21 August 2017
Some notes of accordion escape from her cabin aboard Tara. Charlène Gicquel is savoring this moment deeply. At 33, she is a captain in the merchant marine and has been eagerly awaiting her first voyage aboard the schooner — for over 13 years!
This your first contract aboard Tara, as chief engineer. You’ll be working alongside Daniel Cron until Sydney, and afterwards you’ll take the big jump (smiles). What’s your state of mind right now?
I feel a little bit of anxiety since I don’t yet know the boat in operation, although I participated in the renovation work at Whangarei Shipyards. I’m pleased to embark with Simon Rigal as captain since he is also a chief engineer,, with Les Abeilles. I’ll be able to communicate with him at the beginning in case of breakdowns, and to avoid making mistakes.
I originally thought of being on deck, but finally signed up for the long term, working on Tara’s machines. It takes so much energy and investment at the outset that I’d regret not being able to persevere in this position. The challenge has now begun, and I want to finish this first contract for the best.
To come here, after all these years of waiting and hope, I had to resign from my position as second captain on the sailboat Le Ponant. You understand how Tara caught my eye one day in Marseille (laughs)! Since then, it had become an obsession to find my place on board.
Chief mechanic Charlène Gicquel on night watch aboard Tara. © Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Nothing particularly predestined you to the maritime trades. There was no family atavism. You’ve been patiently working towards your position today since your first sailing courses in the merchant marine, including some alternative experiences?
Yes, it’s been a long journey. Like many teenagers, at age 12 I took my first sailing course in Cancale (Brittany). My father grew up in Vannes, but his family didn’t sail.
And then in the summer when I was 15, I discovered the catamaran which I loved. At the end of the course the instructor said to me: “If you’d like, next year you can work with me as assistant instructor.”
All this logically progressed to my becoming a sailing instructor at 18. I participated in my first cruises, and gradually the idea sprouted that “making a living with a job related to the sea could be great.” At that point, I was thinking mainly of shipbuilding or oceanography. When a friend told me about the merchant marine, I really flashed on the idea. Without too many illusions I took the entry exam during my last year of high school, and I got in! I left for Marseille in 2003 to attend “Hydro” (ENSM: Ecole Nationale Supérieure Maritime). A year later, Tara stopped in the Old Port of Marseille. That was the first time I saw her, and the first time I applied for a job aboard, hoping that one day I would join the crew.
© Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expeditions Foundation
During your years in the merchant marine, you discovered container ships and tankers, but you continued to apply for a position aboard Tara, especially for the Arctic drift.
Yes, Tara had clearly become a fixation for me. I was training aboard commercial ships, but I was looking for something else. One day Simon Rigal, whom I already knew, told me about Father Jaouen’s boats, the Bel Espoir and the Rara Avis. These embarkations changed my life and I said to myself: “That’s how I want to work”. These new voyages opened up amazing horizons for me.
The crew on board these boats had very varied backgrounds, but we all started from scratch regardless of our previous route. This allowed everyone to share knowledge and progress. It was very stimulating.
After that wonderful year 2006-2007, I started getting proposals to sail in the polar region, Norway and Spitsbergen. I applied and then flew off to spend the winter of 2009 on the Dumont d’Urville base in Antarctica as second engineer (civilian volunteer).
So you were being unfaithful to Tara!
Yes, and I continued after I returned from Antarctica, because I departed a little later (in 2010-2011) on the Belem for 2 full seasons, while finishing my fifth year in the merchant marine. In 2012, I applied for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition, but there still was no room for me. By now I understood that with my diplomas and my experience, it would eventually become possible.
I then embarked on the Ponant for the first time before doing a whole year on the Hermione.
And then a few months ago in the spring of 2017, Simon (him again!) called me during my holidays when I was back on the Ponant to say that Tara Expeditions was looking for a mechanic. So here I am, 13 years later!
Interview by Vincent Hilaire
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