Kick-ass Scientific Sailboat Journeys to the "Heart of the Climate Machine"

© Christine Lepisto

If you happen to walk by as she sits at port, you can't miss her: the sailboat with an oddly curved aluminum hull and orange-tinted plexiglass domes could be the set of a Wes Anderson film. She is Tara.

© Christine Lepisto

Death and Design: Becoming Tara

Famed yachtsman Sir Peter Blake sailed the 119-foot schooner under the name Seamaster until he was shot and killed by pirates aboard the ship; rumors still echo that Blake was murdered to stifle reports on illegal logging activities he observed on his 3-month UNEP-sponsored expedition up the Amazon.

Before Blake, she was designed and built as Antarctica for polar explorer Jean-Louis Etienne, which explains her odd hull shape. She cannot be crushed by polar ice. Instead, as ice forms around her hull, she is lifted.

The boat was renamed Tara after she was purchased by famed fashion designer Agnès Troublé (AKA agnès b.) Since then, Tara has been dedicated to environmental missions, which took her to Greenland, Antarctica, Patagonia, and South Georgia before she began the Arctic Expedition from 2006-2008, and the Oceans Expedition 2009 - 2012.

© Christine Lepisto

The Arctic Expedition

Tara, stuck fast in the ice, formed part of the arctic base camp for the scientists on the expedition. The team drifted 507 days across 2600 km of arctic ice, studying interactions between air, sea, and ice flows to better understand the impacts of a warming planet. While taking measurements in the air up to 2000m and the sea down to depths of 4000m, the mission also collected pollen samples, detected bromine monoxide and ozone concentrations, and measured the solar radiation hitting and reflected from the sea ice.

The scientific mission provided data critical to climate change models and information about how climate change may affect the sensitive polar environment.

© Christine Lepisto

The Oceans Expedition

In September of 2009, Tara set sail on a journey through earth's oceans. She collected samples characterizing the ecosystems of the smallest denizens of the seas: plankton, bacteria, giruses (giant viruses), and viruses. These marine microorganisms form the base of important food chains and may play a critical role in the health of the seas.

A small cabin on the aft deck serves as marine laboratory. Samples are preserved by freezing with liquid nitrogen until they can be couriered back to shore for distribution to the labs that anxiously await the samples for study.

© Christine Lepisto

Adventure-job Openings on Tara

It takes a special person to join the crew on missions such as these. François Aurat (left in the photo above) serves as sailor and jack of all trades. Tara has 3 job openings for non-French citizens working as second in command, deck officer, and cook aboard Tara on her next mission. Sailing experience is critical. As the ad says: "beginners are unfortunately not welcomed".

But there is a loophole, as long as you have sea legs and a scientific quest. As an example, Emmanuel Boss, physicist and oceanographer (on deck, right, in the photo at the top of this article) joined the crew on Tara for a month, visiting the instruments he has on the ship. The rest of the time Boss works at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences, where he uses samples and data sent back from Tara to add to our knowledge of the "heart of the climate machine" -- the oceans that are the lifeblood of our living planet, pumping heat and precipitation around the globe in patterns we rely upon for survival.

Mission correspondent Vincent Hilaire (right) serves as photographer and reports on the Tara team's achievements. Hilaire's qualifications include a passion for black and white photography, and a journalism degree that founded a career working his way up from cameraman to chief editor for one of France's main TV channels. After seeing the ship's arctic mission explained on TV, he sent an email inquiring if his services could be of use to the team.

Hilaire's photographs chronicle the joys and hardships of the Arctic Expedition, from developing the skill of reading the temperature based on the length of the icicles on a mustache, to a twice-weekly bathing tradition of a sauna followed by a dip in the frigid (-1.8C) polar waters. I asked what was the hardest thing he experienced in his time trapped in the ice. He thought it over before exclaiming that there had been no bad times, everything was wonderful. He did admit that the experience builds patience, and that you "learn a lot about yourself."

The Future of Tara

In 2013, Tara will extend her mission of oceanic studies into the northernmost waters of the earth, including attempts to transit the northwest and northeast passages if they are free of pack ice. That will complete her tours of all the oceans, after which she will focus on Pacific coral reefs, with filmmakers aboard to raise awareness of this critical ecosystem.

You can follow Tara on facebook as she continues to her environmental mission to explore and educate.

Tags: Oceans

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