Career path of two experts in polar navigation
The sailors Étienne Garcia and Patrick Marchesseau both have remarkable stories to tell! It’s the story of two young mariners who have since become seasoned PONANT captains, among a select few French captains able to navigate icy waters. These two captains will soon provide their experience aboard a vessel named for a fellow polar explorer, Le Commandant Charcot: the first polar cruise ship with a hybrid LNG propulsion system that is capable of sailing through icy waters. These two intrepid captains have many more adventures to look forward to!
Falling in love with the sea
We’d like to introduce Étienne Garcia, who has roots in both Anjou and Spain and Patrick Marchesseau, from La Rochelle. The two have been driven by a conviction to “live in the open ocean” since they were young, and at their own pace both spent time at the site then known as l’Hydro, l’École nationale de la marine marchande [the French National Merchant Navy School]. This was when they both went on their first tours of duty, spending time on oil tankers, container ships, freighters and ferries. “My aim was to be aboard a ship as often as I could,” recalls Captain Garcia. In the late 1990s, Patrick Marchesseau was already following in the wake of his “old mate” Étienne Garcia. Together they oversaw the construction of the liners Paul Gauguin and Mistral in the construction sites of Saint-Nazaire.
Getting a taste for icy waters
Going ever further and pushing the boundaries of navigation. This is what has always driven these two captains. Once they got their first taste of polar exploration they knew they had found their calling. Étienne Garcia first travelled the icy waters in 2005, aboard Le Diamant, an expedition ship which has just been purchased by PONANT. He acted as the ship’s captain until 2010, when Patrick Marchesseau took the helm. “This was around the time of our first voyages to Greenland and to Antarctica,” recounts Captain Garcia. “These exhilarating crossings were an epic introduction to the speciality!” With polar navigation, as their ship made its way through the drifting sea ice, both captains had to draw on the purest form of seamanship as well as the passion that had driven them when as young men they read about the exploits of the greatest polar explorers, of Nansen, Amundsen, Charcot and Victor. It was time for them to add a voyage of their own to the history books.
The art of navigating the poles
Being the captain of a ship navigating icy waters requires extensive preparation. With the full weight of their navigation experience, captains Garcia and Marchesseau learned the basics of ice navigation with deference and keen observation before taking command. Alongside great humility and keen observation, skilled patience and selflessness are required to navigate the poles. “A position like this is gold dust, but you have to earn your stripes,” explains Étienne Garcia. “This is why it is essential to take things one step at a time. My experience as an officer of the deck helped give me the tools I needed to become the captain I am today. These skills were really useful during my first few years in Antarctica.” He also had to call on this experience in the middle of the Arctic ocean when he managed the first crossing of the Northwest Passage by a passenger ship operating under a French flag – which was of course also a first for PONANT. That was in 2013, with Le Soléal… what an adrenaline rush that was! “That was without a doubt one of my fondest memories of working with this company!” This was followed by his first voyages to Chukotka, next to Alaska, and to Kamchatka, deep in the Russian Far East. Captain Marchesseau hasn’t forgotten his first crossing in 2014 either, nor the attempt in 2018, which was abandoned due to excessive ice levels. “At the time,” he recounts, “we worked alongside the ice navigators. And I was very happy to have them with us.” This type of navigation needs a certain finesse, care and sensitivity so as to find the best path and to avoid damaging the ship. Going in a straight line isn’t always the shortest route. The trick is to make a detour to get there faster.
After years spent weaving from one hemisphere to the other, between the unspoilt nature of the Arctic to the empty majesty of the white continent, both captains have become experts in polar navigation. And yet, “even after ten years, I still get that thrill,” confesses Patrick Marcesseau. “During every expedition, whenever we cross a new fjord it brings out the explorer in me. Moments like that are just as magical now as they have always been. You might see a polar bear touch the hull with its paws, or light effects on the water’s surface, or in the summer you might see a humpback whale feeding in the colder waters expel a water plume barely ten metres from the ship. There are so many memories to be shared with passengers. Because “that’s the PONANT spirit,” smiles Étienne Garcia, still driven by this child-like energy – which he champions! – – in response to nature’s wonders. His aim is to share it as much as possible. So, if there is any wildlife nearby or an iceberg in view, they’ll stop and turn around. “That’s what exploration is all about!” The most important thing is to adapt to the environment around you. To let nature, the ice, wind and snow decide the route. The captain has to decide to adapt, and share the secrets of navigating these waters with the passengers. “We’re here to ensure the journey is one to remember!”
Le Commandant Charcot and new dreams of adventure
They won’t mention it – sailors tend to be modest – but, thanks to their extensive experience, Captains Garcia and Marchesseau were the perfect choice to take command of Le Commandant Charcot. Both got involved in the project very early on. During an assignment in Norway to oversee construction, they were able to learn more about the ship and assess the challenges that lay ahead. “Until that point, we had been weaving our way through the polar waters”, explains Patrick Marchesseau, “but now we will be able to chart our way through the ice itself!” and enter a “silent land”, the sea disappearing behind them as they travel further into the icy vastness. For both captains, this is a chance to draw on all the skills they have learned. Yet “in terms of manoeuvrability, Le Commandant Charcot offers extraordinary results,” Étienne Garcia points out. “This makes the ship safe and comfortable.”
The ship is equipped with the latest innovative technologies to keep both crew and passengers safe, and is in full compliance with the latest environmental standards. It actually goes above and beyond the standards. “If you want to go to the North Pole, there’s no better choice,” explains Patrick Marchesseau. Both Captains want to spearhead this balance between exploration and environmental protection. “We aim to be pioneering in the coming years, in order to help Le Commandant Charcot to find a place in this context,” says Étienne Garcia. Scientific equipment has been installed on the ship and researchers recruited to gather and analyse essential data to protect the polar environment, giving an important role to the crossing. Passengers can take part in the research themselves, as part of participative scientific sessions, whether it is sending out a probe or gathering water samples. As a result, Le Commandant Charcot may play a decisive part in the history of scientific polar exploration.
On the bridge of Le Commandant Charcot, the tireless adventurers Étienne Garcia and Patrick Marchesseau will doubtless achieve many of their maritime ambitions. This will of course mostly involve crossings to the North Pole but it will also include voyages to north-eastern Greenland and why not an Antarctic cruise, some day? That would be exciting! While the maritime sector is notoriously modest, the fact remains that with Le Commandant Charcot, both PONANT captains intend to take up the torch to ensure that their ice navigation expertise is passed down through the French merchant navy.
Photos credits : ©PONANT/Christophe Dugied / ©PONANT/François Lefebvre / ©Studio PONANT/Laure Patricot / ©Studio PONANT/Clément Louineau / ©Studio PONANT/Laurence Fischer / ©StudioPONANT/Olivier Blaud /
Discover the art of polar navigation
Embark on a cruise exploring the poles with PONANT