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A life of adventure and activism revealed: Our review of Peter Willcox’s Greenpeace Captain

When Peter Willcox was just six years old, his parents took him aboard a sailboat to sail around the Connecticut harbor near the family home to protest the construction of a nuclear power plant. At 12 years old, his father took him to Montgomery, Alabama, to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak out for racial equality. At 18, he joined the crew of Pete Seeger’s Clearwater sloop, which was sailing the Hudson River to bring attention to bring attention to the extreme pollution of the waterway, as a way to skirt combat duty in the Vietnam War.

From then he went on to sail more than 400,000 miles with Greenpeace, crisscrossing the world in the name of environmental, animal and human rights protection. The rest is history, revealed by the man who lived it all himself, Peter Willcox, in Greenpeace Captain: My Adventures in Protecting the Future of Our Planet.

Conversational in tone, colorful in detail and compelling in nature, Willcox’s story is an adventure story and history book wrapped up all in one. It’s a hard book to put down once you pick it up.

Willcox’s penchant for storytelling is beautifully demonstrated from the start of his memoir. Chapter 1 of his book, “It’s Over,” opens:

JULY 10, 1985
MARSDEN WHARF
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
PREPARING FOR AN ANTINUCLEAR ACTION IN FRENCH POLYNESIA 
Whump!

A large shiver went through the entire ship and woke me from a dead sleep. I didn’t so much hear it as feel it. Disoriented and in the dark, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. As the captain of the Rainbow Warrior I knew that whatever that whump was, it wasn’t good. My sleepy mind slowly began to run through the possibilities. The adrenaline hadn’t hit me yet.

Had we collided with another ship? Possibly. Were we at fault? I looked out the porthole in my captain’s cabin. We were tied up at the dock—Marsden Wharf, in New Zealand—so if there had been a collision, at least we weren’t responsible. Well, that’s a relief, I thought, glad to know that whatever had just happened wasn’t my fault. Even though I was only partly alert, at least my career survival instinct was intact.

What had caused that sound? It definitely wasn’t part of the routine noise of the ship. In fact, none of the normal sounds of the ship could be heard. The generator, which supplies electricity to the ship, was strangely silent. The comforting, ever-present hum wasn’t there: another sign that something was seriously wrong. The generator is a lot like your pulse or breathing—a ship’s basic sign of life. The Rainbow Warrior’s heartbeat had stopped. Still, we were at the dock, so how bad could it be?

Strange … I reached up in the dark for my glasses, which for the past four years had always been stowed on a small bookshelf just above my pillow. They were gone. That’s really weird. They’d remained in that exact location through storm-tossed seas and all kinds of actions (“actions” are Greenpeace’s term for engagements with the “enemy”), yet they had been dislodged by the whump. Another sign of something wrong, but what?

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Publisher St. Martin’s Press is giving away three free copies of Greenpeace Captain to one of our followers. Just “like” the Safina Center Facebook page, then “like” and comment on our Facebook post there where we’ve linked to this review. We’ll choose three lucky winners on Friday, June 10. You can also ensure you get a copy by purchasing Peter Willcox’s Greenpeace Captain from Macmillan-St. Martin’s Press or on Amazon.com.

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