-launched, and is a “mobile” peace monument of the Cold War era, educating people up and down the western seaboard about the dangers of  radiation and giving residents short cruises.

Now people’s attention is turning to her sister yacht. As the Golden Rule led the Phoenix to sail in protest against nuclear weapons, she leads the way to being restored to sail again. We hope the Phoenix will rise again, not from ashes this time but from the river, to sail again for peace and a nuclear-free world. We hope she will once again challenge the use of radioactive materials both for war and peace. We want crews educating the public not just on the dangers of ionizing radiation but on other environmental hazards to life on the planet–-and calling people to “wage peace, not war.” We want to be able to bring humanitarian help where needed.

As long as the Phoenix is invisible and intangible at the bottom of a river, it cannot accomplish that purpose.

Former owner Naomi Reynolds has turned over ownership of what was once a family yacht to the corporation which will restore her as a vessel belonging to peace activists, humanitarians and adventurers everywhere.

Brian Cowden, CEO of the newly minted Phoenix of Hiroshima Project, Inc. is currently organizing an international festival, CROSSROADS 2020, to bridge Cold War Nuclear Testing to Climate Change. He is hoping the Phoenix and Golden Rule will be able to sail together to the Marshall Islands in the former nuclear test zone we sailed to in 1958—and from there to Hiroshima.


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