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Grabbing Paddles in Seattle to Ward Off an Oil Giant

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SEATTLE — A dozen or so men and women, cinched into life jackets, paddles at the ready, were about to launch their kayaks into Elliott Bay early Thursday evening with Seattle’s glittering skyline as the backdrop. For some of the paddlers, it was a first-time experience, and with the water at 50 degrees and choppy, there were some obvious signs of trepidation.

“O.K., what hazards are we watching for?” Elizabeth Chiaravalli, their instructor, shouted, and a smattering of answers immediately bounced back. “The waves!” “The dock!” “The pilings!”

Then Cynthia Orr, a 67-year-old mental health counselor, spoke up. “Shell Oil!” she cried, standing by her boat. Her fellow kayakers — or kayaktivists, as they call themselves — roared.

The standoff between Royal Dutch Shell, which proposes to lease a terminal in the Port of Seattle for its Arctic drilling fleet, and the opponents who want to block the company’s plans for environmental and other reasons, is going aquatic. The various groups organizing a “ShellNo Flotilla” for Saturday hope to attract 1,000 kayaks or other small boats, and are arranging temporary housing for people coming from elsewhere to train and participate.

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Some talk of physically blocking Shell’s giant drilling rigs — a fairly dangerous idea for people in small boats in a busy port. But a generally stated goal at last week’s training session and on the main flotilla website is simply to make a grand statement of solidarity.

Some opponents are drawn in the name of climate protection, or anti-corporate fervor or another cause; this is Seattle, after all, where political passions come in potpourri. Elected officials have jumped in as well, with at least one City Council member, Mike O’Brien, taking “kayaktivist training” this month.

The drama is currently unfolding: Shell’s rigs are en route to Seattle, or ready to come in from temporary berths elsewhere in the region, but the company is providing no timetable. Seattle planning and development authorities said last week that Shell’s planned use of the facility requires a new permit, creating a potential legal snag. The port’s five-member commission, which split 3 to 2 in support of the lease, has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday with Shell on the agenda.

A Seattle company, Foss Maritime, which plans to operate the terminal with Shell as its tenant, said Friday that it would appeal the decision about the need for a new permit. It said in a statement that the city was practicing “politics rather than policy.”

Some labor groups, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, have stepped forward to support Shell because of the jobs its fleet would create for local workers. But at least 200 opponents have signed pledges saying they are prepared to face arrest in civil disobedience protests, organizers of the anti-Shell effort said.

“We need to focus our port, our businesses, on the new economy, on things like clean energy of the future and not on the old economy that is dying out, such as oil,” said Mayor Ed Murray, a Democrat who has urged the port to find another tenant or use.

But protesters, Mr. Murray said, must act prudently, whether in kayaks or on land. “Individuals need to be responsible, and not risk endangering themselves, or other people, or property,” he said.

A spokesman for Shell, Curtis Smith, declined to say what the company’s alternative plans might be if Seattle proves unworkable. The company hopes to begin drilling off Alaska on July 15 or soon after, he said, if ice is clear.

“We’re watching closely the actions of all parties,” Mr. Smith said. “At the same time, we’re considering our options.”

Dr. Laura Byerly, the medical director at a community clinic near Portland, Ore., is among the people planning to protest. She said it would be novel for her in two ways: She has spent her life “following the rules,” as a physician and a professional woman, with little experience in protests and not much in boats, either.

She has also become increasingly worried about climate change, so when a friend, Ken Ward, said he intended to drive the three hours up to Seattle this week with his 17-foot, green-and-white sailing dory on a trailer and invited her to come along, she immediately said yes.

“I’m going from inaction to action,” said Dr. Byerly, 53, who planned to train with Mr. Ward on a lake west of Portland.

Mr. Ward, 58, who described himself as a carpenter, handyman and climate volunteer, knows about protesting on water. In 2013, he and another man anchored a lobster boat in an industrial inlet near Providence, R.I., blocking a 40,000-ton shipment of coal to a power plant. They were charged with conspiracy, disturbing the peace and other violations, but the major charges were dropped.

This time, Mr. Ward said that he planned merely to participate in the flotilla, and that he and Dr. Byerly would hand out cups of tea to other boaters or kayakers from the dory.

He said that with planetary concerns in the balance — whether in burning fossil fuels or protecting the Arctic — no debate over energy was truly local anymore, and that he felt a need to respond to what he called “places of conflict,” wherever they might turn up.

“Seattle’s fight is everyone’s fight,” Mr. Ward said.

At Thursday night’s kayak training session, instructors showed the group how to get back in a tipped kayak (keep your center of gravity low, sliding on, belly first), how to signal for help (paddle vertical) and how to paddle backward. In the spirit of inclusion, trainees were asked what gender pronoun — he, she or something else — they preferred. Training sessions just for women and just for minorities are planned for this week to encourage greater participation.

Ms. Orr, the mental health counselor, said that as recently as a month ago, she might not have come at all, but that a recent book about climate change and corporate power, “This Changes Everything,” by Naomi Klein, had galvanized her into action. “It pierced my denial,” Ms. Orr said.

Another trainee, Sue Kay, 69, said that she and her friend Rosy Betz-Zall, 64, would try the kayaking for now, but that come flotilla day, they might well opt for a more stable perch, like a pontoon boat, depending on the weather.

“We’re hedging our bets,” Ms. Kay said.

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