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

On a dark winter morning three months later, Willcox sat in the lobby of the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya, an imposing gray high-rise on the icy shores of the Gulf of Finland, in northwest St. Petersburg. The hotel was built for a Soviet party conference in 1978, and it retains much of its Brezhnev-era charm. Willcox and the crew were technically free on bail, but they were not allowed to leave Russia, and they couldn't stray far from the hotel. The Russian Investigative Committee was still determining whether they would spend the next seven years in prison.

In the meantime, Willcox was pretty sure he and his crew were being watched. That morning, coming back from breakfast, he noticed some fresh knife marks around the lock on his door. On the plus side, Greenpeace had upped their per diem from $40 to $100, so they had plenty of money for borscht and bad coffee in the cigarette-scented lounge. Willcox smiled: "We're really living the high life."

Willcox is broad-shouldered and short, with a handsomely weathered face and tough, thick hands. He has two dolphins tattooed on one arm and an anchor on the other hand, and his hair is perpetually unkempt, as if 40 years at the helm of a ship had left him permanently windblown. He was wearing the same clothes he'd worn since September – a red T-shirt, a black-and-purple fleece, and white athletic socks – with the exception of his jeans, which he had to buy at a St. Petersburg Gap. He'd lost 20 pounds during his two months in prison.

After the Russians commandeered the Sunrise, they had locked Willcox in his quarters and the rest of the crew in the mess. They ransacked the cabins and got drunk on the crew's rum, and the next morning began towing the ship to Murmansk, a deepwater port 600 miles away. There, the activists were placed in windowless cells with dirt floors and stripped of their shoelaces and watches.

Willcox had been arrested in foreign countries before, from Peru to the Philippines, and had almost always been held overnight and released. He assumed this time would be the same. But eight days later, the Leninsky District Court announced it was charging the activists with a violation of Section 227 of the Russian Criminal Code – piracy by an organized group – which carries a potential penalty of 15 years in prison.

It wasn't the first time Willcox had been charged with piracy. It happened twice before: first in 1982, when he was arrested for protesting acid-waste dumping off the coast of New Jersey ("Technically, I wasn't charged," he says. "I was sued for 'piratical action,' which I thought had a great ring to it"), and then again a year later, when he snuck aboard a Japanese whaling ship in Peru and had to make a $3,000 "donation" to a local prosecutor to secure his release. His Russian captors weren't interested in cutting a deal.

But Russian president Vladimir Putin soon admitted that the activists were "obviously not pirates," and the charges were reduced to "hooliganism" – a catchall allegation often used against Russian dissidents that carries a seven-year sentence. But in a way, this was worse. Though a piracy conviction was a long shot, hooliganism was not. At the moment, members of the punk-rock protest group Pussy Riot were serving time in a labor camp on the same charge.

"Until we were indicted in Murmansk, everything was going according to plan," Willcox said. "We'll get arrested, pay a $700 fine, and be back in Norway by the weekend – no big deal. But seven years – that's just a game changer for anybody. For me, it means I don't see my parents again. For some of the young women on the crew, it means they don't have families."

The crew were kept in isolation for 23 hours a day, with one hour of exercise in a 15-by-15-foot concrete pen and one 15-minute shower per week. Their food came from a slop bucket – mostly potatoes, fish stew, and a chicken dish that some suspected was pigeon. (Willcox, a fish-eating vegetarian, strained his meat out with a fork.) They communicated by passing notes through sewer pipes or tapping coded messages on radiators. Willcox also kept a journal that tracked his descent from stoicism to despair. (October 4: "Vlad made me shoelaces today. It was a really thoughtful present." October 25: "I have never wanted to leave this place more.")

After six weeks, the activists were transferred by train to St. Petersburg, where they were placed in Kresty Detention Centre, a 150-year-old penitentiary that once held Leon Trotsky. ("Trotsky, Willcox," Willcox jokes. "All the greats.") From his cell on the third floor, number 896, Willcox had a view of the courtyard and the Neva River beyond, and a cell mate who played chess with him and cooked vegetable soup for him. He got to call Maggy a few times – just long enough to tell her he loved her and to remind her to send his blood-pressure medication. For the first time, the crew could also get mail. Camila Speziale got a letter from her four-year-old brother – a drawing of his big sister sailing a pirate ship.

"The physical stuff was not so hard," says Dima Litvinov, the head campaigner on the crew. "The food is bad, it's cold, it's dirty – but we're not prima donnas; we're seamen. We can handle stuff like that. The hard part was the psychological pressure. Can they really put us away for that long? You can't lock up 30 foreigners for something they didn't do – can you?"

Litvinov lives in Sweden now, but he's a native Russian who comes from a long line of dissidents. His great-grandfather was a Bolshevik revolutionary who fled the country to avoid being jailed by Tsar Nicholas II; his grandfather was sent to the Gulag for 10 years for speaking out about human rights; and his father was exiled to Siberia when Dima was six for protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. As Litvinov sees it, the imprisonment of "the Arctic 30" was the latest example of Putin's increasingly hard line against Western influences – of a piece with his crackdown on gay rights and his economic posturing against the EU.

Willcox says that throughout his prison stay, his biggest worry wasn't his health or his future, but the thought that his crew might be pissed at him. "If anybody should have known better, it was me," he says. "It was my responsibility to keep them out of trouble, and I completely blew it." The first time he ran into some of the female crew members in a hallway in Murmansk, they hugged him, and he almost cried out of relief. Even now, he second-guesses himself a lot – for not leaving the night of the action, for not stopping and letting the Russians board, and especially for ignoring the shots across the bow. "That's supposed to be a demonstrative order to stop on the high seas, and we just told them to fuck off," Willcox says. "We really rubbed their noses in it. I'm sure they were fuming: These dirty hippies told us to piss up a rope. These assholes aren't going to get away.

"But again," he says, "this is what we wanted. We were trying to push them into locking us up. To make for a bigger story."