Le Ponant: The Genesis of a Sailing Ship

Captain Jean-Philippe Lemaire

Le Ponant: The Genesis of a Sailing Ship

Captain Jean-Philippe Lemaire

In 1991 I had the great pleasure of being part of a highly successful act of creation: the building of Le Ponant. I and the other members of Compagnie des Iles du Ponant set out to build a true sailing ship, one with a convivial atmosphere, for expedition travel. We wanted to appeal to travelers who don’t want to be among the anonymous thousands aboard today’s gargantuan cruise ships, but rather those who want to escape the trappings and reminders of the everyday world for exotic shores and little-traveled waters. As our goal was to “sell a dream” to passengers, we needed a vessel that would enable passengers “to achieve the dream.” We wanted passengers to feel as if they were aboard their own private yacht.

Thus, we designed a ship 290 feet long with three masts, holding a total of 16,140 feet of sail, and a shallow draft, allowing it to use waterways and anchorages denied larger vessels. Our ship would carry a limited number of passengers served by an attentive crew.

I was involved in many aspects of Le Ponant’s construction — sails and rigging, stability, bridge operations, aesthetics, logistics, and sea trials. From conception to christening, Le Ponant took 18 months to complete. It was an amazing experience, to start with a blank sheet of white paper and, as the months passed, wrestle with and solve technical issues, until the ship took form in dry dock. We knew we were involved in a very special task.

As rewarding as it was to see Le Ponant grow day by day, we could only claim success if she performed to our, and our passengers’, satisfaction on her maiden voyage. Would our labors bear fruit? We soon had our answer. At the end of the voyage our passengers disembarked, not just happy, but ecstatic. Their enthusiasm was all the answer we needed. Indeed, Le Ponant performed so admirably from the beginning that, aside from some minor adjustments with the sails and rigging and the later addition of Zodiacs, we did not need to make any improvements.

Traveling under sail can be a transcendent event — no vibration or noise caused by engines, no rolling sensation, just the ship’s gentle lean as the wind fills the canvas, propelling her through the waves. I sometimes encounter passengers who feel some trepidation at the prospect of cruising aboard a sailing ship, but after we get under way, they realize that sails act as excellent stabilizers, perhaps even the best if the seas become rough. These passengers quickly become aficionados of sailing, especially after they’ve stood on deck at night with the trade wind breeze on their faces, the strains of classical music in their ears, the spotlighted sails rising above them, huge patches of white seemingly disappearing into the sky.

In Zegrahm Expeditions, we have found an ideal partner for two reasons. First, traveling under sail requires good wind conditions and ports of call not too distant from each other, and Zegrahm destinations such as the Mediterranean and the Seychelles fulfill both of these requirements. These regions also require landings at remote areas too small for larger ships or lacking the facilities they require.

Second, Zegrahm travelers share our passion for distinctive adventure travel. They want a small-group cultural or natural history experience, complete with Zodiac excursions, scuba diving and snorkeling, and nature walks or archeological investigations in the company of top-notch experts. These travelers also appreciate the integral part that ship and crew play in a memorable journey. Le Ponant has all of the necessities for expeditionary voyaging, from Zodiacs and diving and snorkeling gear to the latest in navigation and safety equipment. Her amenities match her operational capabilities. Many ships of her size carry 100 passengers. Le Ponant, however, only carries 56, with a crew of 30 — a remarkable passenger-to-crew ratio.

As the builders of Le Ponant we realized our dream of constructing and sailing a consummate ship. If you wish for a unique sailing experience combining the best of three worlds — vessel, destination, and Zegrahm’s expeditionary style — you can realize your dream by coming with us in 2004.

Photos: Copyright, Zegrahm Expeditions