More than half a century ago on a winter’s day in the English Channel, a 10-year-old French girl stood half-frozen on the deck of a sailing boat, mesmerised by the sight of snow falling into the sea and dissolving in the waves off the coast of Jersey. She had vowed that one day she would sail around the world alone and was braving the cold and the snow to prepare for the icy Southern Ocean.
That girl was Isabelle Autissier and she has more than fulfilled her wish, she tells me shortly after we have collided at the entrance to Les 4 Sergents, the restaurant she has chosen for our lunch, near her home in the Atlantic port of La Rochelle. Her shock of curly hair and wry smile are instantly recognisable to those who follow sailing.
She has been around the world four times under sail, and in the course of becoming one of the best-known sportswomen in France — the nation most fanatical about single-handed sailing — she broke records, became the first woman to circumnavigate solo in a race and was twice rescued from the mountainous seas that encircle the South Pole. Today she is a prominent novelist, broadcaster and environmentalist seeking to preserve the seas that enchanted her as a child.
And she still sails regularly in the remote polar regions. “The ocean is the axis around which my life has turned since the beginning, since I’ve begun thinking about it, from a very young age. Sailing is at the heart of it,” she says as we take our places under the restaurant’s elegant glass and metal canopy, manufactured at Gustave Eiffel’s workshop. It covers what used to be a garden and is now the dining room. (The four sergeants were Bonapartists guillotined in 1822, and legend has it that two of them briefly escaped from prison in the nearby Tour de la Lanterne and hid here.)
I am eager to ask Autissier not just about her sailing feats but also about her life as a writer — she has even done an opera libretto — and as a leader of the World Wide Fund for Nature who says our planet should be called the Sea, not the Earth. But, as a timid sailor myself, I have to know about her experiences in the Southern Ocean: once she waited four days with her wrecked boat before being rescued by an Australian navy helicopter, and in another race she was lucky to be found and plucked to safety from her overturned yacht by fellow sailor Giovanni Soldini. Back in 1997, Canadian skipper Gerry Roufs died in the Vendée Globe race when violent winds and waves overturned his boat and Autissier was unable to find him.
Autissier is phlegmatic about her shipwrecks and matter-of-fact about the possibility of dying. “It’s true that I’ve twice found myself in these situations but these things can happen. On the first occasion, I was dismasted, stopped at Kerguelen, built a jury-rig mast and set off again before being completely turned over by a huge wave.
“The boat was really destroyed, it ripped off the cabin top. But on both occasions I felt more or less the same thing. I didn’t panic — I am not saying that to . . . it’s just that I was immediately pragmatic. The first time my boat rolled over and came back I saw it was full of water. I took a bucket and emptied it. And then I started to think, what should I do? That was when I set off the distress beacon.
“I think I’m pretty optimistic. The idea is to fix things. If there is a problem to solve, you solve it. And if you don’t, well, life ends some day. Better later than sooner, but there you are . . . When you are sailing, you always think about what could happen in two hours, in six hours, in 24 hours. And you think about Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. What do I do if this doesn’t work, or if that breaks? You have a kind of mental machinery that prepares you.”
That makes you a good skipper, I say, as we embark on our entrées — butternut velouté for Autissier and a delicate crabmeat starter with a hint of wasabi for me. We are engrossed in our conversation, and she is as matter-of-fact about food as she is about sailing and death.
When I urge her to comment on her dish in keeping with the traditions of Lunch with the FT, she briskly describes the soup in one word as “delicious” but remarks that she once had a “blind meal” that proved how hard it is to tell the difference between carrots and potatoes when you cannot see what you are eating. She has stronger opinions about the wine, immediately choosing a glass of Bourgueil red for herself and commenting on my choice of a white from the local Vendée region: “They’ve got a hell of a lot better — 15 years ago they were awful.”
This lunch on a rainy winter’s day in La Rochelle has been many months in the making because Autissier always seems to be away sailing. She has just returned from the Leeward Islands in French Polynesia but suggests it was too easy and comfortable to be the kind of “challenging” (she uses the English word) expedition she favours.
So where is she going next? Now 66, she has given up single-handed racing and prefers exploring “in absolute freedom” in the company of scientists (she initially studied crustaceans and first came to La Rochelle as a fisheries researcher), as well as artists and mountaineers who need a ride to difficult places without airports or roads.
“I do what I want, with whom I want, where I want,” she says. Her own boat these days is not a lightweight racing machine but a robust aluminium yacht that does not depend on corporate sponsors and that she describes as an off-road “mountain bike of the sea”. The boat is in Iceland and her next trip is to Greenland.
Autissier grew up in the Paris region and was introduced to sailing by her parents, who owned dinghies and then a keelboat that her father shared with 16 partners to reduce the cost and keep the boat sailing through the year — not just for the typical two weeks in the summer.
“They were écolos [greens] before their time,” she says with a grin. “When I was little, I got tired of dolls pretty quickly. Tool boxes, on the other hand, I adored.” In her early twenties, she made her own yacht in the old warehouse area of La Rochelle after buying a steel hull “like a rusty bathtub”. She quit her job, set off to Africa and Brazil with friends and insisted on returning single-handed across the Atlantic from the Caribbean. She was hooked.
That all makes sense to an amateur who sails for pleasure, but why the urge to go to the extreme and frigid latitudes near the poles? First, she explains patiently to someone who has never seen an iceberg, it is the breathtaking landfalls, and the angle and unpolluted clarity of the polar light. Then there’s the ice and unspoilt beauty of the landscape, and the lack of fear among the wild animals that elsewhere flee at the sight of humans.
Finally, for a woman whose achievements include smashing the speed record for the 19th-century gold rush sailing route from New York around Cape Horn to San Francisco, there is that matter of the challenge: “It’s more fun. The charts are wrong, so you end up in places where you have no idea where you’re going . . . It’s pretty exciting in terms of navigation — and it’s magnificent.”
I am thinking that it also sounds cold and frightening, but having read several of her books in recent weeks to prepare for our lunch, I turn to her second career as a successful novelist and suggest that her strong, solitary female characters are in her own image: the young eco-activist Léa, for example, in Le Naufrage de Venise (“The Sinking of Venice”, a futuristic tale published last year about a climate-related disaster), or Louise, one half of the sailing couple stranded on an abandoned whaling island in Soudain, Seuls (“Suddenly Alone”), her most successful novel so far.
“People have told me I write feminist novels. Well, that’s great but I didn’t . . .” She pauses and I suggest she did not do it deliberately. “No,” she agrees. “What I did do somewhat deliberately in Soudain, Seuls, for example, was to try not to fall into the cliché where it’s the man who braves the elements and solves the problems and everything.
“From a novelistic point of view it was more interesting that it should be this apparently physically frail young woman . . . And also, why not? When you look at women in the world, many of them have extraordinary courage and tenacity, and it’s often those with the least resources who end up alone with a child and no money. It’s not genetic in my opinion, it’s cultural. Women tend to end up in more difficult and demanding situations than men.”
She has no children herself, but enjoys her six nieces and nephews and was partner for a time of a man who had two children. She has no regrets now that she spent her childbearing years sailing around the world. “I have friends who were very attracted by motherhood, who want that experience of being pregnant, but it didn’t really grab me.”
As for Soudain, Seuls, a modern Robinson Crusoe story with a woman protagonist, it has been or is being translated into 10 languages and will come out soon as a film. And she likes to try new things. The other day, I saw her on stage at a small Paris theatre telling tales of the sea. And she wrote a “slightly wacky” climate-themed opera called Homo Loquax with her musical partner Pascal Ducourtioux, performed by Radio France and in provincial theatres, in which the words used by people over the centuries are released from the melting ice caps and fly back to be heard in the places where they were first spoken.
Ours turns out to be a typically French two-hour lunch, but we are making quick work of our main courses — a vegetarian platter with risotto for her and a rather chewy baked monkfish for me (I should have remembered that is the nature of the lotte) — and I want to ask about her life as an environmentalist before we get to the coffee.
For obvious reasons, sailors often turn to green causes — think of the UK’s Ellen MacArthur and her campaigns against plastic waste — and I worried when I started reading Le Naufrage de Venise that it would be a kind of angry environmentalist tract thinly disguised as fiction. Instead, while the climate message is unmistakable, I found it well plotted and the characters engaging. After surviving the Venice disaster, the feisty and solitary Léa remains estranged from her mercenary politician father and faces an uncertain future on the mainland. “She’ll become a climate activist and perhaps you’ll see her chucking pots of mayonnaise at famous paintings,” Autissier says with a laugh.
Like me, Autissier is baffled that global warming — for which she sees the evidence in the melting ice of the Arctic and the Antarctic — has become a divisive political issue, a phenomenon that climate-change deniers see as a matter of faith rather than simply a reality we need to address. Why, she wonders, did it take the Ukraine war to persuade Europeans to save energy and invest more in renewable energy? “It makes me sad to say that we have to suffer in order to stop being idiots. I would prefer that we be idiotic for as short a time as possible.
“On Venice [and sea-level rise], one of the questions I asked myself was about denial. Why are we in this absolute denial about where we are and where we’re going? It’s not as if we don’t have the facts. The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has been telling us everything for 40 years . . . It’s incredibly clear.”
She adds that the idea of sustainable development as a kind of equal interaction between economics, society and the environment is all wrong, because the reality is more like a multi-tiered wedding cake with the planet and its physical functioning at the base and everything else on top. If you destroy the environment, the rest, including human society, collapses.
Talk of Ukraine leads to a discussion of cold childhood homes and how much more economical our prewar parents’ generation were than their children and grandchildren — and to dessert. She picks the lime pudding, while the three homemade sorbets I choose — fig, red fruits and pear — were by a long way my best course and come close to the perfection of Vivoli’s gelato in Florence.
Over coffee I realise that instead of arguing, we seem to agree on just about everything — the joy of night sailing and looking at the stars, a preference for paper over electronic nautical charts, the folly of Brexit, the failure of France’s Emmanuel Macron to go down in history as an environmental president even though he makes a lot of speeches — so I bring her back to the question of the oceans and the planet and what any of us can actually do to save them.
“There is a lack of scientific culture, and a lack of contact with nature. When you are in the natural world you can say what you like but nature has the last word: if it’s cold, it’s cold, and if it’s hot it’s hot, whether it suits you or not. So people take refuge a lot in the virtual world, live virtual lives. All that means a lack of understanding, a lack of rigour, and we get emotion and all kinds of nonsense instead, to the extent that people think the opinion of a physics professor with 30 years of research is no more valid than that of my neighbour who walks outside and says it’s cold today so there can’t be any global warming.”
As a scientist by training, she chose WWF, where she was president in France and is now honorary president, as the vehicle for her environmental work because of its focus on science. “I try to be active. Being optimistic or pessimistic doesn’t help anyone — that’s my pragmatic side — so I do things instead. And that is important to me because it helps escape the distress. It’s terrible to see the world collapsing around us or, when I’ve got nephews and nieces — I’m even a great-aunt now — to think about this bad news all the time.”
How long can she go on sailing and campaigning? “I’m 66, so it’s still fine, although of course like everyone there will come a day when I can’t any more. I reckon I’ve got at least 10 more years, and after that, we’ll see.” With that, we say our farewells and she rides off on her bicycle to prepare for the next adventure.
Victor Mallet is an FT journalist based in Paris
Find out about our latest stories first — follow @ftweekend on Twitter