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

The first time Willcox came to Russia was in 1967. He was 14, on a student tour arranged by his parents. "We were sympathetic toward Russia," he says. "The concept of socialism didn't scare my family at all." His most vivid memories include riding a steam train from Moscow to the Crimean peninsula, eating cold mashed potatoes, and developing a crush on some Swedish girls.

"If you want to understand why I do what I do," he says, "you have to go back to my grandparents." Henry Willcox ran a construction company in New York that built low-income housing, until he was accused of treason by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for leading a peace conference in China in 1952. (The Korean War was happening; Mao Zedong was a speaker.) Willcox's grandmother, Anita Parkhurst Willcox, an artist and a friend of Dorothy Parker's, attended the conference, too, and they both had their passports revoked.

When Willcox was two, his mother, Elsie, was also called before HUAC because of her association with an antiwar group called the Connecticut Peace Council. Worried that the authorities might try to take Pete and his infant brother away, she went into hiding, spending three months at a farmhouse in Massachusetts. When she finally did appear before the committee, she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify. A local paper called her a "blonde bombshell"; the ranking Republican implied she was a traitor. "I grew up thinking that if you didn't get subpoenaed by HUAC," Willcox says, "then you didn't amount to very much."

Willcox's father, Roger, studied urban planning at MIT and Harvard, and worked as an Army supply officer in World War II. In 1949, he, Elsie, and four other couples pooled $100 each to buy 67 acres on the Norwalk, Connecticut, waterfront, where they built a community called Village Creek. It was to be "a model of democracy," their prospectus said, with "no discrimination because of race, color, creed, or politics." Roger designed the layout, and 67 families moved in. During the Red Scare, it was nicknamed Commie Creek, and there were rumors that the flat roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.

This is where Pete Willcox grew up. When he was five, he was on a dinghy carrying a sign protesting a power plant being built in Norwalk Harbor. When he was seven, his parents took him to picket the local Woolworth's in solidarity with the Greensboro sit-ins. When he was 12, he and his father went to Alabama for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Selma-to-Montgomery march. (Willcox dozed off during King's speech, but he does remember Sammy Davis Jr. talking about women with "meat on their bones.") To this day, Willcox credits the march with instilling in him "the notion that if you dedicate yourself to something outside your immediate sphere, it's going to be a more fulfilling life."

Always athletic, he grew up sailing with his father in the Long Island Sound and downhill ski racing. (Ten years ago, Willcox, who was adopted, reconnected with his birth mother. It turned out she had been an alternate on the U.S. Olympic ski team.) When he was 13, Willcox started getting serious about ocean racing: He entered his first Newport-to-Bermuda race at 15 and later spent a season sailing for America's Cup legend Dennis Conner. The summer after his senior year of high school, folk singer Pete Seeger, a friend of the family's, called with an opportunity: He had a boat on the Hudson River, a little sloop called the Clearwater, which he was using to educate kids about pollution. Did Willcox want a job on the crew? Willcox was number one in that year's draft lottery, while the Clearwater was federally approved conscientious-objector duty. And so, in 1972, thanks to Pete Seeger and the Vietnam War, 19-year-old Willcox became a full-time sailor.

Willcox took over as captain of the Clearwater four years later and stayed for four more years after that. But he was getting bored with taking elementary schoolers out for a sail. He'd recently read a book about Greenpeace by one of its founders when he came across an ad in National Fisherman magazine saying the organization was looking for more crew. Willcox applied for a job as a deckhand, and three months later, when the captain – as he puts it – "turned out to be a complete moron," Willcox became the skipper of the first Rainbow Warrior.

These days, Willcox helms all three of Greenpeace's ships: the Arctic Sunrise, the 236-foot Esperanza, and the new Rainbow Warrior. When he's not on the job, he still races yachts competitively. "I'm not going to say I'm the best sailor in Greenpeace," he says with a grin. "But I'm the best sailor in Greenpeace." Hewetson, who's been sailing off and on with Willcox for 24 years, says his seamanship is second to none. "As a Greenpeace captain, quite often you're putting the vessel literally in the center of the action," Hewetson says. "And that requires seamanship as well as guts. Because it's the captain who's going to take the rap."