Voyaging with Vagabond, the polar yacht from Brest

Ocean research in the Arctic

Éric Brossier, ocean engineer, captain and father, reflects on 20 years of carrying out Arctic research in his family-crewed yacht

A red dot in the white. A sailing boat frozen in. The destination of our faithful Vagabond is polar science.

Studying the huge colonies of little auks and other birds in Melville Bay and Liverpool Land (Greenland) to learn about changes in the sea ice. Sounding the icy fjords for NASA’s Ice Bridge programme (Greenland). Learning to understand the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean by studying its volcanic margins (Greenland). Gathering data over five years for the Damocles project (sea ice modelling) – the main European contribution to the International Polar Year (Svalbard). Monitoring huge ice islands in the Nares Strait (Greenland and Nunavut). Conducting multibeam echo soundings, hydrographic profiles and water samplings while studying major glaciers in Ellesmere Island and Devon Island (Nunavut).Sailing in icy waters during the short summers; iced in, in a sheltered bay, during long winters. Thanks to her, we have been enjoying all kinds of adventurous field work in the Arctic since year 2000. Surveying sea ice for thousands of kilometres to record variations of thickness under the perplexed eye of the polar bears (Svalbard and Nunavut, Canada). Setting up the big Green Edge ice camp on the frozen ocean to study closely the spring phytoplanktonic bloom in Baffin Bay (Nunavut). Diving under the ice regularly to collect clams and coralline algae in order to analyse the climate of the past centuries (Greenland and Nunavut). Using drones and time-lapse cameras on mountaintops to monitor the times of breakup and summer melting (Nunavut). Surveying the underside of the sea ice with an underwater robot equipped with ultra-sophisticated probes (Nunavut).

How it all began

It all started in 2000 with a team of geologists in collaboration with the French Polar Institute (IPEV). The previous year it had not been able to do much using small open boats. But with our sailing boat, things went very well, and over the years the research teams came again and again. Vagabond and her crew have been hosting increasingly varied and ambitious programmes, which all contribute to better knowledge of the polar regions, the sentinels of global climate change. The scientific publications that result then serve as valuable tools enabling human society to aim towards a way of life that is more in harmony with the planet. That’s what motivates me and my family.

A home in the Arctic

Measuring ice thickness

Measuring ice thickness, South Cape Fiord, Ellesmere Island, October 2011. Photo: © France Pinczon du Sel

We have had to cope with storms, icebergs, polar bears, fierce cold and remoteness, in the name of our love of science, nature, freedom and adventure. Far from the laboratories and design offices that I was supposed to join after studying ocean engineering, with Vagabond I found a way to work and live in a fascinating and inspiring environment without being separated from science and technology. And to complete my satisfaction, I and my wife France Pinczon du Sel became a family: our first daughter, Léonie, was born at the end of the dark period in February 2007, a few miles off the coast of Spitsbergen, where we were wintering. She is named after the first woman to land on Svalbard: Léonie d’Aunet, who went there on board a French research vessel in 1839. Our second daughter, Aurore, was born in Brest (Brittany) during an autumn break in November 2009, at the gates of the Atlantic. She saw her first aurora borealis a few weeks later.

Vagabond is rarely docked in Brest, her home port, but a model of her is displayed in the polar pavilion of Océanopolis, Brest’s aquarium and ocean centre, where her missions are the subject of film and photo presentations. The small red-hulled boat and her family crew attract an audience eager to learn more about scientific research in the polar region, and about the cultures and ways of life of the peoples of the Arctic. Our special relationship with the Inuit, who named us as honorary Canadian Rangers in 2012, allows us to establish fruitful exchanges between scientists and northern communities, and to work better together. It is essential to take local knowledge into account when organising scientific field campaigns, and also to integrate traditional knowledge into research work. Fortunately, polar scientists from all round the world are pleased to be joined by more and more colleagues whose home is the Arctic.

Studies undertaken in the ocean, on pack ice, on snow, and in atmosphere must be supplemented by interviews with hunters, because they are the first witnesses of the evolution of their environment. The scientific program Green Edge (2015–16), conducted by Université Laval in Quebec together with several international institutions, is intended to lead to the creation of a permanent research station in Qikiqtarjuaq (Baffin Island, Nunavut). Scientists will need guides, cooks and local colleagues – a tremendous economic and social development for this small and remote Arctic settlement.

Climate change

Summer 2019 was another busy season for Vagabond. The retreat of glaciers and the thinning of sea ice are pushing experts to spend more time monitoring in the field (its especially warm summer has caused extreme

Arctic melting, says NASA). When bigger ships cannot reach shallow-water areas, or have too busy a schedule, or cannot wait long enough for good weather, Vagabond can make a difference.

Some methods for studying climate change may seem far from straightforward – for example, diving to sample coralline red algae to learn more about historic changes in sea ice. Others may seem impossible: trying to deploy an oceanographic mooring with multiple floating instruments set up for a year or more in a very icy bay, after an icebreaker had tried for four years without success. But when we can do the job with Vagabond, the costs are far lower and the effects on the environment are minimised. Lightweight science becomes possible; an icebreaker or a polar research station is not always necessary. We are happy to contribute to the sum of high-quality data, and to show that being part of the environment can help fieldwork teams to get more from their studies. Being aboard a big ship or inside a warm building can insulate you from the feelings that you need in order to really understand what you are looking at. Instead, it is so nice to exercise and work with your hands outside, rather than using all kinds of machines and then rushing to the fitness centre after work!

What next?

Vagabond’s crew

Vagabond’s crew, South Cape Fiord, Ellesmere Island, March 2012. Photo: © Jean Gaumy

During the winter of 2019–20, Vagabond’s crew will continue the coralline red algae research near Arctic Bay (Baffin Island, Nunavut). From September 2019 until the end of August 2020, this will involve scuba diving at monthly intervals to retrieve small limestone mounds – deposits of largely dead limestone, about the size of a lemon, with a thin surface layer made by a coralline alga. These mounds are abundant on rocks around the bay at a depth of 15–20 metres. We will also be monitoring the temperature and salinity of the water and taking seawater samples. The main purpose behind this project is to understand the long-term evolution of the sea ice. The limestone mounds contain internal layers similar to tree rings, which can be analysed in a lab and thus yield information on sea ice duration.

We will continue to undertake sea ice thickness surveys as well. Landfast sea ice (ice that’s attached to a coastline or the sea floor)  is an important platform for travel, hunting and floe-edge tourism, but recent changes in the Arctic climate have affected ice thickness and spring weather, making it harder to predict from traditional signs when breakup will occur. We hope to make travel safer by developing a model that wind, current, temperature and ice thickness data to predict when the risk of landfast ice breakup is high.

Hazards and rewards

Our life is full of contrasts – probably more than if we were living in a city. We have run aground badly a few times. Our mainsail was destroyed in a severe storm. We almost lost a half-million-dollar sonar in the ice. We hit an iceberg at full speed in the fog. We got two big holes in the hull and almost sank in the middle of winter … These are now good stories to share, binding us together as a family, and to our colleagues on board. We are always looking forward to doing more science in more remote and unknown places. Freedom, you know. There are many projects for the coming years, but we will also have to deal with schooling. Although our daughters didn’t choose to live on a polar yacht, Léonie (only 12 years old) keeps saying, she wants to be a biologist studying the effects of climate change on polar animals.

Since I bought Vagabond, on 28 October 1999, we have hosted nearly 50 scientific programs, spent 12 winters frozen in, and sailed about 70,000 nautical miles in the Arctic, including the first circumnavigation via the North-East and North-West Passages in 2002–03, for which we received awards from Alain Bombard, the Yacht Club de France, the Royal Cruising Club and the Ocean Cruising Club.