An interview with a modern day sailor, who manages to reconcile technical knowledge and know-how with a taste for travel in his everyday life.
At 34 years old, Florian Richard is one of the youngest captains in the PONANT fleet. The sea is his element, and passion for what he does is what drives him. After participating in the building of Le Lapérouse, which was launched in July 2018 and is the first of the PONANT Explorers series of ships, Florian Richard then took command of it.
What kind of relationship do you have with the sea?
Florian Richard : The sea is undeniably one of the last remaining realms of freedom. On a boat, you can choose your course, your destination and your schedule without having to account for it. “Prendre le large” [to take off, run away – lit. to head out to sea], “larguer les amarres” [to leave everything behind – lit. to cast off] “hissez les voiles” [to set sail] are all expressions that illustrate just how therapeutic and beneficial the sea is for men and women who have the need to let themselves be carried far from the hustle and bustle of daily life, and to find themselves again. The sea has a powerful ability to get you to disconnect and refocus yourself.
You do however need to be very vigilant onboard a ship, when participating in nautical leisure activities, and even when simply walking by the shore. Water is a highly unpredictable element that can be as powerfully violent as it is calm and soothing. I both love and fear it; the sea fascinates me.
Why did you choose cruse ships rather than merchant ships?
Florian Richard :I’ve always wanted to take others travelling, even more than I’ve wanted to travel myself. I signed up for the French merchant navy entrance exams and application process at 17 years old already knowing that I wanted to be an officer onboard a cruise ship responsible for operating sea voyages. The attractiveness this holds for me has increased constantly with each voyage I’ve embarked on. Since I took command, it’s really taken on its full meaning. I get a great deal of pleasure from bringing the cruise to life for the passengers, above and beyond all the wonderful ports of call and new experiences and encounters on offer.
I also particularly like the technical aspects of navigating a ship. I have to manoeuvre in and out of different ports every day, in highly changeable wind conditions and through layouts that require you to be able to control your ship down to the accuracy of a single metre. It’s highly exhilarating.
And finally, working with a mixed crew (made up of both technical and hospitality staff) is richly rewarding in a way you don’t find onboard merchant ships.
You watched the ‘birth’ of ships such as Le Boréal, Le Soléal and Le Lapérouse, the first ship in the PONANT Explorers series, prior to captaining them. What was your role throughout this programme of ship building? How long does it take to build a vessel of this kind?
Florian Richard : Under the direction of Mathieu Petiteau [the Director of New Constructions and Research and Development at PONANT – Ed.] and working alongside other navigators and engineers, I was responsible for approving and taking delivery of bridge, safety and navigation equipment. There are several stages involved in the monitoring of a ship building project. It all begins with the drawing up of a ship specification, then comes the review of the plans and the process of optimising the design. The actual construction follows next, almost a year and a half prior to final delivery, and the ship has to be checked to ensure it matches the plans, from the thickness of the fire insulation through to the positions of the navigation instruments on the bridge. There are some parts you can only see when the ship is being built, and many changes are made to the original plans during this phase. The aim is to end up with the most ergonomic vessel possible.
I was lucky enough to be able to watch three ships being built at the shipyard in three different roles: safety officer, first mate and captain. I focussed on very different systems and tasks each time, ranging from pure technology through to management.
What’s it like to then take command and see them head out to sea for the first time?
Florian Richard : It’s first and foremost very reassuring to sail on a ship that you know inside out. You understand what’s behind the walls, why the stairs are on the port side and not the starboard side, what the safety equipment is, etc.
It’s magical seeing a large ship growing and taking shape from simple panels of sheet metal, being present when it’s first launched in the water, finding out what it feels like to sail during the sea tests, and then finally welcoming the first passengers onboard in a luxurious, comfortable and technically advanced environment.
What are the most inspirational places you’ve sailed to? And why?
Florian Richard : Without a doubt, the places that remind us that our daily lives in the West are very different from those of many other people on the planet. Set foot on a beach in Papua New Guinea or a village in Greenland and you’ll quickly forget your annual property co-owners’ meeting worries, etc.
I’ll never forget one particular port of call at an island in northern Madagascar, during a voyage onboard Le Ponant. A passenger had got herself ready. She’d put lots of make-up on and was wearing numerous items of jewellery for a visit to a small village on the beach. When she got there, she was greeted by around a dozen children, all smiling faces and dancing naked around her. I saw in the eyes of that passenger that she felt completely out of place with the situation. She removed her jewellery and gave it to the children. She even voluntarily followed them down to the sea, where she had a great time in the water with them, allowing her make-up to run and with a big smile on her face. This is the aspect of travel that really affects me deeply, the opening of one’s eyes and heart to the world as it really is. And small-sized ships such as the PONANT ones, by providing unique experiences of discovery and encounter, make it possible to get as close to nature and local populations as possible.
When not actually navigating a ship, what kind of traveller are you?
Florian Richard : I like it when it’s busy and exciting! There needs to be one or two activities per day, but they shouldn’t be too strictly organised. I like to set off knowing which places to stop off at, and to allow myself enough time to seize an opportunity, make the most of a chance encounter.
I always include a mixture of both sport and cultural activities on my trips. It’s a non-negotiable combination if you want to come travelling with me.
At 34 years old, you’re now at the command of a new ship and one of the youngest captains at PONANT. What are your dreams?
Florian Richard : I still have quite a few years in front of me to learn about all aspects of captaining a ship.
I’m very likely going to go back to the shipyard where one of the PONANT Explorers was built to provide my feedback about the first in the series. PONANT has no shortage of shipbuilding projects, each one as equally exciting as the next. I haven’t yet finished learning and being enthralled by ships and voyages.
Along with my work for PONANT, I’m also building up a small business offering catamaran cruises and voyages around France during my time off. I’m having a go at running a company. I know one particular CEO [Jean Emmanuel Sauvée, President of PONANT – Ed.] who started out as an officer in the merchant navy and has ended up becoming very successful… it’s a motivating example!