Peter Willcox grew up on the water in South Norwalk and he learned how to sail small boats along the craggy Connecticut shoreline.

As his sailing skills improved, so did his interest in environmental activism. Since 1981, he’s been piloting boats for Greenpeace, leading hundreds of missions for the international environmental activist organization to raise awareness about pollution and protect “fragile ocean environments from drilling and threats of oil spills.”

Now Willcox is at the center of an international dispute that erupted several weeks ago when he and 22 Greenpeace activists were jailed by Russian authorities for trying to board an oil rig in the Arctic Sea. The much-publicized arrests could soon put the plight of Willcox and his colleagues before at least two courts.

First, there is the criminal case being pursued by Russian authorities, who accuse Willcox and the other crew members of piracy. Russian prosecutors are still collecting evidence, and the U.S. State Department has met with the crew members and lawyers who are representing them in Russia to discuss defense strategies.

Then there is the human rights case. Greenpeace, through a Netherlands-based attorney, has asked an international maritime tribunal to order the Greenpeace activists released. The Russian government has refused to acknowledge the authority of that tribunal.

Willcox has no Connecticut-based lawyer working for him. But he does have quite a reputation.

“He’s cool, calm and collected,” said Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, who has sailed with Willcox in the past. “The people of the United States should be proud of their fellow citizen.”

“There’s a fair bit of info out there about Peter,” said Keiller MacDuff, a New York-based Greenpeace spokeswoman. “He’s been in the game so long.”

Long enough to have boarded icy oil platforms in the middle of the night, to have survived at least one bombing and to have been arrested on the high seas, all in the name of environmentalism. After the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Willcox led many missions to protest oil drilling in U.S. waters.

In 1985, he was the captain of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, when it was bombed by French spies in Auckland, New Zealand, killing one crew member, while protesting French nuclear testing.

“I never thought about quitting,” Willcox said after the attack. “I believed if we were having this effect on people, we must be doing something right. We got hold of a boat and sailed to French Polynesia, entering the 12-mile exclusion zone around the test site. We were arrested and banned for life from the islands. I took a break for a year, then returned to captaining Greenpeace boats.”

By far, the 1985 bombing had been the stiffest opposition that Greenpeace had encountered, until now, said Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA. The latest drama unfolded on Sept. 18 off the Russian coast in the Arctic Sea.

The mission of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise was a repeat of something it had done a year ago. Crew members were to approach the Prirazlomnaya Rig, which is owned by the Russian government, and board it. The crew was then going to hang an antidrilling banner from its side, and perhaps set up a tent on its platform for a day or so.

When the crew members tried to board the rig, they were met with armed guards who fired warning shots into the water. Two of the Greenpeace members were arrested immediately. The Russian coast guard ordered Willcox to sail his ship away from the platform.

MacDuff, the Greenpeace spokeswoman, said even when Russian agents dropped onto his ship from helicopters hovering above, Willcox “refused to sail the ship under illegal command.”

The ship was towed from the rig and the crew was taken to the northern Russia port city of Murmansk, where Russian authorities have detained the crew members ever since. They are charged with attempting to commit piracy.

Greenpeace lawyers say the arrests and subsequent imprisonment are a violation of international law.

“Our ship was seized in international waters, and that was a mistake,” Daniel Simons, a lawyer for Greenpeace International, said at a news conference broadcast from Murmansk via Skype.

Simons said the only legal grounds the Russian coast guard had for seizing a ship in those waters would have been for illegal fishing, “causing serious pollution or piracy.” The charge of piracy, he explained, requires two ships.

Back in Connecticut, Willcox’s family has called for his release.

“When I agreed to a long-distance relationship, a gulag in Russia was not what I bargained for,” his wife, Maggy, told the Associated Press.

In spite of the dangers missions like the one that led to his arrest bring, Willcox has always returned home to his family, which includes two daughters, in the house where he grew up in the Village Creek section of Norwalk. It’s a place where he came by his activism early: his father was friends with the legendary political folk singer Pete Seeger.

On Oct. 26, his family hosted a candlelight vigil to demonstrate support for Willcox and the other crew members.

“We are working to increase national attention to Peter’s illegal imprisonment in Russia,” Barbara Smyth, Willcox’s sister-in-law, said in a statement. “Although international news and support of the crew has been extensive, we feel that the U.S. could be doing much more to heighten awareness among our citizens, and to demand the release of Peter and his crew.”

It remains to be seen how long it will take to sort out the charges against Willcox and the crew. First, there is a Russian criminal case pending against the crew. Second, there is an international human rights tribunal that is considering a call for the crew’s release. Last week, a spokesman for Russia’s main investigative body called the Greenpeace activity around the rig “clearly suspicious.”

U.S. officials in Moscow have met with Willcox but they have not yet offered any legal assistance.

“We are following the cases with great concern,” the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in a statement. “We are in close touch with Russian authorities to ensure the well-being of these individuals, and their continued access to legal counsel while in detention.”

Connecticut lawyers who focus on international law were also monitoring the situation.

Mark Janis, a professor of international law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said the detention of Willcox and the others has prompted a human rights action before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The action was filed by the Netherlands on behalf of the Greenpeace crew.

The tribunal in Denmark was created by the United Nations in the 1980s, and considers human rights violations that occur in international waters. The United States is not part of the convention, so it will not be part of the effort by Greenpeace to have the crew members released.

Russian authorities say the tribunal has no jurisdiction over Russia’s actions, and they plan to pursue the criminal case against crew members in Russian court.

“The Russians have sent a reply to the international tribunal that they aren’t recognizing its actions,” Janis said. “My guess is, the international tribunal will have to determine whether or not they have jurisdiction.”

The tribunal, if it does take action, could recommend that the crew be released. While it has no power to force the Russians to comply, Janis said “it doesn’t do a country any good not to honor these decisions,” from a public relations standpoint.

That was the case in 1979, when Iran seized a group of U.S. diplomats. President Jimmy Carter led an effort in international court to find Iran guilty of violating international law, which it did.

“But Iran did not release the hostages,” Janis said. “Iran didn’t release the hostages until Carter left office. The point is, even if you get a judgment in international court, it doesn’t mean you’ll get compliance with a ruling.”

Ross Garber, an attorney with Shipman & Goodwin who represents clients in white-collar defense cases, including matters of international law, said the United States does not participate in “the treaties that matter in this area.”

As a result, he said, it is not expected that U.S. lawyers would get involved in the international tribunal case. In the criminal case pending in Russia, however, the U.S. State Department could step in to provide legal representation.

That has not yet occurred, the Greenpeace spokeswoman said.

Willcox’s family in Connecticut, including his father and step-mother in Norwalk, recently got a chance to speak with him over the phone.

Willcox told his family that he was trying to exercise in his jail cell. A vegetarian, he indicated that his captors were serving him meat, and that he was using a “strainer” to remove the meat from what was served to him.

“He’s lost weight, which he’s pleased about,” his wife said.

She said they were hoping the international tribunal would order Willcox’s release, and that the Russian government would honor that ruling.

“That’s what we’re pinning our hopes on at this point,” Maggie Willcox said.

At their home on Long Island Sound, a lantern burns as a maritime tradition for sailors who have not yet returned from sea.•