Captain Peter Willcox is the very definition of a mensch. The first thing he taught me was courage. I met him in Vancouver, Canada, in the spring of 2007, when he was skippering the Esperanza for the Greenpeace USA Bering Witness tour. He sailed the boat into Burrard Inlet to train the crew for deep sea dives in a small submarine, after which they'd be heading up to Alaska to go down into the deepest canyons of the Bering Sea in order to document what bottom trawling was doing to marine life.
The Bering Witness team in 2007. Peter Willcox is on the far right.
My mother and brother and I invited Peter and the crew for dinner, and he was standing in our living room - where many of the first Greenpeace meetings were held - drinking a Granville Island lager when I asked him where the voyage was going to end up. "Well, Barbara," he drawled in that distinctive eastern seaboard accent, "as long as we're sailing through the Aleutians, we thought we'd stop at Amchitka."
"Amchitka?" I cried. "I want to go!"
I had history with Amchitka, and Greenpeace. When I was 14, my father had urged me to get on the first Greenpeace boat when it sailed up to the Aleutians, and while I'd scoffed that it was a ridiculous idea for a teenage girl to get on a fishing boat with 11 men and sail into a nuclear testing zone to try to stop an atomic blast, secretly I felt like a terrible coward for not even trying. And part of me desparately wanted to go, to put my life on the line for a cause far bigger than myself. Apparently, that part had suddenly sprung to life, 35+ years later.
But I was still scared of sailing, not just to a former nuclear test site in some of the most dangerous waters in the world, but because I'd rarely been on a boat before, and ever since chemotherapy had been prone to nausea. Peter, however, was not about to let me weasel out of it. The next day, as I trembled nervously in his cabin, trying to convince him that I couldn't possibly abandon my 87-year-old mother, he saw right through my bs. "What's going to happen to your mother in three weeks?" he growled.
The next thing I knew, Greenpeace USA had cleared me for takeoff, and Peter emailed what I thought was a joke: "Would you pick me up some embroidery thread?" I laughed. "What a sense of humour Peter Willcox has!" I said to my husband, and was chastened when he replied that it was a long-standing tradition for grizzled old tars like Peter to sew at sea. By example, Peter had shown me the pitfalls of stereotyping.
When I joined the Esperanza in Dutch Harbour, I learned something else about Peter as he showed me around the bridge. "Anytime of the day or night you can come up here," he said. In fact, ANY crew were welcome there, anytime. On what other boat with 26 crew did this happen? Then I heard him ask Kelly... a marine biologist studying whales, and not a member of Greenpeace...how we could best help her. "You tell me where to steer, Kelly. Tell us where to stand to watch for whales." Maybe that's why, later that morning, the boat was surrounded by whales for over an hour, and even the cook, Raymond, ran up on deck to watch, and lunch was considerably delayed, and not one of us could give a damn.
I remember happening upon Peter and some campaigners and crew telling sheep jokes in a bar in Dutch Harbour, and when a sailor made a crude gesture to illustrate his punchline, Peter protectively put a hand over my eyes. Instead of being offended (I was a middle-aged woman after all who could tell a few sheep jokes of my own), I understood that Peter had associated me with his teenage daughters, because of my history with Greenpeace when I was their age. I saw Neptune's trident tattoed on his arm, and an anchor...if I remember rightly... on his knuckles. All of which doesn't even begin to address what I admire about Peter, some of which Bunny has so eloquently described, such as how he sailed the Rainbow Warrior to evacuate the people of Rongelap Island, at their request, after it was irradiated by a nuclear test... or how he gave the abandon ship order, saving almost the entire crew before the second blast took the boat down the night the French navy bombed the Warrior to the bottom of the Auckland harbour. Please help get Peter and the rest of the Arctic 30 released by taking a few seconds to add your voice to the million plus who've already weighed in.
Barbara Stowe is the daughter of Irving and Dorothy Stowe, founding members of Greenpeace.