Some events are life altering. For scientist-adventurer Grant Redvers, his life falls into three neat divisions: Before Tara, During Tara, and After Tara.
Tara, a 36-metre aluminium-hulled French schooner, was Redvers’ home during a momentous recreation of a voyage made by Fridtjof Nansen in the 1890s. Nansen, seeking a means of nearing the pole, built a robust, round-hulled ship called Fram and deliberately allowed it to be captured in the Arctic sea ice. He theorised that the vessel and its surrounding ice would be carried by the circumpolar current to within striking distance of the North Pole.
As part of project DAMOCLES (Developing Arctic Modelling and Observing Capabilities for Long-term Environmental Studies), Tara was to follow Fram’s example, while her inhabitants collected data and worked to focus world attention on the melting of the Arctic ice due to anthroprogenic climate change.
At the helm, presiding over a polyglot crew of senior scientists and specialists for the 506-day duration – including the months of Arctic winter darkness – was Redvers, a lean, mildly spoken Kiwi, just 33 at the start of the expedition.
People, he says, not the unforgiving environment, were his greatest challenge. Indeed, during times of duress – the Shackletonian moments, when the ice broke up, swallowing equipment with it, or polar bears came visiting – the crew gelled as one. It was when the stress relented, and people reverted to their everyday patterns of behaviour, that problems arose.
One gruff Russian spoke nothing but his native tongue. A French cameraman isolated himself for countless hours in his cabin, ‘meditating’. Tempers frayed. Redvers found that as a New Zealander he was a natural conciliator.
“We are the peacemakers, as opposed to French or Russian culture where they like to butt heads. If they’ve got a problem they yell and scream about it. They let it out – and everyone’s happy.”
He found a way to lighten tensions. “When smaller conflicts arose I’d bring out this big box of Kinder Surprise chocolates stashed in my office. Grown men would suddenly stop squabbling and start building the toys inside the eggs.
“Bigger issues, however, required serious diplomacy, listening, discussion among the team, and sometimes me just laying down the law if I felt we had reached stalemate with diplomacy.”
In his leadership style, Redvers drew on his experiences as a science technician at Scott Base in the late 1990s. “I modelled the operation of the boat as a polar base. It was that Anglophone way of doing business: ‘Right, we’re going to have a meeting’. Some felt it was a bit over the top, but the other way of doing things, what I call ‘freestyle Francophone’, can often degenerate into chaos.”
Understanding each other’s cultures became a priority. “I would regularly organise social events related to the people on board and where they came from. That helped bond the team.”
As leader, Redvers had to present the appearance of being calm and in control no matter what. Like Scott and Shackleton before him, he was lucky enough to find a confidant in the team doctor. He also had something the polar explorers of yore had lacked: a satellite phone. In times of trouble, he could always place a call home to Masterton.
“There were a couple of times, particularly through the first winter when we really had our backs to the wall. At times like that, the occasional word with my parents would really make me hang in there.
“The continuing burden of responsibility didn’t hit me until afterwards. It’s really only in the past year or 18 months that I’ve felt I’m back on an even keel.”
Raised in small town Masterton, Redvers enjoyed a garden-variety Kiwi outdoors upbringing, tramping in the nearby Tararuas, mastering white-water kayaking, and sailing dinghies.
“I went off to university thinking I want to learn more about the physical science behind these natural environments. I’ll get a job somehow that helps me protect, manage and appreciate these areas.”
After gaining a physical geography degree at Massey and working for three years with the Wellington Regional Council as a surface-water hydrologist, Redvers applied successfully for a position as science technician at Scott Base in the 1997-98 summer season.
One of his responsibilities was monitoring sewage and wastewater discharge – and a detailed study of Scott Base’s sewage and wastewater discharge systems would later become the subject of his Master’s degree in environmental science at the University of Auckland.
In pursuit of his Master’s, Redvers went back to the ice for two more seasons. “The poo monitoring led a to bit of ridicule. The first season my nickname was ‘Poo Boy’. And by the time I graduated it was ‘Dr Poo’.”
A job with a private Auckland consultancy doing hydrology, storm -water and contaminated site management followed. “It was very much a suit-and-tie deal and the interesting stuff was contracted out. I was more like a project manager and accountant. I stuck with it for a year.”
He escaped to sea. A colleague at the consultancy introduced him to Welsh glaciologist Alan Hubbard, who was looking for crew to sail with him to Antarctica on a scientific mission.
“There were four of us, very inexperienced sailors. It was bloody ridiculous. We pointed south into the southern oceans, then went east. It took almost six weeks to get to Chile; most boats do it in three or four. It was horrendous: we got knocked over twice, southwest of Cape Horn. That was my baptism in the world of polar sailing. I’m surprised it didn’t put me off.”
Far from it. From then on, Redvers’ life would revolve around research, natural history and climbing expeditions on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Then in 2004 Redvers talked his way into a deckhand job on board Tara. Alongside its crew of French scientists, he completed voyages to Antarctica, South Georgia and Patagonia. In 2006, he was invited to lead Tara into the Arctic.
So what of the years AT (After Tara)?
In 2005, Redver crossed paths with a young French Canadian biologist-videographer on the South Atlantic island of South Georgia. Pascale Otis was heading south to overwinter on the Antarctic Peninsula aboard a Canadian boat. Redvers, on Tara, was heading north to the Arctic.
But after their expeditions were over, they met up in New Zealand. Otis later assisted Redvers with a film about his 2009 trip to the west coast of Greenland with a team of glaciologists and climate scientists aboard the yacht Gambo.
During the summer of 2011-12, the two helped to lead parties of students to the Antarctic as part of the Students on Ice expeditions. Redvers raised funds to include a pupil from his former college.
This northern summer, they head to the Arctic aboard the yacht Arctic Tern, part of a so-called ‘Last Ice Area’ initiative, spotlighting the loss of sea ice in the polar ice cap.
“Our role on Arctic Tern is to take World Wildlife Fund representatives to Greenland, Ellesmere Island and Baffin Island, the ‘last ice area’. They will meet with community groups to learn about the changes they are likely to experience in the future and engage them in discussions about solutions or ways to adapt. We will be filming and providing some support for scientists working in the area.
“Climate change is an issue we’ve got to deal with as a global community – or we’re going to be forced to deal with the consequences.’