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Tour of Tara – Crew of French research schooner work with world’s top scientists

Deckhand Julie Lherault pulls with all her might at a line attached to a wench on the deck of S/Y Tara, the French research schooner once owned by New Zealand yachtsman and legendary round-the-world racer Sir Peter Blake.

At the top of that line is a crew member making adjustments for scientist Michel Flores, a specialist in physical optical and chemical properties of aerosols.

“I did the trans-Atlantic crossing in May,” Flores said. “While we were on the trans-Atlantic, I noticed things could be done better. To have better results for our measurements, I am changing everything that I realized on the first leg.”

Since 2003, when the S/Y Seamaster had its name changed to Tara, scientists and crew on the 39m vessel have completed a range of research and scientific studies from plankton ecosystems around the Arctic Ocean to plastic pollution of the Mediterranean.

The aluminum hull schooner stopped briefly in Miami in late June, early July and by now is well into her voyage toward the Asia-Pacific region for a mission that will last more than two years. The scientists onboard will study coral reefs and ocean biodiversity facing climate change impacts.

During a ship tour in Miami, French Capt. Samuel Audrain stops at the black-and-white framed photograph of Blake that hangs below deck.

“Peter Blake worked on this boat 12 years ago when it was called S/Y Seamaster, but died after being shot by pirates,” Capt. Audrain said. He paused for a moment before continuing the tour.

“She has a specificity,” he said about the boat. “She was built in 1989 to drift in the Arctic, to sail in the cold region. She is very wide, very heavy, so when you put this ship in the ice, the ice could push very slowly and the boat lifts up.”

Capt. Audrain joined Tara 10 years ago as a deckhand, teaching sailing skills.

“I understood that the engine is so important that I went back to school and I became the engineer, then first mate,” he said.

He pulls out a book from the ship’s library and shows photos from expeditions he has been on.

“We stayed one year in the Arctic,” he said. “When we crossed the Arctic Ocean, we drifted. We took a lot of measurements for global warming.”

Capt. Audrain continues into the engine room where Eng. Louis Wilmotte is listening to Bach on his laptop while working. He points out the two main engines that were changed out in their most recent refit two months ago.

“Normally, during a long trip, we sail with the wind at least half of the time,” he said. ”We just crossed the Atlantic, and 90 percent of the time we used the engine because there was not enough wind.”

He describes the next research project simply.

“To compare the life in the air with the life in the sea,” he said about the sampling of air and water molecules. “Imagine there is some influence between both.”

Air samples will come from two collectors that are set at the top of the ship’s mast.  

“We have science material for collecting data aerosol [air samples],” he said. “We pump air and collect small pieces in the air, compare them to plankton.”

The vessel carries six crew members plus 10 others, including researchers, resident artists and journalists.

When scientists gather data while on Tara, Tara Expeditions Foundation Managing Director Romain Troublé said the samples are not just for those specific researchers. They are shared with other researchers or universities.

“They send samplings for everyone, they work for everyone,” he said. “They don’t just go home with their own sample.”

In 2016 -2017, Tara will travel from the Panama Canal to the archipelago of Japan. In 2017-2018, she will travel from New Zealand to China. The schooner will crisscross the world’s largest ocean and visit remote islands and reefs to collect 40,000 samples.

Tara’s only stop in the U.S. was at Epic Marina, where it will return at the end of its expedition in 2018. Epic Marina dock assistant Jason Polster said the marina was glad to host S/Y Tara.

“They spent 30 days at sea and they’re kind of winding down right now,” he said. “They chose us because of our location in the city. It’s convenient for them to be able to have their open house and their showings. We’ve also worked in the past with a couple of organizations such as Seakeepers and the Living Ocean Foundations. Epic Marina’s owners are committed to helping them with their work.”

Suzette Cook is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome at suzette@the-triton.com. To keep up with Tara and learn more about the crew, the vessel and research being conducted visit www.taraexpeditions.org.

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Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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