LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Capt. Peter Willcox was all smiles as he and his wife, Maggy Willcox, publisher of the Islesboro Island News, were waiting to board the ferry to return to the island after his absence of more than three months.
Willcox was captain of the Arctic Sunrise, the 170-foot Greenpeace vessel that was seized by Russian special forces on Sept. 19 in the Arctic Sea about 600 miles from the northern Russian port city of Murmansk.
He left St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday and arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport on Friday night. He took a Cape Air Flight to Maine Saturday and then drove to the ferry terminal in Lincolnville. He had been held in a prison in Murmansk for six weeks and then the remainder of the time in St. Petersburg, initially facing the serious charge of piracy that carried a potential sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison.
Willcox said the months he was held in Russia was worth the effort to prevent the destruction of the planet.
Willcox has lived on Islesboro since February, having moved there from Norwalk, Conn., where he was a single dad, raising two daughters for the past eight years.
He joined Greenpeace in 1981 after reading author Robert Hunter’s book about the organization, “Warriors of the Rainbow.”
“I was intrigued by the nonviolent, direct action that they take,” he said.
The mission to the Arctic was driven by the realization that the oil industry is out of control, the captain said.
“We are drilling more oil, four to five times more, than we should. Looking for it in the Arctic is even crazier. The potential for a BP-type disaster like in the Gulf of Mexico is huge,” Willcox said.
He said the planet cannot take burning more oil, adding that another 2 degree rise in the Earth’s temperature will cause the tundra to melt and the associated release of methane will put the world in real trouble.
The 170-foot icebreaker left Sept. 3 with its crew of 30. On Sept. 18, the crew attempted to place a banner, urging a stop to oil drilling, on a Russian oil rig. The following day, the Russian special forces boarded the Arctic Sunrise and arrested the crew. The ship was towed by the Russian Coast Guard for the 600 mile voyage to Murmansk.
At first there was little concern, he said.
“We weren’t all that surprised. We had talked about the possibility of being arrested. What we expected was a 20,000 ruble or $700 fine,” Willcox said, adding that this has been the penalty other times.
The crew had done the same type of action last year and there had been no consequences. Willcox said he does not know why such a hard line was taken this time but speculated.
“We pushed them pretty hard out there. They don’t have much of a sense of humor. They fired across our bow about a dozen times to get us to stop and be boarded,” he said.
What did surprise him and his crew was when they were charged with piracy upon their arrival in Murmansk. He said the first rule of Greenpeace is that there be no violence and the second rule is to cause no damage.
“There was no way that what we did should have been considered piracy,” he said.
He said maybe the reason they charged them with piracy is because that would be the only charge to justify seizing a ship on the open seas.
At Murmansk, he spent 23 hours each day in a cell with one other person — a 40-year-old Russian charged with dealing drugs. He was isolated from his crew. The two men got along very well although Willcox said he speaks poor Russian and his Russian cellmate spoke poor English.
The two frequently played chess to pass the time with the captain acknowledging that his cellmate was a better player who won all their matches. His cellmate would also cook vegetable soups and share the meals with him.
Willcox said he spent considerable time reading Harry Potter books.
He spent the first six weeks at the Murmansk prison and then another two weeks at a prison in St. Petersburg. Bail was then set and he was released on bail but had to remain in St. Petersburg pending a trial which never came.
The charges were lowered Nov. 10 from piracy, which carried a 10 to 15-year prison sentence, to hooliganism which carries a sentence ranging from no time in prison to a maximum of seven years. In Russia, however, sentences of less than eight years can be suspended.
“Once they lowered the charge to hooliganism we were feeling pretty good,” he said.
About two weeks ago, the environmental activists were freed after the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma gave them amnesty.
Willcox said the time he served in prison was worth it. He said he will resume future Greenpeace protests after some time on Islesboro.
“I will not back down. I will not turn the planet over to the oil companies. I have two children, 22 and 18-years-old and I’m concerned about their future,” he said.
The world must change to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar. The use of fossil fuels is heating the planet and acidifying the oceans, he said.