Ten years after the schooner’s polar drift, Étienne Bourgois, founder of the Tara project, describes how this major expedition is an exceptional human story. Locked in the Arctic polar ice pack for the purpose of studying this environment, Tara’s drift lasted 507 days and had a lasting impact. Despite many challenges and major obstacles, Tara’s mission succeeded and confirmed the team’s know-how.
Why a polar drift in 2006-2008?
Tara is a polar vessel, designed for Jean-Louis Étienne by the architects Michel Franco and Olivier Petit. In 2004, in preparation for the 2006 International Polar Year, Jean-Claude Gascard, leader of the European research project entitled Damocles, came and told me he needed the schooner. As the only existing vessel capable of getting locked in the ice then drifting with it, Tara would be engaged in a European research project.
An accelerated preparation
Everything was prepared within a year and many resources were organized at the last minute, but at the planned departure date, many things still weren’t finished. The ship was loaded with material – even on the deck – without knowing exactly where everything would be stored. This included a 800-kg scaffold intended to be installed on the pack ice to film the schooner from another angle. I wanted wind turbines. They weighed 180 kg each and had 10-meter masts. We tested one in Lorient. It fell on a racing boat docked next to Tara! There are even more surprising stories such as our Russian polar expert, Gamet Agamerzaiev, who absolutely wanted to bring wood to build a banya (sauna) on board. He stored small amounts of wood here and there, but we didn’t even know where to store the 8 tons of food, fuel, etc.
A slow start
The schooner left Lorient for Camaret, but the engines kept shutting down all the time because there was an air inlet somewhere. We tried to fix the problem. Tara reached Tromsø in Norway, but we still had to work on the engines. Our mechanic in Camaret finally decided to come from Brittany. He was retired and had never left the Crozon Peninsula. And so he came, in the TGV, then on a plane. He arrived in Norway with his toolbox, and discovered bars, girls, etc. He had hardly ever seen any of this before (laughs).
Men facing a hostile environment © François Bernard / Tara Expeditions Foundation
If there hadn’t been some people crazy enough to go, we would never have succeeded. It was very complicated because very few people wanted to go on this mission. Today, we have technicians specialized in extreme conditions, but at the time, in 2006, they were still adventurers. Few people believed in this project and crew members weren’t easy to recruit. We didn’t know how long wintering would last. We couldn’t find a physician. We needed resilient guys, in good shape. Crew members were very varied. Mathieu was 22 and Gamet 65. Many different languages were spoken on board. The cameraman Bruno Vienne decided to join the crew just 2 weeks before departure. Denis Bourget, physician, was persuaded at the last moment. Hervé, Tara’s captain, had a fishing boat in the Île d’Yeu. The mechanic Nicolas Quentin fell in love one week before departure. Only Grant, our expedition leader, was really looking forward to boarding the schooner. He had already participated in the Antarctic expedition and had obtained all the necessary diplomas to join the crew. I had decided to divide the responsibilities among the captain, the physician and the expedition leader so that the load wouldn’t rest on only one person’s shoulders.
Bernard Buigues took care of all the Russian logistics along with Romain Troublé with whom he had hunted mammoths in Siberia. He knew a lot of people, laid the groundwork and prepared appropriate authorizations. However, the Russians were suspicious and did not believe at all in a scientific expedition. They were afraid that Bernard would set up a competing polar tourist resort. So, it wasn’t easy. The schooner was blocked for a while in Murmansk (Russia). When Tara finally arrived in Tiksi (Russia), we had to wait for authorizations. We were falling behind schedule and, above all, holding up the Russian icebreaker. We found kerosene, but it turned out to be smuggled goods, stolen from the army, so we had to pay cash.
Despite this being the international polar year, the Russians had no polar platform. So they requested that a Russian embark with us. I found myself in Moscow at the Duma to negotiate. They wanted the Russian to be number 2 aboard Tara. I refused. Eventually he boarded as a radio operator and made a report every day. In the end, he was a great guy and a real polar expert. He was the one responsible for choosing good quality ice to produce our drinking water. We finally obtained the necessary authorizations. We had Norwegian dogs, but we had to replace them with Russian ones! The program was very tight. Jean-Claude Gascard was already aboard the icebreaker and time was passing. It took us 2 days to join the icebreaker at the edge of the ice pack.
Tara in the ice during the Tara Arctic expedition © Denis Bourget / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Setting up on the ice
Empty, Tara weighs 120 tons. We had reached 180 tons! Gascard called to tell me to go and sign a release form in which I assumed responsibility for the life and death of Tara’s crew, but also of those aboard the icebreaker coming to assist the schooner! I signed!
On the way to the ice pack, Tara could barely keep up with the icebreaker. Engine cooling filters were blocked by flakes of ice. We couldn’t move forward. We then decided to load fresh water aboard to cool the engines. We didn’t manage to very go far, so we positioned the schooner wherever we could. The camp was set up and kerosene was unloaded.
We learned that very bad weather was forecast. Two helicopters came to evacuate us, otherwise we would have been stuck for days. We bid farewell with emotion. On September 3, 2006, Tara was icebound. A few days later, back in Paris, we learned that the storm had destroyed everything, and the ice pack had broken into several plates. No more rudders, tents, etc. Everything was scattered on a dislocated ice floe. We needed to identify the areas where material remained to retrieve as much as we could. In the end, many things were found and loaded on board. This united the team because everyone was very scared.
Equipment was deployed, except for the wind turbines which we never managed to install. Whenever we set one up, the ice gave way and the wind turbine fell. Major work was undertaken underwater to carve a well behind the schooner for sending the probe. In minus 40-degree weather, Hervé had no more gloves, all destroyed by the cold. Once the instruments were set up on the ice floe, scientific work began. We realized that ice sometimes forms at the boundary between saltwater and freshwater. This had never been shown before. In fact, ice thickens from below. Scientists also noted that atmospheric temperature varies a lot. It can increase up to +10 ºC at an altitude of 1,000 meters!
Tara freed from the ice © Francis Latreille / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Our drift was faster than expected
Risk taking was maximum and the human adventure was strong. At Christmas 2006, Tara and her crew were the most northerly sentinels in the Arctic Ocean. We knew Tara would be ejected from the ice pack during the polar night, so we had to prepare the schooner. An 11-meter keel made of ice had formed under the vessel. In fact, an icebound ship is no longer a ship. After extensive preparation, all of a sudden, with beautiful weather, the ice broke into pieces and the schooner floated once again. The time had come to start up the engines. Tara was freed from the ice on January 22.
Tara then headed for Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen where the crew celebrated their arrival by firing marine flares. Tiksi, our dog who boarded the schooner when just a puppy, had never seen other human beings besides the crew members. He was howling. After 507 days on board and a very emotional mission, Tara was on her way home to Lorient.
Finally, the Damocles scientific program published 22 articles directly related to the Tara Arctic expedition. The Tara team now has undeniable expertise in the field of Arctic research. We are fully able to renew the experience and plan to continue doing research in this extremely fragile polar region since almost nothing is known about the current evolution of its marine biodiversity.
Interview by Dino Di Meo
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