Why would an organization dedicated to the wellbeing of the oceans recognize a fashion designer? The truth is, agnès b., who received France’s Legion of Honor in 2010, far exceeds this narrow classification.
Agnès b., the CEO of what is now an international fashion empire that she established in the early 1970s with not much more than flair and a dream, is a true Renaissance woman. An art collector and an artist in her own right, agnès believes strongly in getting involved, and her foundation supports many causes, including the environment.
Agnès’ support of Tara Expeditions (a non-profit organization dedicated to oceanographic research) earned her the Seakeeper Award and piqued the curiosity of Thalassa, a French televised magazine dedicated to the sea.
In 2003, agnès’ son Etienne Bourgois made a discovery that changed the family’s common love of the ocean into something bigger; he learned that Seamaster was for sale in New Zealand. In sailing circles, Seamaster is the stuff of legends. The 118-foot aluminum sloop had belonged to competitive sailor and explorer Sir Peter Blake. A New Zealander with a passion for exploration, Blake was on an environmental mission in the Amazon when river pirates boarded the boat and shot him dead. Sometime after the deadly attack, the boat was returned to New Zealand where Blake was revered as a national hero and the greatest sailor to have ever lived.
The sloop herself has a pedigree. Built in 1989 in a French shipyard, she had been conceived to serve as a scientific platform able to endure the toughest conditions. Dr. Jean-Louis Etienne, a physician and explorer, cruised the southernmost regions of the earth aboard the sailboat, which was then named Antarctica. At the time of her launch, she was the largest of her kind, with a nearly 33-foot beam and sporting two masts 89 feet tall. A retractable keel allowed her to plow in waters as shallow as four feet, and thick aluminum plates made her extra strong.
This incredible find sparked an idea. Etienne and agnès decided to return the sailboat to her initial mission and provide scientists with another tool to study the planet’s climatic changes. Refitted in France at the shipyard where she was built (SFCN in Brittany) and renamed Tara, the sloop became the centerpiece for what would become Tara Expeditions.
One of the first high-profile missions sent Tara to the Arctic. Sailing to the northernmost latitude ever reached by a sailboat, she stayed trapped in ice for more than 500 days, serving as home base for a team of European scientists studying the state of the Arctic ice. The trip became the subject of a 90-minute documentary released in 2008.
On September 5, 2009, the sloop set sail again for a two-and-half-year cruise through the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and then through the Panama Canal to the Atlantic. This time the goal was to take salinity samples and collect plankton to help scientists understand the implications of the planet’s increased temperatures on this nearly invisible and yet incredibly diverse marine life—and the entire food chain. Named “Tara Oceans,” the expedition was a mission on a grand scale with 126 scientists relaying each other during 938 days. The sailboat visited 32 countries. In February 2012, it made a stopover in New York’s Battery Park and arrived back at homeport near Lorient, France, in March.
Many international organizations are involved, but agnès b.’s foundation provides about a third of the organization’s annual operating fund, financing a great deal of these expeditions. And Tara Expeditions has become a family affair. Romain Troublé, who took care of logistics in Siberia during Tara’s Arctic expedition, is secretary general of the Tara Expeditions’ fund and Etienne Bourgois, who presides over the fund, was Tara Oceans’ co-director along with scientist Eric Karsenti. Agnès, whose distinctive signature is on the sailboat’s hull, makes herself available wherever possible.
“I always thought that my life would make no sense at all without a social agenda,” agnès b. once told an interviewer. “The 21st century will be the century of sharing and solidarity or it will not be.”
For more information, please visit oceans.taraexpeditions.org
Tara Oceans in numbers:
Expedition duration: 2½ years or 938 days
Distance sailed: 62,000 nautical miles
Longest sailing: 3,700 nm between San Diego and Panama
Fuel used: 62,080 gal. (235,000L)
Expedition cost: 9 million euros
On board Tara: 15, including crew, scientists, journalists and artists or 196 over time (including 126 international scientists and 70 crewmembers)
Samples taken: 27,882 dispatched to various laboratories around the world, most of them previously unknown
The Bal de la Mer, which this year honored agnès b. with its prestigious SeaKeeper event, is one of the International SeaKeeper Society’s headliner events. The non-profit organization relies on donations to fund its programs. Originally, the ISKS’ primary mission was to equip private yachts with an automated oceanographic data collection instrument called Seakeeper, to help the scientific community understand changes occurring in the ocean environment. Since then, the organization has expanded its initiatives at the behest of its scientific advisory committee, comprised of some of the leading scientists in oceanographic and atmospheric research. One of ISKS’ recent initiatives is the so-called Vessels of Opportunity fleet, allowing boats of all sizes to become vehicles for science. ISKS will be at Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show hosting several events, including an invitation-only preview of the world’s most spectacular yachts, in conjunction with the superyacht membership organization SYBass, on October 24, 2012.
For more information or to donate, visit seakeepers.org