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Meet the London activist who climbed the side of a huge, moving ship

Victoria Henry, Greenpeace activist
Phil Ball / Greenpeace

London-based activist Victoria Henry made headlines last month for scaling a massive cargo ship in the Thames Estuary. Here’s why she did it…

‘‘Remember to breathe.” Ironically, this is what I found myself repeating in my head as I crouched in a tiny inflatable boat with a group of other activists. As we neared the 23,000-tonne cargo ship in the Thames Estuary, the huge scale of it – and what we were about to attempt – came sharply into focus.

The ship we were about to board was carrying hundreds of Volkswagen diesel cars to the UK. Months of training paid off when we pulled up alongside the ship and managed to hook on our ropes on the first go. That was the first challenge over – but next we had to get to the top and find a safe place to hang our message to the world.

Dreams of a convenient access ladder quickly evaporated, and it soon became clear that my only possible way was to free-climb up the 27-metre loading ramp, placing protection against falls as I went. And so, with a news helicopter buzzing overhead, a police boat following us below and a crowd of very curious ship workers gathering, I slowly and painstakingly made my way upwards.

Climbing such a huge, moving structure while wearing a full chest harness, pack and lifejacket is not an easy job. But when I got to the top I was rewarded with the thing I wanted: the perfect place to hang our 50-square-metre banner!

Pulling the release cord revealed the face of two-year-old Sephie from Walthamstow, who has severe respiratory problems. She’s one of thousands of children affected by London’s air pollution crisis. Along with her face, the banner carried our message to Volkswagen: “Ditch Diesel”.

Volkswagen says that its diesel cars are clean. But diesel vehicles are the single largest source of poisonous nitrogen oxides on our roads, and – unlike other large car companies – VW has so far made no move to stop producing them. I’m a city girl (I live in east London and I love it) but I find the capital’s air pollution deeply worrying. Just last week I returned from my morning run wheezing, only to find out that Sadiq Khan had issued a high air pollution alert that day.

Choosing to take direct action is something Greenpeace does as an urgent last resort. When powerful companies put lives at risk by polluting the air we breathe, it’s crucial that people around the world begin to stand up and challenge them directly.

Our action in the Thames Estuary wasn’t the first time I’d put myself in a situation like this. Four years ago I was part of a team of women who climbed The Shard to protest Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic (which were cancelled following our campaign). My climbing partner on the cargo ship was Phil Ball, who had previously been imprisoned for two months in Russia after taking peaceful action against Arctic drilling.

After successfully hanging our banner, we were arrested under suspicion of unauthorised presence on a ship. Taking direct action like this is always nerve-shredding and risky, but for me, it’s worth it. Whether they drive a car or not, no one wants to live near roads that are polluted with toxic air. I’m proud to be part of a growing movement of people standing together to push forward the change we need.’

Sign the Greenpeace petition at secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/s/VW-ditch-diesel-now.

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