Peter Willcox has led an exciting life, and he tells about it with gusto in “Greenpeace Captain,” his autobiography “as told to” a sailing buddy, Ronald Weiss. The author is captain of one of the vessels with which Greenpeace often makes the headlines.

At this point, after 30 years, he is their most experienced captain, and he is clearly very good at his job. In one sortie described in the book, he puts his ship through a hair-raising pas-de-deux with a Soviet tanker.

Greenpeace itself hardly needs introduction. Willcox has mostly been involved with the organization’s efforts to “bear witness” to environmental degradation and, as its website puts it, to use “high-profile, non-violent conflict to raise the level and quality of public debate.”

When not at sea doing the Lord’s work, Willcox lives with his wife on Islesboro.

“Greenpeace Captain” starts with a bang: on board the Rainbow Warrior, the environmental group’s flagship, in a New Zealand harbor when it was mined by French intelligence agents in 1985. One of his comrades died in the attack.859010_617617 Greenpeace Captain c.jpg

The book ends with the story of the “Arctic 30,” Greenpeace campaigners arrested by Russian Special Forces in 2013 for protesting oil drilling in the Arctic Circle. He gives an account of the two months the team spent in a Russian prison in Murmansk with a possible 15-year sentence hanging over their heads. In the end, the protesters were released as part of an amnesty before the Sochi Olympic Games, along with the female punk band Pussy Riot.

In his 30 years with the organization, Willcox has been involved with some of Greenpeace’s most celebrated and most controversial actions around the world. That includes protesting whale-killing off the coast of Peru and in the Bering Sea (think of that dramatic image of an inflatable boat in front of a harpoon gun), nuclear testing in French Polynesia (the reason for the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior), nuclear waste dumping in the Sea of Japan, and trade in “conflict” timber between Africa and the Mediterranean.

As a child, Willcox’s favorite reading was the Hornblower books by C.S. Forrester, and like a good naval hero of that era, he has also led raids on land, in one instance breaking into a coal-fired power plant in Turkey, on another delivering (by fork-lift) toxic waste to the American Embassy in Manila.

In all these adventures, Willcox and the Greenpeace crew variously maneuvered their boats into harm’s way, swam, climbed, dangled, locked themselves to anchor chains and generally played for time and publicity. What they never did is cause damage or deliberately risk violence with the authorities or with whoever they were protesting against. That is Greenpeace’s cardinal rule.

The use of publicity is key, and Greenpeace’s international network is astonishingly good at getting it exactly where and when it’s needed – and succeeding in its cause. Willcox lists a number of occasions when his actions could be credited with bringing environmental abuse to a halt.

He and the crews he leads – Willcox is far from done with the sea or Greenpeace – are truly brave people and deserve our admiration. Most of the book is a real page-turner with the reader rooting for the guys in white hats.859010_617617 Peter Willcox (c) Gr.jpg

Yet, from time to time, an oddly obtuse tone seeps in. His Russian cellmate in the Murmansk prison “enjoyed being in the cell with me,” relates Willcox, “because he knew we weren’t going to get picked on for keeping the TV on too late at night. I was probably the best thing that was going to happen to him for the rest of his life.” The Russian was going to get 25 years in Siberia for selling pot.

On another occasion, while facing jail time in Peru for boarding a whaler, surprisingly, Willcox didn’t know it might be construed as piracy – he admits he hoped the action would get him “noticed” at Greenpeace headquarters: “For me getting noticed wasn’t about climbing the corporate ladder so much as it was about getting the cool assignments.”

But these are small reservations. I came away from this book feeling inspired by the energy, courage and determination of men and women like Peter Willcox.

Even as he relaxes in front of a roaring fire at home for the first time since being freed in Russia, he’s looking ahead. “There’s a long-standing maritime tradition to come to the aid of anyone at sea who is in peril. So when the ocean itself is in trouble, I can’t refuse the call.”

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”