REMEMBERING THE ARCTIC DRIFT

© François Bernard / Tara Expeditions Foundation

On February 15, Tara left Vietnam ready to celebrate Tet, the New Year. But once at sea, the crew had a more personal event to celebrate: the 10th anniversary commemorating the end of Tara’s 507-day Arctic drift. It was an opportunity to recall this historic expedition with a couple of people who had participated in it: Samuel Audrain, now captain of Tara, and Marion Lauters, sailor/cook.

When Tara arrived in Vietnam the crew was warned: Within a few days, the entire country would stop working. Offices and shops closed, and the port city of Nha Trang slowed down like the rest of Vietnam, preparing for Tet – the Vietnamese New Year according to the lunisolar calendar (this year under the sign of the dog). After Tara’s week-long stopover in Nha Trang, just before the festivities began, the schooner departed for China.

No New Year’s celebration at sea, but the 10th anniversary of the Arctic drift, the expedition (Sept. 2006 – Jan. 2008) during which Tara was intentionally locked in the pack ice, and Samuel Audrain and Marion Lauters were part of the crew. Currently Tara’s captain, Samuel was 27 years old at the time, and Marion, our sailor/cook, was 23. Both had left Lorient on July 11, 2006 to ferry the schooner to Tiksi, Siberia, the last stop before the drift. Later they joined Tara again, in April 2007, once the schooner was locked in the ice. A total of 11 months aboard Tara.

 

Marion_en_cuisine_credit_Noelie_Pansiot-2160520 Marion Lauters preparing dinner for the Tara Pacific crew © Noëlie Pansiot / Tara Expeditions Foundation

 

How did you get involved in the Arctic drift project?

MARION : After the convoy (my first voyage aboard Tara) I was offered the job of cook, and at the same time, a chance to work on my Master’s degree. I was still a student in Environment /Ecology. For my research I had to do a carbon assessment of the mission. So I joined Tara in April 2007. I was on the first plane that landed on the ice pack after Tara’s first winter there. Etienne Bourgois was supposed to arrive by that flight, but the crew demanded to have a cook first. Until then they didn’t have one!

SAMUEL : During the drift, the boat was no longer sailing. I had already worked for Tara as a sailor, but to be able to participate in the drift, I went back to school and got a diploma in mechanics. Since Tara wasn’t sailing, being a mechanic would be very useful. For me it was THE mission and still is today. The boat was especially designed for this kind of polar expedition.

M : I didn’t fully realize what going to the Arctic meant. It really hit me when the plane landed, when I saw the ice, ice and more ice. Finally I saw the boat in the middle of the ice.

 

What was the most difficult, on a day-to-day basis?

M : The human aspect. We were 10 people living in a closed space with our different personalities, all far away from our families. It’s the kind of experience that makes you grow up.

S : These days it’s rare to find yourself in a configuration where you stay a long time with the same people, completely isolated. It was an amazing human experience.

M : To have drinking water, we had to break ice and melt it. That was a task in itself. The showers were on board, but the toilet was on the ice floe, 30 meters from the boat. You had to go with the dog and the rifle, because of the bears.

 

Apart from bears, did you meet anybody ?

M : Yes, we met Russians, twice. The first time was an icebreaker. We were in the main cabin eating a lemon tart, and we said “That’s a funny noise, it sounds like a helicopter”. We left the boat, and less than a mile away we discovered an icebreaker with a helicopter near it.

S : They were right in our backyard and we thought we were alone in the world!

M : They had tried calling us on the VHF, but we didn’t answer. So they came to see if everything was OK. Among them was a guy whom Sam and I had already met in Clipperton!

 

4 Samuel_Audrain@NPansiotSamuel Audrain, captain, during the Tara Pacific expedition © Noëlie Pansiot / Tara Expeditions Foundation

 

How was the scientific research? Would you go back?

M : During the Arctic drift there were very few scientists on the boat, unlike an expedition like Tara Pacific. It was us, the sailors, who made the measurements, then transmitted them to scientists on land for analysis.
The idea of returning to the Arctic attracts me, but I don’t think I’ll go again. A year on the ice cap when I was 23 – not so bad! But the Arctic is like a magnet. It’s so different, you wonder if you really were there.

S: It’s another world. When we left France, we didn’t really imagine what it would be like to spend 11 months there. In fact, we didn’t even know how long it would last. A posteriori, we realized that it was an amazing period of life, a big parenthesis: doing something completely new, completely different, leaving everything else in limbo. We understand the whole experience better now. At the time, we were just going on an adventure.

 

How was the return to “normal” life?

M : Just 3 weeks after returning home, we went to Polynesia. So, unlike other people, we didn’t talk much about the Arctic experience, and I think we lost a lot of memories. Today when I think about it, I have the impression it was one very long day and one very long night.

S : Yes, we quickly moved on to other things. It’s nice to have moments like the 10th anniversary of the drift so we can talk about it, remember, share what we experienced. It brings the project back to life.

M : After discussing it on board the evening of the 10th anniversary, I realized that we hadn’t kept a journal. So, I wrote to my family and friends asking if they had kept the emails I sent them during the drift. A friend sent me one where I wrote: “It’s a good experience being a cook. It can be used to travel” … And finally, that’s still what I’m doing today! All of this will be nice to re-read and keep somewhere to remember.

Since the Arctic drift, Samuel Audrain and Marion Lauters have participated in all of Tara’s expeditions.

 

Interview by Agathe Roullin

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