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Dreams of ice

Interview with Captain Devorsine

At the helm at PONANT since 2018, Stanislas Devorsine has been living a life of swells and adventures since the cradle. He has also been a crew member with the very best ocean racers, though it is his expertise in sailing in polar regions that naturally led him aboard Le Commandant Charcot, a ship that continues to “blow his mind”. A look back at the extraordinary background and career of a man driven by a passion for polar exploration and a taste for challenge.

A born sailor

You’ll understand why it’s impossible for me to remember.” When asked about how he felt the first time he climbed aboard a boat, Captain Stanislas Devorsine is lost for words. Unsurprising, given that he was barely two months old when his parents first introduced him to the lulling of the waves on board the family yacht.

Rencontre avec le Commandant Devorsine

The rest of his personal ship’s log confirms the sense of a virus passed on from earliest childhood. From the very first excitement in Optimist sailing dinghies – “those soap boxes, incredible for learning to sail, and in which you start making genuine decisions from the age of six” – to the thrill of sailing a keelboat purchased with his brother as a teenager, the young sailor always had an eye to bigger things. He forged these initial dreams, too, through the stories of Nansen, Amundsen and Shackleton, three polar explorers whose adventures he devoured.

Jean-Louis Etienne: a role model

And then, of course, there is Jean-Louis Etienne, who he sees as the very incarnation of a modern explorer. Like some precious object you hardly dare touch, he actually remembers, as a child, stroking the hull of L’Antarctica (since renamed Tara), the yacht of his idol, at Camaret-sur-Mer: “It was a robust, intelligent boat that could cope with ice and venture into hostile areas.”

Rencontre avec le Commandant Devorsine

Though the boy Devorsine was at the time did not yet know it, he would go on to become friends with his role model many years later; it’s 2010, and his telephone rings. On the other end of the line, Jean-Louis Etienne in person. He needs an opinion and some advice about his Polar Pod project: “I was so proud,” he recalls.

Jean-Louis Etienne and the Polar Pod

The Polar Pod is a vertical scientific platform, a part of which will be submerged to a depth of 75 metres beneath the waters of the Southern Ocean. It will drift around Antarctica by means of the circumpolar current. Stanislas Devorsine works on the design of a polar yacht built specially for sailing the seas of the south, and which will be used for resupplying the platform on a regular basis and rotating personnel every two months.

A versatile, multifaceted sailor

Stanislas Devorsine owes this phone call to a career defined by grit and determination. After training at France’s merchant navy training school, he builds a reputation as an eclectic sailor with, variously, a role as a crew member on the Pen Duick VI, aboard which he simultaneously experiences both the ice and the canals of Patagonia for the first time; a Jules Verne Trophy accomplished in 64 days on Géronimo with Olivier de Kersauson; and assignments on the Abeille Flandre, a tug known/famous for its participation in the response to the sinking of the oil tanker Erika.

Stanislas has sailed around the world in a sailing yacht and has experience of the Southern Ocean. His career, full of bold daring and audacity, makes him a sailor with an approach much like an explorer. I’m often in contact with him as part of the Polar Pod project, for which I feed off his ideas, off his creative force. He gives me advice with a deep sense of honesty and lots of generosity. That is all very valuable for the project.”

Jean-Louis Etienne


Objective: Astrolabe

A decade as captain of LAstrolabe – a patrol and supply ship chartered by the Institut polaire français Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV) – followed next. He thus breaks his first ice, both in order to reach the Dumont D’Urville scientific base in Adélie Land and when conducting oceanographic operations at sea.

Rencontre avec le Commandant Devorsine

L’Astrolabe has been his dream since, as a dedicated reader of Chasse-Marée magazine, he first found about this French-flagged ship in an interview with its captain. Though not yet 20, he sends off his CV to apply for a work placement. A second application follows the next year. Then a third: “I kept writing until it worked.”

Ten years later,  just before he turns 30, the much-anticipated positive response arrives. It is at this point that Stanislas Devorsine discovers what he considers to be “…the top of the heap. It was a world as fantastic as it was fascinating. ‘L’Astro’ is a difficult ship in terms of comfort, but this is precisely what gives it such a distinct atmosphere, with everyone standing shoulder to shoulder. For me, it was also an opportunity to work side by side with the older sailors and offered the prospect of learning over a very long period of time .”

Rencontre avec le Commandant Devorsine

Learning about the ice on board L’Astrolabe

On this ship, Stanislas Devorsine experienced polar sailing in the world’s remotest regions for the first time, side by side with sailors who had 20 years ice-breaking experience behind them. “All sailing and navigating through ice requires a great deal of care, prudence and sensitivity in terms of finding the best route and using the ship’s energy economically. It’s as fascinating as a game of chess. The straight line is never the shortest! Technology isn’t enough. You also need a keen sense of observation, which incidentally brings to mind what can happen in ocean races; that’s what I retain from this experience. With all the humility that demands, of course…”

Le Commandant Charcot: a new polar adventure

It is in order to share his expertise of ice-breaking, in particular, that Captain Devorsine joins PONANT in 2018. He puts the finishing touches to the safety equipment on Le Commandant Charcot together with the team tasked with developing this innovative ship: survival suits, polar life rafts…

The presence of laboratories hosting teams of scientists on board is also very important to him: “I like the idea of a connection being established between them and our cruise guests, particularly via the conferences. In a way, it’s also thanks to them that Le Commandant Charcot is able to collect valuable data. And I like to keep this virtuous circle in mind.”

Rencontre avec le Commandant Devorsine

And feelings and sensations, in all that? ”I can’t get used to this ship’s ability to so easily and gently pass the impassable” – an impetuosity that helps to make the 7,500 nautical miles (nearly 14,000 km: the equivalent of covering a quarter of the circumference of the globe in 28 days) of semi-circumnavigations of Antarctica even more “…vertiginous. This itinerary between Lyttelton (in New Zealand) and Ushuaia involves us passing through very remote areas. The coasts of Antarctica offer a majestic variety of scenery. More than just a voyage, you’re in a state of constant contemplation.”

The circuit of Antarctica: why not?

Rencontre avec le Commandant Devorsine

With so many routes under his belt, are there still adventures that fire Captain Devorsine’s imagination? The answer is as clear as the circuit of Greenland and circumnavigation of the Arctic traced by his finger on the map: “That there, is the ultimate voyage. The course is magnificent. In particular, you could pass via the Kerguelen islands to the east. Le Commandant Charcot, in my view, is made for that, so why not… .” Like a kind of nod to the Pourquoi-Pas? and the spirit of challenge of Jean-Baptiste Charcot…

Photos credits : ©StudioPONANT / Nath Michel / Noémie Watel /  Romain Farge; ©PONANT / Photo Ambassador Sue Flood


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