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Iced in by choice

A team using Peter Blake’s former boat spends 16 months in the Arctic assessing the impact of global warming

The118-foot aluminum schooner once owned by the late super sailor Sir Peter Blake recently spent 16 months locked in the Arctic pack ice as part of a scientific project on global warming.

Researchers plotted the drift of the schooner Tara (formerly named Seamaster) toward the North Pole while monitoring the changing Arctic landscape. The project was patterned after Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893 expedition, during which he and a crew of 13 sailed from Oslo, Norway, and froze their ship in Arctic ice in an attempt to drift to the North Pole. Nansen hoped to become the first person to reach the North Pole, while proving his theory that polar ice drifted across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia.

“After being out there for so long, it made me realize it’s like being on another planet,” says expedition leader Grant Redvers. “For me, it was a great adventure on many levels. Living in the Arctic was a fantastic adventure because of facing the brute forces of nature and just having bizarre experiences, like watching polar bears wander past the boat.”

Dubbed the Tara Expedition, this project was funded by Etienne Bourgois, 47, and his mother, Agnès, and

supported by the United Nations Environment Programme. Bourgois is director of agnès b., the French fashion label his mother established. He also is passionate about the sea. Bourgois learned to sail when he was 13, inspired by his uncle Bruno Troublé, an America’s Cup veteran who is credited with securing a sponsor — Louis Vuitton — for the challenger elimination trials.

“My commitment does not consist in solely signing a check,” says Bourgois in a June 2007 Tara newsletter, translated from French. “Tara Expeditions is a program that represents for me a real personal involvement, exciting but very much time consuming.”

Fascinated by the environmental legacy Blake left behind, Bourgois acquired the legendary Kiwi sailor’s boat to study the effects of global warming. Tara departed Lorient, France, July 11, 2006, expecting to be frozen in until summer of 2008. However, it became free Jan. 20 of this year, eight months ahead of schedule — a fact the expedition leaders studying global warming consider ominous.

The crew was changed out twice except for two men: expedition leader Redvers, 35, a New Zealander, and Capt. Hervé Bourmaud, 35, a Frenchman. Like Nansen and his comrade, Hjalmar Johansen, the pair endured strong winds, powerful storms and extreme cold for the year and a half Tara was locked in the ice.

“I thought it was important to have a consistent thread throughout the expedition,” Redvers told Soundings in an interview via satellite telephone. “Plus, if I had left, I would’ve felt I hadn’t completed the mission.”

Redvers was chosen to lead the expedition because of his prior involvement with Blake and his background in the sciences. He has a master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Auckland (New Zealand) and an undergraduate degree in geography and earth science from Massey College in New Zealand. Redvers had embarked on a three-season research project in 2003 as a scientific technician at Scott Base in the Antarctic, and considers himself foremost a sailor offering scientific support.

Bourmaud spent 10 years as an offshore fishing captain and is a teacher at the professional maritime high school of St. Malo, France. Both joined the Tara project in 2005.

Tara is better known as Seamaster, her name when Blake owned the schooner. Redvers first saw the vessel in Auckland in 2000 and volunteered to join Blake on an expedition to Antarctica. Blake already had a full crew, so Redvers was off to Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula to conduct geological research. He stayed in touch with Blake, hoping to join him on a future mission. Blake was murdered, however, when Seamaster was boarded by bandits Dec. 5, 2001, while moored off the Brazilian town of Macapa at the mouth of the Amazon.

After Blake’s death, Bourgois purchased Seamaster, renaming her Tara, to study global warming and continue Blake’s legacy of environmental awareness.

Designed by naval architects Bouvet-Petit and launched in 1989, she was built specifically for sailing in polar regions. Aluminum was chosen for the hull material because it is lighter, less brittle in the cold and can bend better than steel, according to her designers. Her two masts measure 89 feet, and she has 17 berths. Tara was refitted to be energy sustainable, with two generators that ran between six and 12 hours a day. The generators were complemented by two wind turbines placed on the ice around Tara, and a dozen solar panels provided an energy boost with the 24 hours of light that accompany the Arctic summer.

Roughly 46 scientific institutions with operations in 12 European nations took part in the project, conducting research under the name Damocles, which works in coordination with the Tara Expedition.

Tara arrived at the North Pole in August 2006 with assistance from an icebreaker, but an ice storm hit just as the boat began to freeze in. “A boat isn’t made to sit in one place; that made it difficult enough,” says Redvers. “But then just as we were setting up equipment [on the ice] around the boat, this storm hit and disturbed the ice floe, shattering it into millions of pieces.”

The crew had removed the rudders to protect them from damage, so the boat was essentially adrift. Redvers recalls spending a few sleepless days drifting in circles and retrieving equipment. It wasn’t until early September 2006 that the ice closed in firmly enough to stabilize Tara.

Redvers says the average temperature was minus 25, sometimes dipping to around minus 43 in the winter. “During the summer on a few occasions it would come up to zero or something in the slightly positive range,” he says. “We had some blizzards that left a couple of meters’ worth of snow, and winds up to 50 knots.”

But the biggest challenge Redvers remembers facing is the ice movement during the first winter. “There was so much intense compression that we had to live with,” he says. “The ice squeezing in on the sides of the ship made a dreadful sound. When you are living in this environment, it is important to sleep and have a routine, but it’s hard when there’s the sound of scraping nails all around you.”

An obvious concern was whether Tara could withstand the pressure. “Fortunately, she didn’t disappoint,” says Redvers.

Each day consisted of a strict routine, which helped the crew cope with the 24 hours of darkness that set in for almost four months during the winter season. “It is easy to flip out,” says Redvers. “But waking up and going to sleep the same time, keeping the routine, is key. We also had lights on board that were supposed to simulate the same feeling as the sun.”

Over the course of the year and a half, Redvers supervised three different crews and kept them all to the same schedule. The day began with Redvers checking e-mail after breakfast and maintaining correspondence, and then every member was responsible for a chore. There were eight men and women on board for the first winter, and a crew of 10 replaced them in April 2007. The crew changed over again in September.

“They would be broken down into pairs and responsible for clearing snow away from the boat or breaking ice for fresh water,” says Redvers. “Then people had their roles. We had engineers on board who were responsible for maintenance work on Tara, making sure everything was running properly, and we had a filmmaker on board who was filming us and writing.”

Meanwhile, the expedition headquarters in Paris sent out monthly newsletters with photos and updates. By May 28, 2007, Tara was only 170 kilometers from the North Pole, her ultimate goal. Nansen would have been proud. Eight months later, Tara was released near the Fram Strait between Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway — mission accomplished.

What truly left an impression on Redvers were the subtleties of the ever-changing polar landscape. “It was the multiple different ways the light reflected on the ice, and there is so much diversity in the way the ice forms,” he says. “It was diving under the ice to check the condition of the hull in the depths of winter. It was a magical experience. You can’t help but walk away from that situation different.”

Redvers says no definite conclusions on global warming have been reached, but from what the team observed, the ice pack drifted faster than expected. Previous studies from U.S. submarines have indicated that the average thickness of the ice has shrunk from more than 10 feet to less than 6 feet over the last 30 years.

“The less ice there is, the more mobile it becomes, so that is a direct indication of the impact on global warming,” says Redvers. “Satellite reports have shown that there is less and less ice in the summer phase.”

Tara returned to Lorient Feb. 23, and was being examined to evaluate how well she endured her time in the Arctic. For more information, visit