By David Reid
For parents Eric and France Brossier and their daughters Leonie and Aurore, family life is a little different than most. Mum and Dad still go to work every day, eldest daughter Leonie (six) has to be taken to and dropped off at school and Aurore (four) still enjoys days at home playing, reading and drawing. Groceries and supplies still have to be bought and collected at the nearby store and care still has to be taken when going outside during the cold winter. Most meals are had together and stories, events and happenings of respective days, like many families, are told over dinner at day’s end.
Home though for the adventurous French family is the 47-ft long polar yacht Vagabond. Presently, the yacht (and family home) is held fast in the sea ice approximately three kilometres from the Eastern Baffin Island community of Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut.
Vagabond is an expedition yacht designed for sailing in ice. Built in 1978 by Polish design, Eric Brossier purchased her in 1999 and since 2000 Brossier has created, prepared and outfitted it as a unique logistical support vessel, a floating and moving base camp for scientists, adventurers and artists alike. With no keel, the steel-hulled 14-ft wide sailboat is ideally suited to travelling in and around ice in the Polar Regions. In recent years, starting in 2005, Eric and his wife France Pinczon began over wintering the yacht in Spitsbergen (Svalbard) in the Norwegian Arctic. For five years they made this High Arctic wilderness their home and workplace. With large fuel tanks on board, Vagabond boasts a 5,000 nautical miles range, powered by twin diesel engines.
Brossier, a geophysicist, was fascinated to learn more about the environment in which he was now very much a part of. In short, he made the decision to trade the traditional bricks and mortar science laboratory for perhaps the best laboratory of all, certainly the one with the best view! An adventurer his whole life, Eric saw the advantages of being based and living in the field very early on and the benefits (to science) that would result. It gave him the opportunity to combine two of his life passions: adventure and science.
Working now with an international collection of science-based organizations, companies, universities and individuals, Brossier and Pinczon are busy people. On the Canadian front, they conduct science experiments, research and studies for Toronto’s York University as well as Laval University in Quebec.
Studies are done on an incredibly diverse and fascinating range of topics. Algae bloom, sea water salinity, ice thickness, ice density, wildlife, fauna, glaciers, ocean currents to name but a few. And it all makes perfect sense to southern-based scientists and organizations. The cost of doing Arctic science can be staggering and the field season, the window in which the work is done, is often short and fraught with weather and logistic-related issues. With years of related experience and knowledge, scientists from all over the world are happy to entrust Brossier with their work knowing that it’ll be done right. In many instances, the short Arctic summer is the only window scientists have to work on their particular interest. Eric, France along with Vagabond are there for almost the entire year, giving them unique insight and opportunity to further research and findings. In addition, their valuable work represents a scientific painting over a much broader canvas.
It’s also his sense of practicality that often comes into play. On a recent trip about an hour or so snowmobile ride away from the boat, Eric needed to power up his computer to download data that was being collected by a measuring probe he’d placed under the ice. It was a cold day and normally he would rely on using a trusty Coleman stove to warm up the inside of a small cabin on his qamutik, or sled, to allow him to work on the computer. Despite the cold, it was sunny and Eric had carried with him in the sled a musk ox hide to act as cushioning for the sensitive equipment as he travelled over the sometimes-rough sea ice. Laying the hide on top of the box, it quickly began to absorb what heat the sun was generating and in turn heated up the inside of the cabin. No need for the naptha-burning Coleman stove that day! At day’s end, Eric returned to Vagabond (picking up Leonie from school on the way) and, along with France, begins the work of analyzing the information and details recorded by the various instruments. Sometimes the work and studies they’re involved in, is right outside their front door and the commute to “the office” is not so far nor as taxing.
After five years in Svalbard, the adventurous scientists decided to head to Canada and for the 2011-12 winter they anchored Vagabond about 50 km from Grise Fiord, Canada’s most Northerly community. Safe anchorage was key and while it was found west of the community, being that distance away from the community did provide some challenges.
The following year they made the decision to again over winter in the Grise Fiord area. This time though they chose to live on the boat, next to the community. One of the characters of Vagabond is that it is a flat-bottomed yacht and has only a 4-ft draught; therefore it was easy to drag it up the beach and then have it secured in place. The family and their yacht then became part of the community for the fall season, the long winter and welcomed spring.
In addition to being a floating laboratory, a research facility, library, classroom, communications hub and an office, Vagabond is a home. Eric met his wife France shortly after purchasing the boat and the two have worked hard to make it a home, not only for themselves but their (now two) daughters. Space for daily life and chores is of course limited, and some might regard the lack of personal space an issue, but the family makes it work and it suits their needs and wants accordingly.
Eric admits to liking the dark season but it must come as a relief for everyone when spring arrives and more time can be spent outside. Everything on board has its place and function. Everything is used and it reminds one of just how much we clutter our daily lives and homes with “stuff”. Use is made of the sun through solar panels attached to the mast and wind generators positioned off the stern. The family is very much connected to the outside world. There is the obvious necessity for them to be connected and in contact with fellow scientists.
Presently, being so close to the community of Qikiqtarjuaq, the Vagabond has Wi-Fi. Another benefit of being close is that Vagabond welcomes anyone who wishes to visit. Local hunters and fishers are interested in the science that’s being done and enjoy stopping by, even if it’s just for a short visit for tea and to deliver some freshly caught clams. The family have built a relationship with the community, one based on mutual respect and friendship. At a recent community feast, while Eric and France chatted and caught up with news and events, Leonie and Aurore ran around playing with their friends enjoying themselves.
While the cold is a challenge, the family look upon it as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. Fresh drinking water is derived from any nearby icebergs and that in itself is an opportunity for Eric and France. Their whole environment is a classroom, certainly something that’s not lost on them or, I’m sure, their growing children. A balance is being found and just like any family, an understanding of needs and wants exists. Leonie will be in school all day but upon return to the Vagabond on the back of dad’s snowmobile, her chores might include helping collect ice and learning about glaciers, snow, icebergs, their movement based on currents and a myriad of other things.
Concerns and dangers of course do exist. While very much self-reliant, the family knows that the nearby health centre might be called upon at some point if the need arises. Given life in the Arctic regions, the possibility of encountering a polar bear is always present. Bears have found the ice-bound yacht a curiosity on several occasions. Presently in Qikiqtarjuaq, the family have Takuli and Piculi, two sled dogs that keep watch a few metres from the boat.
Right now Eric and France are committed scientists and are doing important work, in a way really that no one else is. Each summer a few months are spent at their “other home” in Brest, France, a chance to catch up with family and friends and enjoy some of what France is so famous for. While the idea and opportunity to sit outside in shirtsleeves drinking a nice glass of wine and enjoying some great bread and cheese is appealing, one cannot help but think that the cold is still calling and this adventurous family is not quite ready yet to turn Vagabond south.