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The very mission the designers envisioned

Naval architect Olivier Petit tells the story of how he dreamt of and conceived the ideal expedition boat

I remember that evening in September 2006. Etienne Bourgois, the new owner of Tara, the 118-foot schooner I designed more than 20 years ago, gives me great news. “Finally, she arose! She is set on the ice!”

In his voice, I can sense emotion, a hint of excitement and a lot of relief. The boat is on the ice; she did not find herself crushed like a nut between two ice cubes. This is a second birth for Tara and a moment that Luc Bouvet and myself — the designers and architects — as well as project manager Michel Franco, were waiting for since her launch in 1989.

Antarctica, Seamaster, Tara — those are names for the boat given by her successive owners: Jean-Louis Etienne, Sir Peter Blake and Etienne Bourgois, who will take her to the end of her story after so many journeys on the ocean until this polar drift for which she was designed. The story of Tara began a long time ago. One can start it during the night watches that I did in 1978 with Jean-Louis Etienne on the 22-meter ketch Pen Duick VI.

For hours, we would discuss the ideal expedition boat. We would imagine her in all her details and fine-tune her. In the following years, our dreams became more and more precise, and in 1986, when Jean-Louis Etienne returned from his expedition on foot toward the North Pole, the project was launched and entrusted to myself and Luc Bouvet.

This is the second boat we designed on our own behalf, after a racing boat for Titouan Lamazou. The boat we wished to invent had a great ambition: to accomplish the transpolar drift. For this we had a model — Fram, the boat that enabled the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen to accomplish his polar expedition from 1893 to 1896. Our specifications were nearly the same: to be caught in the ice and to spend winter with a crew of 14.

The boat had to be sufficiently self-reliable to provide food, light and heat for at least two years while the current pushed her and spat her out — if all went well — on the east coast of Greenland. This was more than 100 years after the design of Fram by Nansen and architect Colin Archer. We studied the Fram project. Writings of the time existed, and models were available.

We selected two key ideas. The boat had to slide between the hands, and if she was assaulted by the ice she would have to behave like a cherrystone and arise. It was the reverse of the icebreaker that rises and crashes on the ice and is too heavy for a schooner.

The boat we were going to design would obey to another principle: to be lightweight, a boat that would follow the art of sidestepping, like in boxing. To draw the lower part of the hull, the constraints were great; an expedition boat always has a heavy load. We had to make the inventory of everything that would be in the holds and anticipate the weight and position of each element so the boat does not list toward the nose or the bottom when loaded.

We also had to make sure that the boat would remain stable at the start of the expedition and the end, when it would be lighter. Also, we had to be sure that the extra weight due to ice and snow in the rigs would not make her capsize. Finally, we had to ensure that the structure was homogenous and that it resisted the effects of wind, sea pressure and ice. The boat had to slide between ones fingers like an eel, in the words of Nansen. In his mind, the hull had to be round in every direction. She had to have no asperities on which the ice could cling and block the boat when the moving ice sheets would start to crash into each other and risk crushing the boat.

For the hull to be ejected upward like a cherrystone pressed between one’s thumb and index finger, we drew sections of hulls with a wide, curving shape. The concept remained the same, but one century later technology had much evolved, and the answers were different.

Fram and Tara share more or less the same length and beam and an identical programme. One could expect them to have the same movement. Yet Fram weighed 800 tons, whereas Tara only 180 tons when leaving for the Arctic drift. The explanation could be found in the difference between the traditional building material — wood — and the current materials: the jointing. In wooden-boat building, the different elements of the hull were assembled between themselves with nails, broaches, bearings and metal belts. And despite the sophisticated geometric jointing, each element remained alive, worked and became deformed, always threatening to dissociate itself from the whole.

The beginning of the metal construction took on the same concept, with a patchwork of metal sheets joined together with rivets. The great revolution in shipbuilding occurred at the end of the 19th century with welding, which enabled “gluing” metal sheets together laying edge to edge in a more homogenous fashion than riveting.

For the hull, we could choose between aluminium and steel. In the end, we selected aluminium for its light weight, good performance to the cold, and capacity to bend when steel would tear itself apart. Thermal isolation was crucial on an expedition boat. One needed to combine excellent isolation with good ventilation to avoid condensation created by cooking, breathing and sweating.

The walls, floors and ceilings of Fram’s cabins were lined with a complex insulating material made of reindeer hair, felt and linoleum. At the time, it was a technological innovation. Tara, on the other hand, has a second indoor skin around the equipment, made of foam rubber between two thin layers of plywood. This second skin is suspended in the hull like a thermos bottle to avoid a thermal bridge made by the contact between the cold aluminum hull and the interior of the living quarters.

The Plexiglas in double glazing was assembled with the high-resistance mastic called Sikaflex. When she was launched, as Antarctica, everybody thought she was bizarre. She did not belong to the canons of beauty of the yachts of those times. She was not even painted.

I was rereading Gauguin’s writings, and I felt that Tara looks like a Maori woman described by the artists. “What distinguishes a Maori woman from other women and often makes her look like a man are the proportions of the body. A hunter Diane with large shoulders and narrow hips … Their complexion is golden yellow; it might be true that it is ugly for a few people, but for all the others, especially when it is naked, is it really that ugly?”

Reproduced with permission of Olivier Petit and of “Le Journal,” the Tara Expedition newsletter.