"I Get Paid to Make Trouble and Go to Jail"

Greenpeace Captain Peter Willcox is out of Russian prison and ready to fight for the future of the ocean.

Greenpeace ship captain Peter Willcox spent two months in a Russian prison in 2013, accused of being a pirate. He’s not a pirate — at least not in any traditional sense — but he is absolutely willing to provoke authorities. In fact, it’s his job. Spending time in holding cells is a feature, not a bug.

“I get paid to make trouble and go to jail,” he tells Inverse.

Willcox shares his stories of a life at sea in his new book, Greenpeace Captain: My Adventures in Protecting the Future of Our Planet, co-authored with Ronald B. Weiss. It’s a highlight reel of his time at the helm that includes a thorough, gimlet-eyed recollection of his time — voluntary and otherwise — in Russia and also that time when operatives of the French government blew up his most famous ship, the Rainbow Warrior, in New Zealand in 1985, killing one member of his crew.

These are not cautionary tales, Willcox is quick to add. Part of the point of his book is to convince others to carry the torch he’s kept lit on storm-tossed seas. Still, he’s not ready to embrace a life as a land-bound recruiter. At age 63, he’s preparing for a new campaign in the Mediterranean to begin next month. He says he’ll think about retirement when the world has switched over to renewable sources of energy.

Could be a while.

Peter Willcox is handcuffed in Russia.

Why did you want to write this book?

The idea behind the book was to inspire people to get off the couch. I think that we’re facing a huge task in learning how to reorganize ourselves so as not to do so much damage to the planet that supports us while we’re trying to go about our daily lives. I’m honestly very worried about what we’re doing with climate change and global warming, and I think it’s imperative that we do everything we can now, immediately, to start changing how we do things, because anything that we do now is going to be less that we have to do in three or four years. And I see some of the problems of climate change as so immediate and so pressing that I don’t think we have another moment to lose.

The Russian coast guard intercepts Greenpeace activists.

So, what happened in Russia?

We went to protest an oil rig. The Russians are slowly running out of oil in their Siberian fields. They see their future in Arctic Ocean drilling and mineral exploration, and Greenpeace feels that at a time when scientists tell us it’s imperative to leave the fossil fuels in the ground, that their desire of opening up the whole Arctic Ocean for more oil drilling is stupid in the extreme. Mind you, Russia spills every year five times the amount of oil — just in the normal way of doing business — than BP spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011. They have rotting infrastructure, they have breaking pipes, they have … it’s just one disaster after another with those guys, and they have absolutely no technology to clean up oil that’s spilled into the ice. That technology does not exist.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Russia. We had been arrested with other Greenpeace crews, not myself, had been arrested three or four times up in the Arctic Ocean doing nuclear protests, and the results are always the same: The boats get towed to Murmansk, you fill out papers for a few days, they rant and rave, and they throw you out. This time, as we approached the rig, they started shooting machine guns very, very close to us — two, three feet away. You could see on film splashes of the bullets hitting the water. Their soldiers started cutting our [rubber] boats up with knives. It was a level of aggression we’ve never experienced almost anywhere in the world, and took us completely by surprise. We did manage to get two climbers up on a side of the rig, but as soon as they went there, the Russian coast guard guys started pulling on their climbing lines, and pulling them way out from the rig, and slamming them back into the steel sides, which was either going to injure them or knock them into the water.

The Russians board the 'Arctic Sunrise.'

They came down and we got arrested, and we pulled back to our boats. By that time most of our boats were cut up badly by the Russian coast guard guys, and big knives, and we came back to the Arctic Sunrise and just caught our breath. Really, nothing much more happened until 36 hours later, when we were having dinner on board the ship. A helicopter came over and special forces guys abseiled down onto the deck and arrested everybody. They took over the ship, pushed all the crew into the lounge and mess, stole everybody’s booze, and got hammered, and the next morning started towing us to Murmansk, which was a four-day tow from there.

I figured we’d get to Murmansk and go through the usual rigmarole of signing papers, and maybe getting fined a little bit and then leave. Instead they said, well, we’re going to prosecute you for piracy, which is 10-15 years in jail. And in the Russian judicial system, 99.99 percent of everybody that’s put into detention awaiting trial gets found guilty at trial, which is pretty much just a rubber stamp. So we didn’t think that was going to happen, but all of a sudden there we are in jail for two months, and it was a rather scary time.

A Russian prison cell.

What’s the inside of a Russian prison like?

Not very nice. It’s small. You’re in a cell for 23 hours a day. One hour a day, you’re put into a slightly bigger cell, with no furniture in it, so you can walk around and get some exercise. Smoking is allowed. I usually had a Russian roommate that smoked a lot. And in Murmansk, at 10 o’clock at night the prison starts up with activity because everybody runs strings outside their cell windows, and starts passing notes, and tea, and coffee, and booze, whatever, cellphones between cells. And that’s sort of their right to do that, in that prison. That wasn’t allowed in St. Petersburg, but that’s how they operated in Murmansk. And it meant that at 10 o’clock at night, the whole prison starts screaming at each other, so sleep is next to impossible ‘til maybe three or four o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t very pleasant.

Do you consider yourself a pirate?

No, I’m not a pirate. I don’t meet the definitions. Now I’ve been arrested for piracy twice, and sued for it in New York court, but to be a pirate, you have to take control of the ship, and you have to seek something for your own gain, and that’s something that we’ve never done. Even when we were arrested for piracy in Peru — and in Peru, just going on a ship is considered piracy — the prosecutor said we were not after our own economic gain of any kind and that was a deciding factor in throwing the prosecution out.

In Russia, it turned out, the only reason a country can board another country’s ship on the high seas — and you have to remember that we were not in Russian waters, we were on the high seas inside the Russian economic exclusion zone, where they have every right to drill for oil, we just don’t happen to like it. But they don’t have the right to board our ship, and that’s what they did. The only excuse where they can do that is to say we were pirates. But even Putin came out the next day, that we were arrested and in detention, and said, well they’re not pirates but they’ve been very bad. So the whole case kind of fell apart. And even while we were in jail in Russia, the international law of the seas tribunal in Hamburg said what Russia has done is completely illegal, and that us and the ship should be released immediately. Well for the first time, the Russians took absolutely no notice of that, and didn’t release us for another month, six weeks, when they gave us amnesty. But they have been found wrong in international courts of law twice now for arresting us on the high seas, and at some point I guess they’ll have to pay a compensation for that.

Peter Willcox takes the helm.

Would you do it again?

If somebody had said going into that campaign, you might go to jail for a couple months but the campaign will receive a huge hit in publicity and understanding, I would say, well that’s fine, that’s part of our job description. Going to jail for 10-15 years is way outside of anything I remotely want to get involved in, so I wasn’t prepared for that at all. But in fact, the campaign did receive a huge hit of publicity. I think many, many more people around the world realized, and woke up to the fact that Russia wants to drill for oil in a place that is by nature absolutely unsuited to do so, at a time when we don’t need any more oil.

Is your job fun?

You bet. Yeah, it is. Doing something with a group of people to help society out is something that sociologists have now agreed makes you feel better about your place in the world. It’s awfully easy to look around at society today and say, I’m one of seven billion people, there’s nothing I can do, oh woe is me, I’m just going to hide in my room. You don’t have to be arrested, but going out and demonstrating, writing letters to congressmen, doing something to get involved makes people feel better, and that’s the point I was trying to get across in the book — that getting off of the couch will make you feel better about your place on the Earth, and it’s well worth the effort to do it. It will come back immediately.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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