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Home alone

BY TONY WALL AND NICHOLAS COLDICOTT
Last updated 05:00 23/05/2010
pete
Photo: Dominion Post
Anti-whaling goal: Activist Pete Bethune put everything and anything on the line to save the world's cetaceans.
sharyn
Photo: Phil Doyle
Pete's estranged wife Sharyn, flanked by daughters Alycia, 13, and Danielle, 15, battled on against all odds to keep food on the family's table.

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"I think this will change me a bit. If I get a suspended sentence and leave here June or early July, I'll settle for that. If they were to hold me longer I fear I'll leave here an angry man, which I hope doesn't happen. Life is too short to wander around being angry."

– Letter home from Prisoner 2406, Pete Bethune, being held in maximum security at Tokyo Detention Centre.

On Thursday, a trial that will decide the fate of anti-whaling activist Pete Bethune begins in Tokyo. In an unfinished home in Auckland, life goes on for his long-suffering family. The pressure of sacrificing everything for a life of adventure has driven Pete and his wife Sharyn, his high school sweetheart, apart.

"YOU BLOODY idiot," said Sharyn Bethune as she drove home from nursing studies one day in mid-February and the news came over the radio that her partner of 23 years, Pete, had boarded the Shonan Maru II Japanese whaling ship to make a "citizen's arrest" of its skipper, only to be detained.

Sharyn, 41, understood his frustration at a lack of action over the earlier alleged ramming by the Shonan Maru of his beloved Ady Gil trimaran, but this was going too far. After all, he had his two teenage daughters, Danielle, 15, and Alycia, 13, to consider. He'd fallen into the water twice while climbing aboard the ship, and could easily have perished in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean.

But nothing Pete did surprised her any more. Ever since he set off to sail around the world on Earthrace (later renamed Ady Gil after its new owner) in early 2007, she'd hardly seen him. And it wasn't as if it was the first time he'd been banged up abroad – in 2007 he was held for 11 days at a military camp in Guatemala after Earthrace ran over a fishing boat, killing a crewman and critically wounding another.

Pete and Sharyn had remortgaged their home three times to fund Earthrace, and also sold shares in a technology company Pete had developed and a forest in the Hawke's Bay that was supposed to support them in retirement.

When things got really bad, the family had survived on food parcels, and at one point they were a week from losing their home to mortgagee sale, until a wealthy benefactor came to their rescue.

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Through all of this, Sharyn was the rock that kept the family going, working as an aerobics instructor, a medical receptionist and more recently at a dental surgery – while at the same time studying nursing – to put food on the table, while Pete was off saving the world, or, at least, the whales.

Finally, the pressure of having an absent husband proved too much, and in September last year the couple separated, Sharyn revealed during an interview with the Sunday Star-Times last week.

"I'm still supporting him, we're still very good friends, but when you're apart – in five years we saw him maybe for six months – you start going your own way. I've moved on," she says.

She admits to feeling some resentment that her husband travelled the world while she dealt with the more mundane task of running the household.

"It's for a single man without responsibilities. He's got two daughters, he's been away from them five years. He's got no life insurance or anything. To me it is a little bit selfish, but the girls fully support what he's doing.

"They're proud of what he does – the youngest one wants to be an activist like her dad. I think they're lucky that I'm stable. I'm here each day when they get home from school."

Sharyn says Pete's actions in the Southern Ocean have polarised their large group of friends.

"Most of them are saying `good on Pete for doing it'. But then they can see I've been through so much and here's another thing I'm going through."

Pete's father, Don Bethune of Hamilton, says: "Of all the wives that I know, none have had to carry the burden that Sharyn has. They've mortgaged their house right up to the guttering... he's spent four out of the last five years overseas with virtually no income coming home, and Sharyn has maintained that family virtually on her own.

"She's been an absolutely outstanding example of a woman supporting her husband's dreams and her family at the same time."

"The best I can hope for is a suspended sentence. The lawyers believe I will get this if I put on a good but humble show at the trial. Humble is not so easy though when you've had your boat sunk and been locked up for months."

– Bethune's letter home.

THE TOKYO Detention Centre is a vast, formidable structure on the eastern outskirts of Tokyo. Although it predates Tadao Ando, it's his style of brutalist architecture. Ironically, given its most famous inmate, there is a mural at the prison of a smiling whale, happily blowing water from its spout. Inside the prison waiting room, girlfriends, lawyers and a couple of gang leaders wait to visit inmates.

Pete Bethune is locked up with rapists and murderers, but he is something different again, an enemy of the people who was hooded and given a security detail of more than 100 when he was recently taken back to the Shonan Maru to re-enact his boarding of the vessel.

Our interview takes place on the 10th floor. Bethune is brought into an interview room and we are separated by a glass wall, speaking through a grille. A burly guard sits directly behind Bethune, and a woman sits at a lectern next to him transcribing everything he says. We have exactly 12 minutes.

"The media portrayed me as a terrorist, so... I had a hood over me, like I'm a psychopathic killer," Bethune says. "It was the most bizarre experience. The ironic thing is that I went to a lot of trouble to get caught, and they're worried I'm going to try and escape."

He is dressed in a white T-shirt and blue trackpants and is in good spirits despite, worst case scenario, facing 15 years in prison. He is fed rice and cabbage soup, is allowed half an hour a day in the exercise yard (which he spends skipping) and does up to 450 press-ups in his 2m by 5m cell, where he keeps a pet spider and is watched by a closed circuit television camera. He is allowed to write five letters a week, the first time in 20 years he's hand written letters, and is working on his second book. He celebrated his 45th birthday behind bars.

"It's fine in here," he says. "The guards treat me well, the rest of the inmates steer clear of me. The food's pretty average, but that's OK, it's not a holiday camp."

Bethune faces five charges: trespass, possession of a knife, destruction of property, assault and obstruction of business. The last two carry maximum penalties of 15 years' imprisonment and hefty fines.

What annoys him most, Bethune says, is that the Japanese authorities have "ruthlessly pursued me" for possession of a knife, which he needed to cut a net to get aboard, and destruction of the net, yet haven't asked him a single question about the destruction of the $3 million Ady Gil.

"The Coast Guard has a statutory obligation to investigate all major incidents involving Japanese registered vehicles, but when I asked them why they weren't investigating this, one said to me that they weren't sure a crime had been committed... and another said they were too busy investigating me."

Bethune says there is no point trying to escape conviction.

"The conviction rate over here is over 95%, so it's more a case of what sentence is handed down," he says. "I'm a bit nervous that I'll get a long sentence. I've got to bite my tongue [in court]. If I say what I think, I'll upset the judge and get a long sentence."

Does he regret his actions? "Someone's got to do it. Politicians have been talking about it [whaling] for 20 years. I think it's making a difference. I'm standing up for what I believe."

He couldn't resist sending a political message to world leaders who will next month consider an International Whaling Commission proposal to allow limited commercial whaling.

"John Key... will betray us if he signs that, and he'll go down in history as the man who brought whaling back."

Throughout the short interview – we were given a one-minute warning and then Bethune was led away – Bethune remained sanguine, but each time his family was mentioned, his mood dropped. "I miss the two girls terribly," he says. "Tell them I love them, I'm looking forward to getting home soon."

"I've got no problem with Japanese people – I admire a lot of their culture – it's just the whaling that I have a problem with. It is a part of their culture and tradition, but that's not enough of a reason to continue. America had slavery, the Sudanese had female circumcision."

– Interview with Bethune, Tokyo Detention Centre.

BETHUNE'S PREDICAMENT is a huge comedown from the elation he felt on June 27, 2008, when Earthrace, the crew having been threatened by pirates, lashed by storms and almost sunk by floating logs, sailed into the Spanish port of Sagunto, smashing the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by speedboat on its second attempt. "We're completely stoked to have achieved something so incredible," Bethune told the Guardian, before going off to party. His family says he loves a drink.

Bethune's path to becoming an eco-warrior was a convoluted one. A twin, he grew up in Hamilton, attended Hamilton Boys' High, first meeting Sharyn when she was 14. He was in the same class as her older brother. They started dating when she was 17, he 20. His father, Don, was president of the Social Credit Party for many years and later became chairman of WelTrust, Waikato's publicly owned energy company.

Don Bethune says as a child, Pete showed great aptitude for engineering, and had an adventurous streak. "He was very determined and committed in whatever he did. He assembled some electrical equipment while he was still at primary school for pocket money. He and his twin brother Barry used to go away for weekends, deer shooting and pig hunting and shooting feral goats."

After leaving Waikato and Auckland Universities with science and engineering degrees, Bethune went to work for what conservationists would consider the enemy – French oil and gas services provider Schlumberger. Based out of its office in Aberdeen in Scotland, Bethune worked on North Sea oil rigs before travelling to Libya to reactivate an oil field there.

Working in the oil industry, Bethune became aware that fossil fuels are a limited resource, and became interested in alternatives. Sharyn had joined him overseas, and they lived comfortably – travel, nice cars, Rolexes. Big oil paid well.

In 1993, they returned to New Zealand to marry, moving to Auckland's North Shore. Bethune developed a company, Camsensor Technologies, which used digital camera technology for quality control, selling his shares in 2005 to fund Earthrace.

Sharyn says that, in the beginning, she was the more environmentally conscious of the two, making sure they recycled and composted. She was a vegetarian and joined animal rights organisations, also working for the SPCA. "I've always wanted to go to Borneo and save the orang-utans, but when you've got kids... I put my dream on hold," she says.

Pete became a passionate environmentalist and anti-whaler after meeting Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace people on the Earthrace, she says.

After finishing Earthrace – a project which had eaten up five years of his life – Bethune set about trying to find a buyer for the boat, to pay off debts.

A deal was eventually reached with California businessman Ady Gil, who offered to buy the trimaran for the Sea Shepherd group, on the condition that it be named after him and Bethune continue as skipper for six months.

That was crucial to why he ended up in the Southern Ocean, says his father. "Sea Shepherd leaned on his commitment to the environment and doing what was morally right. While it was very astute from their point of view, in getting such a resourceful and highly competent guy, it didn't give Pete the option of being able to wipe his hands of it and go back to being a father like he wanted to be."

Sea Shepherd, which is paying Bethune's escalating legal fees, still owes the Bethunes $700,000 for the Ady Gil, a payment which is supposed to be made by November, which will be a huge weight off the family's over-stretched finances.

Sharyn says that in maritime tradition, certain ceremonies have to be performed if a boat's name is changed.

"You either have to get a virgin to wee on the bow... or else you can drive forward and then back over your wake. I said to Pete before going to Antarctica `make sure you do that on the way'. When he had the accident I said, `You made sure you did that?' He said, `No, I didn't."'

Is she superstitious?

"Not really, but I thought, well, maybe ..."

"Not really sure what I'll do for a job after this. Certainly I'll need to earn some money. Be hard to go back and do a 9-5, but I've had enough of prison life just quietly."

– Letter home from Bethune.

SOME OF the walls of the Bethune's Torbay home are bare gib-board, the result of DIY projects Pete started, then abandoned as he went off on his adventures.

If he's not passionate about something, it takes a while to happen, Sharyn says.

"We might have to get a professional in. At least the house is still standing."

She is sad that things could not have been different for her and Pete.

"I've just read Peter Blake's last adventure. Pippa and the kids went with him quite often up the Nile or Amazon, they did always have money behind them. Money puts a lot of pressure on a relationship. That's been one of the hard things, the money, and the distance and time apart."

The family is worried that the Japanese will make an example of Bethune.

Don Bethune says, "My conclusion is big business wants Pete to be made an example of to discourage anybody from ever again getting in the way of a business operation. It's quite worrying."

He says the New Zealand government has been "shockingly lethargic" throughout the whole process.

Sharyn and the girls will not attend the trial this week, reasoning that Pete will need them more afterwards if he is jailed.

"I was shocked at the hatred I saw from the Japanese," she says.

"The protesters wanted to chop him into little sushi bits. That's another reason I thought there's no point in going to the trial, because if we have to walk through that with the kids... they don't want to see their father up there in chains with people hating him."

She is holding out hope that he is deported quickly. "I want to get him home, it's hard on me studying and working, raising kids. I need to get him out of jail, out of Japan."

Will Pete go off on another adventure?

"I think he probably will, he was talking about going after the shark finning or the bluefin tuna boats or patagonian toothfish.

"He'll find another cause. He might stay around for a while, it depends on money as well."

- Sunday Star Times

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