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

As the crew's second week in the St. Petersburg hotel turned to its third, a sense of claustrophobia started to set in. Christmas was coming, and no one seemed optimistic about getting home. The threat of prison appeared to be fading, and everyone agreed that the Russians wanted the activists gone before the Olympics. But nobody knew how that might happen. Their best hope seemed to be an amnesty bill that was making its way through the Russian parliament, though some of the activists worried that accepting amnesty might mean admitting guilt, which they didn't want to do. During one contentious meeting, Litvinov told the rest of the crew, "I hope we're still here during Sochi – we're going to kick their butts!" Willcox's response: "Are you out of your fucking mind?"

The crew sought out distractions where they could: at the Irish pub across the street; at the indoor water park attached to the hotel. One afternoon, Willcox visited a grocery store across the street to buy a bottle of Malbec and a corkscrew. Maggy was due to arrive that night, and he wanted to give her a romantic welcome. Back at the hotel, a psychiatrist Greenpeace brought in to talk to the crew kept trying to corner him, but Willcox wasn't interested. "My wife is coming," he said. "She's going to be my shrink."

Willcox and Maggy first met on the Clearwater 36 years ago. He was the captain; she was the cook. They dated for a while, as young people on a ship sometimes do – then, he says, "she went off to start a family, and I went off to save the world." Maggy got married and opened a bakery, while Willcox joined Greenpeace. But they always stayed in touch, writing letters and seeing each other when they could. On the wall of Willcox's hotel room, he had a photo of the two of them at Maggy's first wedding, holding hands and staring into each other's eyes. Maggy calls it "right man, wrong wedding."

They reconnected three years ago, when Willcox went to pick up a boat in Maine, where Maggy lives on an island and runs a small newspaper. In February of last year they got married; instead of rings, they got matching ring tattoos.

Now Maggy worried that they'd be spending their first anniversary under house arrest. "I could never ask him to stop doing what he loves," she says. "But my selfish perspective is, I've loved Peter for a long, long time, and finally our time has come around – and I'd really like to spend some of it together."

The next afternoon, Willcox was in the hotel lounge drinking a coffee, when the TV over the bar flashed an aerial photo of a generic-looking atoll. He perked up. "That's Mururoa," he said.

It seemed unlikely that he could recognize one atoll from a quick, unlabeled shot on CNN. And yet, incredibly, he was right. "I should know the shapes of all the atolls," he said. "I protested all of them."

Mururoa is a tiny French territory in the South Pacific, halfway between New Zealand and South America. Willcox knows it because he tried to sail there in 1985, on the original Rainbow Warrior, a voyage that would turn out to be the ship's last.

The Warrior was Willcox's first posting with Greenpeace. "For four years," he says, "that boat didn't go anywhere without me." In July 1985, he was prouder of it than ever: They'd just spent seven grueling months in a field in Jacksonville, Florida, refitting it with a mast to turn it into a sailing ship, and then sailed through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to New Zealand. They nicknamed her the R-Dub, and Willcox – 32, tan, and fit – was her skipper.

There were 11 crew members on the trip, plus a Portuguese photographer named Fernando Pereira. The plan was to spend a few days in Auckland meeting with local leaders, then head to their next action, interfering with a French nuclear test near Mururoa. On July 10, a cold, drizzly day, the crew got the boat ready to ship out. That night they threw a birthday party for their head campaigner, and around 11 pm Willcox had a nightcap and went to sleep in his bunk.

He was awakened soon after by a blast so powerful it rattled windows in the harbor. At first he thought they'd been hit by another boat. He started to make his way among the cabins to check on the crew. Then a second blast went off, and he gave the order to abandon ship.

The first explosion blew a hole in the starboard hull large enough to drive a truck through. Six tons of water poured in every second. The second blast ripped apart the propeller shaft, and within minutes, the Warrior had sunk to the bottom of the harbor. Of the 10 people onboard at the time, nine made it off. But Pereira, who had gone to his cabin to retrieve his camera after the first blast, was trapped underwater and killed.

The story that unfolded in the months that followed might have made a good spy movie, if it weren't so far-fetched. It turned out the bombing was the work of France's General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), that country's equivalent of the CIA, which had been ordered to stop Greenpeace from disrupting the nuclear test. Nicknamed Operation Satanique, it took six months to plan and three to execute, and involved 12 undercover agents, 50 pounds of explosives, and one escape via nuclear submarine. Two of the operatives were captured at the airport and, after months of denials by the French government, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served two years. The rest escaped punishment entirely. At last report, the alleged mastermind of the operation, a DGSE commander named Louis-Pierre

Dillais, was living freely in Virginia, working as an executive at an arms manufacturer that supplies guns to the U.S. military.

The bombing was eventually revealed to have been personally approved by French president Franois Mitterrand. "It was unthinkable," Willcox said. "A first-world government had targeted us for murder." And yet it also confirmed that they were doing something right. "A bunch of hippies in an old steel boat had scared a superpower. It's the same kind of reinforcement people are getting from this thing," he says of the Arctic episode.

After the bombing, many in the crew felt unmoored. In the space of a few minutes, they'd lost a friend, their mission, and their home. Willcox didn't pause to grieve: He caught a ride on another ship and carried on with his plan to interrupt the test, after which he was detained, flown back to the U.S., and banned from French Polynesia for life. But back home, he took a year off from Greenpeace, fixing up an old boat and sailing with friends. Maggy says that to this day, he's never talked with her about the incident.

The sinking of the Warrior made Willcox a minor celebrity, and Greenpeace's fund-raising went through the roof. "The whole organization changed dramatically," he says. "It got harder to maintain the ... morality may not be the right word, but the spirit of the thing." According to Greenpeace's Naidoo, the Arctic 30 case has been a similar windfall; membership is up, and the Save the Arctic campaign has seen its number of supporters go from 2 million to 5 million. The irony, of course, is that two of the highest-profile moments for the organization were two of the hardest for Willcox personally.

Like any employee who's been with the same company for three decades, Willcox has his issues with Greenpeace. He and his superiors haven't always seen eye to eye. "When all of a sudden they're saying, 'You're not really right anymore; why don't you fuck off.' . . . " His voice trailed off. "They've done that two or three times, which, over the course of 33 years, isn't bad."

At Greenpeace, Willcox earns one third what he could in the Merchant Marines. Between his daughters' college loans and his credit cards, he's about $80,000 in debt. "We hardly went on vacations. Taking my kids skiing was out of the question. They enjoyed the fact that I was part of Greenpeace, and we had a lot of fun. I don't think they regret anything. But we definitely gave up some things so I could stay with the firm."