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The Majesty of the New Luxury Electric Ship Le Commandant Charcot

Contributor Jonathan Russo recently set sail on the ship for its christening. Here’s what travelers can expect.

Le Commandant Charcot in the ice. Photo courtesy of Studio PONANT / Nath Michel

There might not be official recognition for nautical wonders of the world, but if there were, Ponant’s new flagship Le Commandant Charcot would be one. 

Voyagers’ growing desire for adventure has remade the yachting and cruise industry, which responded by building bigger and better expedition vessels every year. Private yachts like Octopus, Solaris, Ulysses and Andromeda are enormous in the 300-foot range. These builds push design, engineering and self-sufficiency to new heights. More down-to-earth boats like those made by Nordhavn are also selling out. As one observer of the yachting world put it, “how many times can you anchor in Portofino or cruise from Newport to Nantucket? People want to discover new, more remote coasts. They want bragging rights about visiting the east coast of Greenland.”

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Look at current Rolex ads. The celebrity brand endorsers are all explorers. Think YOLO for HNW individuals. The desire for experiences has altered travel goalposts. The affluent already possess all the worldly goods they need, so enriching experiences are paramount. Bucket lists are the new pilgrimages. Ted Sykes, CEO of Gohagan Travel, one of the largest ship charter operators, told us, “these expeditions are for people who are lifelong learners.”

As a complimentary book in our cabin explained, Le Commandant Charcot is named in honor of French polar explorer and scientist, Jean-Baptiste Charcot. He was to France’s ice quests what Shackleton was to England’s or Peary’s to America. Charcot named his rugged ships Pourquoi Pas? English translation: “Why not?”

It is not hard to imagine Francois Pinault—one of the world’s wealthiest men, whose family owns dozens of luxury brands including Gucci, auction house Christie’s, vineyards like Chateau Latour, and Ponant (a 13-ship luxury cruise line)—echoing Charcot’s words by asking, why not build the world’s most advanced explorer ship filled with all the usual amenities like a spa, indoor lap pool and even a snow room? Why not make it eco-friendly using liquid natural gas when possible, as well as battery power for silent running and energy conservation? Why not use Azipods for propulsion allowing for infinite directional flexibility as well as ice clearing? Why not recycle the waste water? Why not have research bays and invite scientists to accompany the ship on every voyage? Why not bring top exploration leaders to take passengers on Arctic ice and Antarctica’s islands and ice shelfs? Why not provide lecturers who educate on these regions’ importance and features? Why not ask Alain Ducasse, one of the world’s most respected chefs, to supervise the culinary experience?

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He and his family’s answer must have been, “there’s no reason not to.” So, they did all the above and more. For example, even the outside decks are heated so guests can use their balconies or walk around without losing their footing when in the frozen north.

Alain Ducasse’s Charcot Restaurant. Photo by Mike Louagie

Aboard the 245-guest, 215-person crew, French-flagged, 492-foot Le Commandant Charcot for her christening in Le Havre France, Captain Etienne Garcia explained to Worth, “This ship is 50 percent more sophisticated than any of our exploration boats. We practiced for months on ice simulators. Our chief engineer is still surprised daily by Le Charcot’s abilities.” 

After learning the ship requires 22 engineers, including several IT experts because Le Charcot is totally electronic in all its command and control systems, we believed him. The bridge, with its port to starboard computer stations, reminds Garcia of the spaceship Enterprise. Speed, when not in the ice, is 15 knots—fast for a cruise ship.

According to Le Charcot’s director of new construction, research and development, Mathieu Petiteau, “we had to imagine, design and build this ship to reach the true North Pole (90-degree latitude) in complete safety. Among other things, this meant a reinforced hull—which is isolated from the decks to decrease vibration—redundancies in all critical components of the propulsion systems, plus the ability to be self-sufficient for a long period of time, as there will be no one to rescue us for days. We invented a ‘survival camp,’ deployable on water or land equipped with enough shelters, polar suits, food, water and medical supplies for all passengers. 

Commandant Charcot-Suite Armateur. Photo by Mike Louagie

“All this and more has earned us the highest polar expedition boat rating, Polar Class 2,” Petiteau said. “No other cruise boat has this rating. We are immensely proud of this accomplishment.”

The build was another innovation. The steel hull was constructed by one of the most respected shipyards, Fincantieri’s Romanian division. It was then towed to another Fincantieri yard, Vard in Norway. It’s acknowledged that Norwegians are the pinnacle of ice class builders.

From planning to sea trials, Le Charcot was six years in the making. As so many design and engineering envelopes were pushed, there was a constant back and forth with regulatory authorities. In the end, Le Charcot performed exactly as expected. Her shakedown cruise to the true North Pole was a resounding success. While no passengers were allowed aboard, film crews and scientists documented the event.

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In order to find the leads (breaks in the ice), Le Charcot uses a variety of ice-sensing measurers, including digital ground radar and satellite imagery. This useful information is relayed to polar scientists worldwide. Onboard, these sensors save time, energy and wear-and-tear on the vessel.

So what off-boat experiences will this ice-class explorer ship provide? Expedition director Florence Kuyper, who has loved penguins since she was a child, told Worth, “our goal is to reach regions inaccessible to other ships. Going into remote places does something to people. Passengers often tell me this experience changed their lives, humbled them, partly by showing them how fragile our world is.” She added, “Like the light, weather conditions are constantly changing, so we can’t have a set itinerary. Kayaking around an island or hiking will happen when it can.” 

From Ushuaia, Argentina, Le Charcot heads south to the Bellingshausen, Weddell and Ross Seas, the Larsen Ice Shelf, South Sandwich, Charcot Island and Peter Island. Voyages north include the Northwest Passage via the little-used northern route and trips to the North Pole.

After one experiences life aboard Le Commandant Charcot, the question pourquoi pas? will be answered.

Additional content and editing by Deborah Grayson.

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