Paul Thomas Côté II
Born: January 28, 1944 (Vancouver)
Died: July 19, 2013 (Vancouver)
As a law student in Vancouver in the 1960s, Paul Côté immersed himself in protests against nuclear testing in Alaska, eventually becoming one of the founders of the group later known as Greenpeace. He missed the protesters’ famous voyage to the test zone because he was training for the Olympics as a sailor.
He returned from the 1972 Summer Olympics with a bronze medal, Canada’s first medal in the sport in four decades, which he presented to a baby daughter born while he was overseas.
Mr. Côté, who died July 19 in Vancouver at the age of 69, enjoyed success as a businessman and as a sportsman, where he earned a reputation for rigorous dedication to sailing at such regattas as the Swiftsure in Juan de Fuca Strait and the gruelling Victoria-to-Maui race.
“He was bright, strong, tough,” said David Miller of Vancouver, the skipper of his Olympic sailboat. “He had all the ingredients of a good crewman.”
Paul Thomas Côté II was born in Vancouver on Jan. 28, 1944, one of eight children of Elizabeth (née Anderson) and an engineer father after whom he was named. After attending Vancouver College, a Catholic all-boys school, he enrolled at the University of British Columbia, where he was pledged to the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity.
In October, 1969, the campus roiled with anger over a planned nuclear test on one of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. (An earlier test, in 1965, had generated little concern.) The student union hired buses to join a caravan of private vehicles to the Douglas border crossing south of Vancouver for a protest.
Buoyed by the turnout but disappointed at the protest’s ineffectiveness, seven people formed a group to challenge the next nuclear test, scheduled to be held on Amchitka in the Aleutian Islands in 1971. The group called itself the Don’t Make A Wave Committee, the name a pun about activism that also captured the fear that the underground nuclear explosions might cause a tsunami.
Mr. Côté was one of the three original directors of this group, which later became known as Greenpeace. The others were Jim Bohlen, an American-born engineer and Quaker, and Irving Stowe, a fellow Quaker and American who had abandoned his family name of Strasmich to honour Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The group’s meetings were held at Irving and Dorothy Stowe’s home in the leafy Vancouver neighbourhood of Point Grey.
It was Marie Bohlen, Jim’s wife, who suggested the group sail a boat to the test zone. The protest would be an aquatic version of a sit-in that would also fulfill the Quaker tradition of bearing witness.
Mr. Côté’s knowledge of watercraft led to his being assigned the unenviable task of finding a vessel for Greenpeace’s quixotic protest. He had been a sailor since childhood and his family were long-time members of the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club.
His background did not make the search any easier. “We wrote to everyone we could think of who might lend or charter to us,” he told a reporter at the time. “Everything’s fine until you tell them you’re going to the hydrogen bomb blast in Amchitka.”
He eventually found a halibut seiner docked on the Fraser River whose captain, John Cormack, agreed to charter the ecology-minded peaceniks to Alaska on a six-week mission for $12,000. The fishing boat, named the Phyllis Cormack, was renamed Greenpeace for the voyage.
The charter was financed through a benefit concert featuring Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs and popular local band Chilliwack.
In the end, Mr. Côté did not sail aboard the Greenpeace to the test zone, as he was in training by then for the Olympics.
In 1968, he sailed as one of four crewmen under his father’s command aboard Jeunesse, the family’s 35-foot sloop, in the inaugural Victoria-to-Maui International Yacht Race. Starting at Brotchie Ledge Light in Juan de Fuca Strait south of Victoria at 10 a.m. on Dominion Day, the Jeunesse was one of 14 vessels to hoist spinnakers in a race across 2,308 nautical miles (4,274 kilometres) of open Pacific Ocean. The Vancouver crew finished first in their division.
Mr. Côté soon after teamed up with Mr. Miller, a two-time Olympian from Vancouver who was a fellow member of the yacht club as well as a fraternity brother. With John Ekels as helmsmen, the three raced in the Soling class, a fin-keel sloop which was to make its Olympic debut in 1972.
After modest success, the trio realized they would need a new, faster vessel if they were to compete for a medal. With financing from Vancouver yachtsman Bob Brodie, who made a fortune in the local gas-station business, they ordered a new vessel from famed boat builder Bill Abbott of Sarnia, Ont. This sailboat was named Terrestrial New World Cuckoo Two, a moniker dreamed up by Mr. Côté, who had affixed a decal of a cartoon roadrunner on the original ship of that name.
The Miller-skippered sailboat finished fifth in the world Soling championship held on Long Island Sound in 1971, a pre-Olympic regatta won by Robert Mosbacher of Houston, who later became commerce secretary in U.S. president George H. W. Bush’s administration.
(The week-long sailing competition ended 16 days after the Greenpeace departed its berth at False Creek in Vancouver.)
The following year, the B.C. sailors crushed all opposition at the Canadian Olympic trials off Halifax, winning all eight races.
The sailing competitions for the 1972 Olympics were held in Kiel harbour and included a crew skippered by Crown Prince Harald (now Harald V) of Norway.
The six-race Soling contest was completed under heavy security following a terrorist attack in which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed. The favoured Buddy Melges of Wisconsin won the gold medal, followed by a crew from Sweden, while the Canadians claimed the bronze, the first Olympic sailing medal for Canada in 40 years.
After completing a law degree, Mr. Côté served as an executive with California-based land development company Genstar USA. In 1987, he joined with several fellow executives to form a San Diego-based company called the Newland Group, which purchased the assets of Genstar USA, including 14,000 acres of land in five states.
Mr. Côté was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia a decade ago.
He leaves Christine Lundgren, his second wife, whom he married 21 years ago; three adult children – Christine Haun, Elise Rollinson and Paul Côté III – from his first marriage to Colleen Badger, which ended in divorce in 1990; three grandchildren; two brothers; four sisters; and his mother, Elizabeth, known as Bette.
He was predeceased by his father, a former chancellor of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., who died in 2010. He was also predeceased in 2006 by his sister Ann Elizabeth Black, known as Annabeth, the wife of prominent Victoria newspaper owner David Black.
In 1989, Mr. Côté and the Olympic crew were inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. Mr. Côté’s daughter Christine Haun said the red Olympics blazer he received in 1972 was important to him, a reminder of his success on the sea against the world’s best.
“He could look at the stars,” Ms. Haun said, “and tell you where you were in the world.”