Simon Rigal, temporary captain

© Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expéditions Fondation

11 August 2017

More accustomed to embarking on Abeille tugboats over the past 10 years, Simon is back on board, sailing Tara to Papua New Guinea. This is a temporary replacement since Martin Hertau (official captain of the Tara Pacific expedition along with Samuel Audrain) is currently in training at the national merchant marine school in Nantes. Simon’s first nautical miles as Tara’s captain date back to the end of August 2005. He was only 27 years old and had his dream come true piloting a vessel on an ornithological campaign in South Georgia.


Simon, you’ve returned 12 years after your first experience aboard Tara. Why?

When Romain Troublé, executive director of the Tara Expeditions Foundation, called me to propose this temporary job as Tara’s Captain, I was touched and very happy. We’ve been in contact since Georgia and the Tara team has invited me to most of their events. But this proposal meant coming back on board and participating in an expedition. So I asked and obtained from “Les Abeilles” management (whom I’d like to thank here) an unpaid leave, and here I am. Being back gives me the impression that I’ve come full circle. Like a pilgrimage, it makes me feel good. After South Georgia, I sailed Tara from Lorient until the schooner was locked in the ice for the Arctic drift expedition. Then I became a dad. Being back on board, I’m reliving some of those past sensations. Memories resurface and I’m reconnecting with the marine adventure I love so much. I’m also delighted to meet people: Daniel Cron, Nicolas de la Brosse, Charlène Gicquel, Samuel Audrain and Marion Lauters who disembarked in New Zealand. I see that everyone is progressing well, just like the project. Moreover, I’d never been to New Zealand and Australia.


4-retrouvailles - Charlene Gicquel - Fondation Tara Expeditions© Charlène Gicquel / Tara Expéditions Foundation


You just took over the helm from Samuel, who disembarked 4 days ago. You’ve known each other for a long time. He was a sailor when you first met, wasn’t he?

I met Samuel at the beginning of 2005, during the Clipperton expedition led by Jean-Louis Étienne aboard the Rara Avis, one of Father Jaouen’s ships. Before that, during my 5th year in the merchant navy, we sailed one day to Camaret with another of Father Jaouen’s vessels. Tara was there and the crew members in their yellow raincoats were having a drink. I was with Nicolas Quentin, Tara’s future chief engineer. We didn’t dare talk to them, even though the schooner made us fantasize. Some time after that, Sam embarked aboard Tara, as did Nico Quentin. They told me Tara Expeditions was looking for a skipper and I received a first phone call. I thought: “If I don’t do it now, I never will”. That’s how my story with Tara began.


6-photo 8_Simon Rigal, nouveau capitaine_Vincent Hilaire _ Fondation Tara Expeditions© Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expéditions Foundation


You really got a foot in the door: afterwards you spent more than a year aboard Tara, participating in 2 amazing missions.

I embarked in Camaret at the end of August 2005, a few months after Clipperton. Tara was being prepared for a campaign in the Southern Ocean: Georgia, Patagonia, Diego Ramirez, etc. I was a 27-year-old captain and I found myself at the helm of this awesome ship. One day while we were sailing to the island of Groix, long before leaving for Cape Verde and Georgia, I realized that when you strongly believe in something, you can sometimes make it happen. With Tara, I had access to everything I love: a mix of adventure, different cultures, science and art. The campaign in Georgia was exciting. We were doing counts of giant petrels, albatross and fur seals with the British Antarctic Survey. There was also a glaciologist aboard who installed sensors to monitor advancing glaciers in the Antarctic Ocean. We then conducted a second campaign with Sally Poncet, an Australian biologist specialized in the Antarctic, and Ellen MacArthur.


While you were down south, another campaign was already in preparation on the opposite side of the world: the Arctic drift.

With Tara, you never get bored (laughs)! After these 2 campaigns in the Southern Ocean, we first had to sail back to France after a last stop in the Diego Ramirez Islands and rounding Cape Horn. Tara Arctic was already in preparation with a period of dry dock maintenance lasting several months during the spring of 2006. I had been navigating for 2 years in a row in the Pacific (Clipperton), the Antarctic and Georgia, and soon it would be the Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans! Tara Arctic was a really outstanding project. Romain asked me to sail the schooner until she was locked in ice. I didn’t want to stay afterwards because I was feeling tired after 2 years of circumnavigation. I had planned on coming back aboard Tara for the second winter of the expedition and sailing her back home to Lorient. But, shortly afterwards, I became a dad and started my career at Les Abeilles.


Tara en Arctique au début du mois de septembre 2006© F. Latreille / Tara Expéditions Foundation


Ten years have gone by, and you’re joining Tara today. How does the schooner look to you?

Technically, there are 2 new engines and 2 new propellers, currently in their breaking-in period. The exhaust system has also been successfully improved during Tara’s recent dry dock in New Zealand. The sails are in good condition. Tara is aging well, thanks to all the sailors’ hard work. On a scientific level too, everything has also evolved in the right direction. Tara remains Tara, with this futuristic look from the 1990s (smile). She still slams hard into the waves (laughs)!  This ship was born from a crazy idea but she’s following her course. The schooner herself is a whole project. I take my hat off to all those who have given so much for the adventure to keep growing. In return, Tara makes you grow up too. Sam, who was a sailor 10 years ago and is now her captain, is the best example of this.


The former chief engineer of the Abeille Languedoc will enjoy the voyage to Papua New Guinea.


Interview by Vincent Hilaire

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