Ponant‘s luxury icebreaker, Le Commandant Charcot, made its first-ever voyage to the Oceania region this week, with the 240-passenger French-flagged ship docking in Lyttelton on Sunday. Le Commandant Charcot arrived into Christchurch’s cruise port following a 3.5-week half circumnavigation of Antarctica from Ushuaia, Argentina sailing through Marie Byrd Land and the Ross Sea.
Capitlising on Le Commandant Charcot‘s visit to this region, Ponant Asia Pacific invited around 100 travel partners and media in Australia and New Zealand to experience a night aboard the one-of-a-kind vessel. Also invited to the event were a handful of Ponant’s VIP guests, among who were a number of Commodore-ranked passengers that have sailed 20+ times with the company.
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Charcot has five guest decks, 123 staterooms and suites, all with private balconines or terraces. Among the accommodations are four 94 sqm split-level duplexes at the rear of decks 6 and 7 with outdoor jacuzzis, and an enormous Shipowner’s Suite on deck 8 spread out over 115 sqm and with a whopping 186 sqm private terrace. Guests will also find two restaurants, a main lounge, a theatre and a spa with its own snow cave, alongside expedition equipment that includes 16 Zodiacs and a helicopter.
Delivered in mid-2021 as a 270-guest plus 190 crew operation, Ponant has trimmed back the passenger capacity of the Polar Class 2 vessel t0 245 and elevated crew members to 215, to provide a near 1:1 ratio.
What makes Le Commandant Charcot so unique and a game changer in the expedition cruise market are her capabilities to penetrate ice as thick as 2.5 metres, an ice ridge of 15 metres, and temperatures as low as -25C.
Built by the Fincantieri-owned Vard shipyard, one of the most revolutionary design elements are the dual 300-tonne azipods (rotating propellers) that can move in a full 360 degrees. It’s these massive azipods that can crunch their way through solid ice and the ship’s hull design that pulverises ice flows, which have enabled Le Commandant Charcot to reach the extremes of the earth, further north and south than any other commercial expedition vessel.
Even in 2.5 metre-thick ice, Charcot moves at a speed of 2 knots (3.5km/hr) and can remove itself from being encassed in ice. Whereas on open and glassy water, Charcot‘s cruising speed is 15 knots, or around 28 km/hr.
In the ship’s theatre, Captain Stanislas Devorsine presented a detailed review of the relatively short history of the vessel, from its conception to its delivery and operation, explaining the ship’s design criteria, environmental objectives, safety and reliability standards, science, innovations and how Le Commandant Charcot is still able to provide a comfortable ride for a ship of its class.
Captain Devorsine himself has a link to Australia, having been stationed in Hobart from where he operated ships to Antarctica for 10 years prior to joining Ponant. That included the only French icebreaker, L’Astrolabe, that is used to transport personnel and supplies to the Dumont d’Urville Station in Antarctica.
For Deb Corbett, GM Sales and Marketing for Ponant Asia Pacific, the opportunity to bring trade partners and her own team to New Zealand to experience the vessel was special. Corbett said it was an “emotional moment for all of us seeing Charcot for the first time,” she told guests onboard Monday night.
Sarina Bratton, Chairman Asia Pacific and Special Advisor to Executive, Ponant said it took six years to “realise this dream” of bringing Charcot to life, taking delivery during the global pandemic.
Bratton heaped praise on Ponant’s forward-thinking owners at Artemis Group who acquired the brand in 2015.
“Extraordinary dreams and extraordinary visions need extraordinary shareholders.”
“And with that, I think at Ponant, we’re blessed. The Artemis Group is one of the most successful family-owned businesses in France.
“It was founded by another remarkable visionary, Francois Pinault, in 1992 and driven by an entrepreneurial spirit. Now Artmeis’ consolidated assets today total more than 50 billion euros and it’s mainly in the luxury segment. Does that sound like a good shareholder?” Bratton said.
Speaking exclusively with LATTE aboard Le Commandant Charcot, Ponant’s Chris Hall, CEO Asia Pacific, said the 26-night expedition back to Antarctica and onward to Ushuaia had a strong quota of Australian travellers in the mix, at 70 of the 200 (maximum capacity to Antarctica).
Hall said the number wasn’t a true reflection of the average Australian guest number sailing aboard Charcot. The popularity of today’s voyage for Aussies – which leads in at around $58,000 per person twin share – was likely driven by the close proximity to the ship being in the Oceania region.
He said the number of Australians on other Charcot expeditions in the Arctic and to Antarctica from Ushuaia would be less due to the vast distances to reach those regions.
However, with the ship’s capabilities, and the desire for Ponant guests to explore the unchartered, expeditions on board Le Commandant Charcot from Hobart are worth evaluating.
“I think that’s one of these opportunities for APAC,” Hall said of the Tasmanian capital, where localised sailings could likely be fed from Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and Southeast Asian markets.
“There’s a great opportunity, but like anything, you’ve got to know if there would be a market for it. But it feels like a no-brainer when you see this product firsthand and understand its capability. But do we have a market size and population to support it?”
Support was also a focus Bratton highlighted in a speech on the ship when confirming Ponant returned to profitability last year and that 2023 will be a record year for the company.
“You need staff, you need customers and you need partners coming together to make that a success, and that’s where you all come in. Because, our company couldn’t be a success without you,” Bratton added.
“We’ve already doubled the 2019 turnover that we did in Asia Pacific already in the second month of 2023,” she added. Asia Pacific now accounts for 20% of Ponant’s global revenue.
View LATTE‘s exclusive photo gallery from Monday night’s reception onboard Le Commandant Charcot here.
Lead image: Captain Stanislas Devorsine, Sarina Bratton, and Chris Hall, CEO Asia Pacific.