Pete Willcox: High-Seas Avenger
Credit: Will Rose / Greenpeace

On the afternoon of September 3, Captain Pete Willcox ate lunch at his home in Connecticut, hauled in a fresh supply of firewood for his 93-year-old dad and stepmom, and tossed two beat-up duffel bags into a car that would take him to the airport. Willcox had packed for enough of these trips over the years to have it down to the essentials: two pairs of pants, a couple of sweatshirts, some hiking boots for when it got cold on deck, Crocs for when he was down below, some gym clothes, his laptop, his passport and driver's license, his seaman's book, and enough blood-pressure medication to last him for three months. He was headed out to sea to get himself arrested.

At 61, Willcox is the most senior ship captain at Greenpeace. In 33 years, he has taken on seal hunters in Newfoundland, whaling ships in Japan, and tuna poachers in the South Pacific. Once, to protest American nuclear policy, he swam directly into the path of a 3,000-ton Navy destroyer sailing at 18 knots, coming so close he dragged his hand along the hull. (He later joked that he felt "like a matador.") For four years in the Eighties, Willcox was the captain of the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior, until the night it was bombed by French secret agents and sank to the bottom of a New Zealand harbor. If you're inclined to believe that devoting one's life to protecting the Earth is a noble pursuit, you might call him an American hero.

That September day he was looking forward to getting back on the water. He'd been working mostly part-time since getting custody of his two girls nine years ago. (His ex-wife, an Argentine doctor he met on a Greenpeace boat, lived in Spain and saw them in the summer.) It wasn't easy, raising daughters on his own: They lived in a cramped apartment above Willcox's parents' house, and he'd had to take Merchant Marine jobs to make ends meet. Now they were grown: Anita, 22, was living in Paris, and two weeks earlier he'd driven 18-year-old Natasha to college, in his Toyota station wagon with 300,000 miles on it. He could go back to sailing full-time. The only hard part was leaving Maggy. They'd gotten married just six months earlier, after being apart for 35 years since first falling in love. And now he was shipping out again.

This time Willcox was going to the Arctic. A month earlier, the Russian petroleum company Gazprom announced plans to activate its Prirazlomnaya platform, an offshore oil rig 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. Although the Arctic holds as much as a quarter of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves, drilling there had long been considered too dangerous, too remote, too expensive. But now that they were running out of places to drill in the rest of the world – and, perversely, polar ice melting due to global warming had made Arctic reserves easier to reach – oil companies were jockeying for a piece of the action. Gazprom wanted to start pumping by the end of 2013, breaking the de facto moratorium. Willcox and Greenpeace might not be able to stop the company, but they could show the world what it was up to.

Willcox flew first to Amsterdam for some meetings at Greenpeace headquarters. He didn't go to the office very often – he preferred to stay on the boat, do his job, and not get mixed up in the internal politics. Then, bureaucratic duty fulfilled, he headed to the Norwegian port of Kirkenes, where his ship, a 166-foot icebreaker called the Arctic Sunrise, was docked.

Most of his crew were there already: 27 activists from 17 countries, plus two journalists to document the trip. Willcox had sailed with several of them before. He'd first met the action coordinator, a Brit named Frank Hewetson, in 1990, when they worked together to block cyanide-spewing pipes at a steel mill in Australia. But most of the younger activists he was meeting for the first time. Camila Speziale, a 21-year-old photography student from Buenos Aires, was born 11 years after Willcox started sailing for Greenpeace. Still, when she found out who her captain would be, she could hardly contain herself. Oh, my God! she thought. I'm sailing with Peter Willcox!

The Prirazlomnaya trip was going to be a so-called "banner action": Two activists would climb to the top of the rig and unfurl a banner that read Save the Arctic in Russian. It seemed easy, but it was not risk-free. A year earlier, another Greenpeace crew had attempted the same thing but had to turn back when rig workers sprayed them with hoses and pelted them with chunks of metal. This time, both sides seemed to be bracing for a fight. When Willcox arrived in Norway, the captain he was relieving shook his hand and said, "I'm sure glad you're doing this trip."

Willcox had been in trouble in Russia before. In 1983, he was leading a protest trip to an illegal whale-processing station in Siberia, when six of his crew went ashore to take pictures. They were arrested at gunpoint, and Willcox spent the next several hours evading a Soviet warship sent to intercept them, eventually escaping to international waters. A decade later he confronted the Russian navy over toxic waste in the Sea of Japan. He had a reputation within Greenpeace for taking risks, for pushing the envelope. He was a little nervous but also excited for the chance to mix it up. Before he left Norway, he sent Maggy a postcard: "If the Russians keep their sense of humor, I think this is going to be a fun action."