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Odyssey of an eco-warrior

Having adventured enough for a while, Pete Bethune is settling into the quiet life of an author. And what a story he has to tell: the perils of a record-setting voyage around the world on his 78-foot biodiesel-fueled trihull Earthrace, then a year's stint with an anti-whaling organization that ended with Earthrace's sinking and Bethune's arrest in confrontations with a Japanese whaling ship.

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"I'm a free man and I'm very happy indeed," says Bethune, 45, who spoke with Soundings from his home in Auckland, New Zealand, after his release from a Japanese prison. The Kiwi environmentalist spent 24 days confined to a cabin on the 172-foot whaler Shonan Maru 2, then four months behind bars.


Click play above to watch a slideshow of the trimaran's transformation from record-setting Earthrace to Whale War casualty Ady Gil. Mobile users, click here to watch on the Soundings YouTube Channel.

On July 7, a Japanese judge ordered a two-year suspended sentence and five years probation for Bethune. Two days later he was deported.

"If I do anything naughty, they'll lock me up for two years," he says. "If I keep my nose clean, they'll leave me alone."

Bethune had faced up to 15 years in prison on charges of assault, illegal possession of a knife, destruction of property, obstruction of business and trespassing.

The demise of Earthrace

The Shonan Maru collided Jan. 5 with Earthrace in the Southern Ocean. The boat had been purchased by the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society with the help of a $1 million donation from Ady Gil, founder of American Hi Definition, the California-based cinema projection technology company. Earthrace was painted black and renamed Ady Gil.

As part of the Sea Shepherd fleet, Ady Gil and its six crewmembers were shadowing the Shonan Maru, trying to disrupt its whaling operations. Bethune says the trihull was nearly out of fuel and had stopped to await refueling. Shonan Maru, about two miles behind, "changed course slightly to come down to us," he says.

The whaling ship unleashed an ear-splitting noise barrage on Ady Gil from an acoustic weapon and blasted it with a water cannon. The ship, steaming at about 15 knots, appeared ready to pass at a distance of about 65 feet when it veered to starboard, Bethune says.

About the same time, the helmsman aboard Ady Gil - his field of vision obscured by the water stream - gunned the engine, he says.

"It basically cut us in half," Bethune says. "It was one of the scariest things in my life."

A Sea Shepherd boat rescued the six crewmembers, but Ady Gil sank.

A $3M demand

At around 4 a.m. Feb. 15, Bethune pulled alongside the Shonan Maru on on a PWC, found a gap between two anti-boarding nets, grabbed one of the nets and pulled himself aboard the ship.

Bethune says he hid on board until after light, then confronted its captain, Hiroyuki Komura, with a note - in Japanese - demanding $3 million for the loss of Ady Gil. He also demanded the captain give himself up in a citizen's arrest. The captain rebuffed both demands and detained Bethune.

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In court, Bethune acknowledged four of the charges but denied assaulting a crewman, whom he said had injured himself with his own pepper spray in a scuffle.

"In relationship to ramming and sinking a boat, my crime was pretty minor," he says.

Bethune says he simply wanted to see justice done.

A fresh start

Bethune conceived the idea of setting an around-the-world speed record in a biodiesel-fueled boat in 2003. For four years, he worked on the design of the carbon-fiber wave-piercing trihull, raised money - he was always in debt - and built Earthrace.

Bethune's first attempt, in 2007, was plagued with misfortune: a collision with a fishing boat off Guatemala that killed a fishermen, a broken heat exchanger, poorly fitted props, refueling delays, and cracks in the hull that forced him to end the attempt.

In 2008 he tried again, this time setting a new record of 61 days despite breaking a prop, bending a shaft, and cracking a rudder in a collision with submerged debris, and developing another crack in the hull in pounding monsoons.

Bethune is back home with his wife, Sharyn, and two daughters. After he writes his book, then what? "I'm not sure," he says.

Debt-free after selling Earthrace to Sea Shepherd, "We've got the chance to make a fresh start, really."

Has the good he's tried to do been worth all the trouble he's run into along the way?

"Yeah," he says, of both the round-the-world voyage under power of renewable fuel and his work with the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

"I know we cost the whalers about $12 million in lost revenues [disrupting their operations]. And I know we helped put biodiesel on the map in many places and we contributed to the debate over sustainability."