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.”
The four-day sail from Kirkenes to the platform began on September 14. In less than a day, the Russian coast guard was on their tail. Still, the Greenpeace crew was relaxed – playing cards in the mess, shooting hoops in the cargo hold, and watching Top Gun and Kung Fu Panda in the theater. In the evenings, Willcox worked out on a NordicTrack or watched Game of Thrones in his cabin. On sunny days, he liked to take his sextant out on deck and teach celestial navigation to the younger members of the crew, most of whom had never sailed without GPS.
The view from the bridge was breathtaking. It was late summer, so there was no ice, but they saw walruses and narwhals and the northern lights. And then, on the fourth day, there it was: a hulking red-and-white platform, 40 stories tall and 117,000 tons, with wells snaking out from its base like tentacles – a monstrosity in this pristine landscape.
At 4:30 the next morning, a dozen Greenpeace members took off toward the Prirazlomnaya in five rubber inflatables. Two managed to hook onto the platform and were making their way to the top when the chief of the rig turned on the fire hoses. He also phoned his bosses in Moscow, who called the Federal Security Service – a successor to the KGB.
The Russian troops swooped in, yanking on the ropes to shake the climbers loose. When a Greenpeace inflatable tried to intervene, the Russians opened fire, sending bullets ripping through the water. They knifed the inflatables and took the climbers into custody, and the rest of the crew limped back to the Sunrise.
For 36 hours, the Russian coast guard pursued the Sunrise, ordering Willcox to stop and let them board. Willcox, reminding them they were a Dutch ship in international waters, refused. The Russians then accused them of being terrorists and warned that if the Sunrise didn’t stop, they would open fire. Willcox replied that they should do what they had to – but if they did fire, could they please not hit the silver barrels on the deck, which were full of gasoline. The coast guard ship turned its cannon toward the Sunrise and proceeded to fire between four and 11 warning shots across its bow.
At this point, Willcox decided that since they probably weren’t getting their climbers back, they’d return to Norway to regroup. A few hours later, he was working out on the elliptical when one of his communications officers burst in. “Pete!” she said. “They’re trying to board!” Willcox raced to the bridge and saw a helicopter dropping ropes onto the deck. He told Hewetson to run back to the helipad to try to keep them from landing. But it was too late. A dozen Russian commandos wearing black balaclavas rappelled onto the deck with assault rifles, tackling the activists and kicking some in the ribs.
Like many ships that travel in occasionally dangerous territory, the Sunrise was equipped with an emergency beacon, which, when activated, transmits a distress signal to the International Maritime Organization and the Dutch government. As the Russians swarmed the deck, handcuffing the crew, Willcox turned to his second mate, an Argentine named Hernan Perez Orsi. “Hernan,” he said, “hit the pirate button.”
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.”
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.”
The organization now known as Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in the late Sixties, a ragtag collective of Canadian journalists, Sierra Club members, pacifist war vets, and hippie radicals. Inspired in part by the civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi and the Quakers, its goal was to raise awareness about the environment by making as much noise as possible. Ships were central to the strategy from the start, when 10 activists sailed a dilapidated trawler up to Alaska to interrupt an American nuclear test. Since then, the Marine Division (or, as Willcox affectionately calls it, the Moron Division) has been instrumental in some of the organization’s biggest victories, from a global moratorium on whaling to a nuclear test ban.
Greenpeace’s weapon of choice has always been its direct actions: spraying red dye onto harp seal pups or planting an inflatable between a whale and a harpoon gun. But as the organization has grown, it has expanded into lobbying and education. Since taking office in 2009, the executive director, Kumi Naidoo – a 49-year-old South African who cut his teeth organizing anti-apartheid protests in high school and worked for Nelson Mandela’s ANC – has tried to bring actions back to the fore, restoring a more confrontational tone. Still, Naidoo says, actions account for no more than 20 percent of Greenpeace’s work.
When Willcox joined the organization, in 1981, it had about 200 employees. Now there are more than 4,000, spread across 28 offices around the world. “When I started out, there was one campaigner on the boat, and half the time his job was to bring the recreational pharmaceuticals,” Willcox says. “Now there’s a campaigner, an assistant campaigner, a comms person, a second comms person, a webbie, photographer … I remember saying in the early Eighties that we had to get as disciplined and organized as IBM or Exxon, or we weren’t going to matter. And in a lot of ways we did, and it sucks. I’m still glad we did it. But now you’re kind of just a cog in a wheel.”
Willcox likes participating in actions: “To me, that’s part of the fun.” But since he’s usually needed at the helm, it doesn’t happen very often. There used to be exceptions, like the time he hopped two barbed-wire fences in Turkey and helped occupy a coal-fired power plant. “But those were the good old days. We don’t do that much anymore.”
As the group’s methods have shifted, so has its focus. The organization made its name on the wildlife and peace campaigns of the Eighties. But in the past few years, climate change has emerged as its top priority. “If we don’t get a handle on climate change, nothing else is going to matter,” Willcox says. He points out that we already have five times the oil reserves to raise the global temperature by two degrees Celsius – the point at which experts predict the planet will become uninhabitable.
“When I first started out, our big worry was saving the whales,” Willcox says, “Now our big worry is whether our kids will survive to have kids of their own. So, in that sense, we’ve been a total fucking failure.” He isn’t totally pessimistic “We made the problem, and we can solve it. Our mission is to put it in the public sphere, and, hopefully, people start to do the right thing.”
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 Franois 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.”
A week before Christmas, the crew finally got some good news. The amnesty passed; they were going home. Willcox and Maggy celebrated Christmas with a bottle of red wine Anita brought from France. And on December 28 – 100 days after the Sunrise was boarded – they flew to Maggy’s house in Maine. When they arrived, the island had been without power for five days. There was ice in the trees and two feet of snow on the ground. Willcox shoveled out Maggy’s car and split some wood for the fire. Two days later, they drove down to Norwalk for a family New Year’s Eve party. And the next morning, Willcox, his dad, Maggy, and his daughter Natasha went for their traditional New Year’s Day sail.
One day in January, Willcox is at home in Norwalk, taking his dog for a walk. “Not bad, huh?” he says as he gazes out at the sound. “At high tide, we can scrape the plates right into the water.” Down in the harbor, his nonagenarian old dad is hunched over in knee-high rubber boots, pumping out a flooded boat. “He’s an ornery old cuss. And it’s a big thing to get a hug out of him. But since I got back, he’s said a few things that make me think he’s awfully glad to have me home.”
Up in his apartment, Willcox pours some wine he swiped from downstairs and pops a frozen pizza into the microwave. His dad built this addition for him when he got custody of the girls; there’s a Greenpeace calendar on one wall, and the refrigerator is covered with photos of him and the kids. Willcox likes it here: He and his dad have dinner together most nights, and if it’s below 40 degrees, he’ll go downstairs and make a fire. Every once in a while his stepmom, Joan, pops in to ask if he washed the dog, or to alert him that his dad is about to electrocute himself.
Willcox is slowly readjusting to life back home. The night he got back, Natasha snuggled up on the couch with him and refused to let go. Now they’re cooking a lot of dinners together and going to yoga every morning, enjoying the days until she has to go back to school.
“When I was younger, I remember missing him a lot,” Natasha says. “But the more I got involved with Greenpeace, the cooler it got that my dad was Pete Willcox.” She’s studying marine biology and is considering sailing with Greenpeace when she graduates. And Anita recently applied for a job with Greenpeace France.
Willcox says the two months in jail were worth it: “For the publicity we got, and how we were able to elevate the campaign, I’ll pay two months.” (Not that he’ll be returning to Russia anytime soon. “I sorta told myself I don’t want to hear that jail cell clanging on my ass again.”) At the end of the month, he’s going to Amsterdam, where he plans to ask for a full-time job. When he gets back, he’ll spend a month in Maine, and he and Maggy will celebrate their one-year anniversary. And then, sometime in March, he’ll head back out on the Rainbow Warrior.
“The thing I admire most about Peter,” Maggy says, “is at this point, I think he thinks we’re pretty well screwed. But he’s still doing it anyway.” She smiles. “The bastard.”
Willcox figures he has maybe 10 more years on a boat, 15 if he’s lucky. He might work at an office someday if he can’t ship out. “But I like to ship out. I like living on boats. It’s just such a great combination for me, to be able to sail and have some social relevance. I believe in what we’re doing, in the causes we espouse. And I’m not willing to turn the planet over to the oil companies, not while I have any energy left.”
At the end of January, Royal Dutch Shell announces it is abandoning its plans to drill in the Arctic in 2014. It’s a victory for Greenpeace, but a bittersweet one. Because just two days after the Duma granted the crew of the Sunrise amnesty, Gazprom released a statement of its own. “Today,” boasted the company’s CEO, “we became pioneers in developing the Russian Arctic shelf.” And with that – just as Willcox and his crew were packing to come home – the Prirazlomnaya platform started pumping oil.
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