Peter Willcox

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Peter Henry Willcox
Born March 6, 1953 (1953-03-06) (age 64)
Nationality American
Occupation Activist

Peter Willcox is best known as a captain for Greenpeace, mostly on the Rainbow Warrior I.[1] He was on board when the boat was blown up by French military members in New Zealand in 1985. He was also on the MV Arctic Sunrise when that boat was arrested by the Russian military in 2013, and he spent two months in detention in Russia as a member of the Arctic 30. In 2014 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Guardian for his environmental activism.

Early years[edit]

Willcox was born to Eleanor Sharpe of Woodstock, Vermont. Sharp, a member of the US Ski team at the time was single and quickly gave the baby up for adoption at the urging of her family. Willcox was adopted by Roger and Elsie Willcox of South Norwalk, Connecticut. He was raised in what may have been the first intentionally integrated community in New England, called Village Creek.

Willcox’s parents were both politically active. His father Roger, a community organizer specializing in co-ops, is also a passionate sailor. His mother Elsie, who died in 1973, was a middle school science teacher in Norwalk and founded an environmental club in the late 1960s.

Both his mother and grandparents, Henry and Anita Willcox, were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. For leading a peace delegation to China in 1952, Henry Willcox lost his building company, at the time the biggest public housing contractor in New York City. Anita Willcox, a successful artist, was unable to even give her paintings away. Fearing a subpoena would ruin her chances for adopting a second child, Elsie Willcox took Peter and his brother Michael underground for three months in 1956. After the adoption papers were finalized, they returned to Norwalk, where she did receive a subpoena to testify.

Willcox was taken to many civil rights demonstrations as a child. These culminated in 1965, when Willcox and his father attended the last day of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march. It proved to be an event that galvanized his activism. To this day he is a passionate believer that non-violent demonstrations or actions can be useful tools for social change.

Willcox attended North Country School, and later The Putney School in Vermont.


During his senior year at The Putney School, Willcox received the number one position in the draft lottery. He applied for and received Conscientious objector status. Thanks to the work of Bill Seibert, the previous first mate, Clearwater had been approved by a Federal Judge to be acceptable work for C.O.s. Although President Nixon declared the war won in February 1973, and the draft over, Willcox joined Clearwater anyway. He spent the 1973 season as 2nd and 1st mate, and came back in 1976 as captain. While at Clearwater, Willcox was delighted to come under the influence of both Pete and Toshi Seeger, whom he had known most of his life. Their inspiration was critical to making a lifetime of activism seem possible.


After spending a year doing humpback whale research on an old square rigger, Willcox saw an ad for mates and engineers on the newly arrived Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior. Given a spot as a possible deckhand, he was made First Mate the first day. Four months later, when the British captain had to go home to his family, he became the skipper.

On July 10, 1985, the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French agents. The event, which cost one of those on board his life, caused an international scandal.

On September 19, 2013, he was arrested off of Russian waters for participating in a Green Peace campaign.[2]

Notable Greenpeace campaigns[edit]

Offshore Oil drilling on Georges Bank

Stopping National Lead Industries from dumping a million gallons of sulfuric acid off the New Jersey beaches every day.

Seal killing in Canada

Dolphin killing as part of the tuna industry in the Pacific

Whaling campaign in Peru


Seismic surveying off the coast of California.

Driftnet fishing in North Pacific

Whaling by Russia in Bering Sea


Relocating the village of Rongalap in the Marshall Islands who were victims of the U.S. Atomic Testing program

Rainbow Warrior was blown up in Auckland by French military personnel, killing shipmate Fernando Pereira.

Sailed on Vega IV to Moruroa.


Action with Danish Fisherman against Waste Management Services ship Vulcanos.


Action on USN destroyer bring nuclear weapons into Denmark.


First trip on board the second Rainbow Warrior

Tazman Sea action against drift netters

Scientific Testing at Moruroa


Exposed Russian dumping of nuclear waste in Sea of Japan


Sneak into Turkish power plant burning coal with banner.


Return toxic waste to U.S. embassy in Manila.


Soldertalje, Sweden action over burning toxic waste to generate electricity.

2003 (?)

Guns for Logs in Italy, France, Spain and Netherlands.


Research trip to Bering Sea with two one man submarines


Research trip to Greenland to document global warming.

Captains the Arctic Sunrise in an action against Russia’s oil drilling platform in international waters in the Arctic. He and the crew are arrested and held in prison for two months before being granted amnesty. Demonstrations were held all over the world urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to release the Arctic 30.

2016 Peter captains the Rainbow Warrior near Fukushima, Japan to monitor radiation levels being released into the environment by the damaged nuclear reactors.

Family life[edit]

Willcox was married in 1991, just in time for the birth of his first daughter, Anita. His second daughter, Natasha, was born in 1995. He was separated in 2002 and moved from Spain where he had been living back to Norwalk, Connecticut. His daughters joined him in 2004. In 2013, he married Maggy Aston, whom he had met on the Clearwater in the late 1970s, on Islesboro island in Maine, where he now lives. He has a step-son named Skylar Purdy. He has nine brothers and sisters, either adopted, biological or step.


Willcox grew up sailing. His father Roger was a multiple class national champion, who took his son big boat racing in the early 1960s. Roger continues to be a fair weather frostbite dingy sailor at age 94. Willcox raced for the America’s Cup syndicate Freedom – Enterprise in 1979. He has done ten Berumda Races, did eight S.O.R.C.s (Southern Ocean Racing Circuits) in the 1970s and is still active today. He currently races on a boat called Christopher Dragon out of New York.

He estimates he has sailed over 400,000 miles in his professional and recreational career.


Willcox's memoir Greenpeace Captain: My Adventures in Protecting the Future of Our Planet[3] was released on April 18, 2016 in the United States and Canada by St. Martin's Press. In Australia and New Zealand, the book was released by Random House Publishing.


  1. ^ Eells, Josh (June 11, 2014). "Observer Ethical Awards 2014 winners: Peter Willcox". The Guardian. Retrieved May 10, 2016. 
  2. ^ Gerken, James (September 30, 2013). "Meet Peter Willcox, The Greenpeace Captain Currently Under Arrest In Russia". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  3. ^ Urquhart, Thomas (May 1, 2016). "Book review: 'Greenpeace Captain' tales inspire awe, action". Portland Press Herald. Retrieved May 10, 2016. 

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