Nfld. & Labrador

French sailor leaves St. John's to tackle Northwest Passage

Manu Wattecamps-Etienne leaves St. John's headed for Greenland, and then on to what may be the most difficult voyage of his life: the Northwest Passage.

Manu Wattecamps-Etienne heads for Arctic waters and ultimately Vancouver

Manu Wattecamps-Etienne brushes up on his preparations for his voyage through the Northwest Passage back in July. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

French sailor Manu Wattecamps-Etienne slipped quietly out of St. John's Harbour this week in his 10-metre aluminum sailboat and took a left turn. Next stop, Greenland.

After that comes a journey that will likely be the most difficult sail of his life.

"I'm going to cross, to try to cross, the Northwest Passage," Wattecamps-Etienne, 27, said before leaving on Tuesday afternoon.

"So I will see if I can do it — if I'm strong enough, if the weather and the ice will open."

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      Wattecamps-Etienne started sailing with his father as a child while growing up in Brittany, France.

      When he was 19, he decided the regular day-to-day business of living on land wasn't for him.

      "I realized if I wanted to go with a boat," he said. "I had to buy a boat, and if I wanted to buy a boat, I can't study anymore. I need to work. So I gave up my studies, and I said, OK, let's work."

      Wattecamps-Etienne bought his boat and started sailing.

      Since then, he's been sailing from port to port with brief stints working odd jobs for cash to keep going.

      No return

      One job involved picking coconuts on the French-speaking Caribbean island of St. Barts. He enjoyed the gig at first, but as often happens, he grew tired of life on land.

      "I was fed up with this," he said. "It was boring, you know? So last winter, I decided to go to Newfoundland and St-Pierre first."

      When he looks back at the past eight years of sailing, Wattecamps-Etienne is philosophical about the life he left behind in France.

      "[You] say bye to society and a world that you can't live in. And you know if you do it, you can't go back after. There is no return."

      Wattecamps-Etienne has a deep scar on his neck he says he got on a journey south of the equator, but keeps the story to himself. There's a skull and crossbones tattoo on his forearm and he has a medium sized hoop earring in one ear.

      Preparing for journey

      In St. John's this week, he took care of his final preparations before heading to the North Atlantic and then the Arctic Ocean.

      Most of his essentials, however, were acquired in St-Pierre-Miquelon off Newfoundland's south coast.

      Wattecamps-Etienne won't be alone for the journey: he picked up a crew mate in South America for his northern voyage.

      Before leaving the French islands, friends made sure he wouldn't be without on his journey.

      "One of them, he bring me a big box of 12 or 15 bottles of vodka. And another bring me two bottles of rum. Another one a good bottle of whisky. A very good one.

      "So now we are totally full of alcohol and cigarettes for all the trip. So we are a pirate boat," he said with a laugh.

      'Good luck Manu'

      The thing with St. John's is, you never know who's kicking around.

      At one end of St. John's Harbour this week. Wattecamps-Etienne sat planning his trip north. At the other, a French family also known for sailing sat in their 20-metre sailboat the Fleur Australe.

      An ice chart, along with a book on the Northwest Passage helps Manu Wattecamps-Etienne prepare for his trip to the Northwest Passage. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

      Philippe Poupon and his wife Geraldine Danon, along with their four children and family dog, are on an expedition to promote the protection of the world's oceans.

      They sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2009.

      Poupon said you cannot take anything for granted when sailing through Arctic waters.

      "If you have a problem you are alone," he said.

      Asked if she had advice for Wattecamps-Etienne, Danon said, "Advice? No advice. It's his dream, and you have to go for your dream in life, so good luck, Manu."

      The trip all the way over to Vancouver should take four months, if all goes according to Wattecamps-Etienne's plan.

      "I would be crazy if I'm not scared," he said.

      The reason for the trip, he said, is pretty basic.

      "You can go and feel like you're the first one to come here. Not any human have been there before."

      About the Author

      Adam Walsh

      CBC News

      Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist.

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