A young French sailor has been locked in the ice in Greenland with his only companion, a red hen. Virginie Nolen-Laissy describes their adventures across the Atlantic and beyond
Guirec Soudée met Monique during a stopover in the Canary Islands when she joined him on what had been up to then a solo transatlantic voyage.
The 24-year-old Breton was sailing his steel yacht, Yvinec, on the first stage of what he hoped would become a circumnavigation. But not a tour via the tradewind routes – he was looking for adventure and planned to spend a winter in the Arctic in total isolation.
The pair soon became inseparable, although the skipper had originally planned to eat her if she became a nuisance. For Monique is a red hen, given to Guirec as a present. Now he says he couldn’t bear to part with her and she has become somewhat of a celebrity with 29,000 followers on Facebook after Guirec started to write a blog about his adventures.
And there have been plenty of those: right now the pair are locked in the ice in Disko Bay, Greenland, without communication or assistance, until June when the next stage of their world tour will recommence.
Guirec Soudée had an unconventional childhood. He grew up on a small island near Plougrescant in the Côtes-d’Armor, France, of which he and his family of one brother and six sisters were the only inhabitants.
From an early age, the sea was his world. At the age when boys play with toy cars Guirec had his first fishing boat. His thirst for adventure certainly comes from his bohemian upbringing.
He wasn’t cut out for school. When his parents hired tutors, he’d take them fishing. After changing schools 13 times he eventually gave up all thought of education on his 18th birthday. That day, he sold his motorbike and bought a one-way ticket to Australia in search of adventure. He had €200 in his pocket and didn’t speak a word of English.
He travelled Australia from east to west, doing odd jobs and collecting unforgettable memories. He eventually became mate of a shrimp boat, on which he embarked for weeks, working sometimes up to 20 hours a day. This experience taught him a lot and confirmed his desire to discover the world.
When he returned to France, at the age of 20, he had enough money put aside to buy a sailing boat, his lifelong dream. Quickly he found a boat at a knockdown price and sailed home to Brittany aboard Yvinec, renamed in honour of the island on which he grew up.
However, he soon discovered that the steel hull was as thin as paper in places and he almost sank when the boat sprang a leak. But it would take more than a setback such as that to discourage this determined young man. Wanting to be independent, Guirec moved to Paris and became a window salesman to earn enough money to be able to fix his boat.
Against the advice of his family, with the yacht barely patched up, he left Brittany in November 2013, his head full of dreams of sailing round the world solo. First he would tackle the Atlantic.
But no sooner had he set off than his autopilot broke down and he had to turn back to Concarneau. Fortuitously, as it turned out, for he met experienced sailor Roland Jourdain and the crew of the submarine polar expedition Under The Pole who were setting off to sail around Greenland for two years.
The Arctic held a particular fascination for Guirec so while waiting for his new autopilot, he gave a hand with preparing Why, the ship for this polar expedition. He even had the chance to sail aboard and the experience confirmed his dreams of the far north.
A month later he left again, making it to the Canaries, where Monique joined the crew – from now on it would be a double-handed voyage.
Chicken across the Atlantic
Monique quickly found her place on board and seemed to enjoy the experience. In the 28 days it took to cross the Atlantic, Monique laid 25 eggs, giving a lie to those who said that a hen cannot lay at sea. During the crossing Monique constantly surprised her skipper. She adapted very quickly to her new environment, despite there being no earthworms on Yvinec.
It didn’t matter, she didn’t hesitate to leave her shelter to peck up the flying fish that landed on deck, in any weather. She almost fell overboard more than once, but each time managed to regain control with a beat of her wings.
When they reached St Barths, Guirec was once again broke. But as a watersports fanatic, he quickly found work in a windsurfing club.
In St Barths he was well-placed to meet well-known sailors to whom he hastened to ask questions about navigation techniques. Paul Cayard, Philippe Poupon, Loïc Peyron, Eric Dumont all helped him. Indeed, as incredible as it may seem, Guirec had no knowledge of navigation when he bought his boat, and picked up what he could from sailors he met at each stop.
St Barths was also a great opportunity for Monique to learn about paddling, surfing, windsurfing, swimming – and to star in a number of photoshoots.
In the end Guirec and Monique stayed for a year in St Barths, taking Yvinec south to escape the hurricane season and to carry out further modifications.
Preparing for the ice
Guirec still had his heart set on exploring the cold lands of Greenland, so he had to prepare his boat for extreme polar conditions. Thanks to his work as a windsurfing instructor and to a crowdfunding website he set up, Guirec earned enough money to reinforce the steel hull, fit insulation, a heating system, new sails, a new engine and other vital supplies.
Guirec also equipped himself, buying skis, hiking and climbing equipment, etc. For her part, it was expected that Monique would remain close to the heater during the colder months.
After this long, but necessary preparation Guirec and Monique finally got going again in June 2015. They left the warm tropical waters and set sail for the Arctic. After a new autopilot problem, solved in Virgin Gorda, they continued their journey with stopovers in Bermuda, Halifax and St Pierre and Miquelon. They reached southern Greenland on 25 August.
At each stage of their voyage Monique became more and more popular. Guirec posted comments, photos and videos on his Facebook page, ‘Voyage d’Yvinec – Guirec Soudée’, and his website www.voyagedyvinec.com. Interest snowballed and they now have a huge following. How does he get all this up online while he’s out at sea, you might wonder? Mainly, he calls me on his satphone and I post up the stories from Switzerland, where I live.
Obviously Guirec is aware that it is mainly Monique who creates the buzz on the internet. But he wants to take advantage of this minor fame to express his view that life is too short not to live our dreams and we should make every effort to achieve them. He wants to stress that even with few resources if you have a strong will you can achieve anything in life!
His message seems to be working because Guirec receives many replies from people who say his experience has helped them find their own dreams. His greatest pride is to be followed by a group of young French people with disabilities who say that his adventure with Monique helps them to dream and travel along with them. Many French schools also follow the pair – a strange experience for one whose own schooling left a lot to be desired.
Given the interest in this unusual and comic adventure, Guirec and I decided to write a series of illustrated novels for children about the world voyage of Monique. The first volume, entitled The Transatlantic Voyage of Monique, is in production and should be released in June in France. An English version is also planned and a TV documentary will be broadcast on their return to recount their experiences.
The Inuit meet a hen
Guirec and Monique spent the late summer and early autumn exploring the west coast of Greenland. They stopped often to meet local Greenlanders. This kind population always gave them a fabulous welcome. Monique also visited children in local schools, who were very amused and puzzled by her.
They had obviously never seen a chicken except on their plates because there are no hens in Greenland!
Guirec loved the exchanges he had with the inhabitants of the Inuit villages, especially in Saqqaq, where they adopted him as a member of their family. He was given the opportunity to learn their fishing techniques during fishing trips and to share their meals. He tasted the local specialities of seal and whale.
Winter in the ice
But soon it was time for Guirec and Monique to pursue their next goal: to spend the winter aboard their boat trapped in the ice, without means of communication and without assistance. His challenge is to survive on his own, away from modern conveniences. Guirec, who fears nothing, thinks that if he had a phone in his pocket, he would be tempted to call for help in case of problems. He wants to be able to rely only on himself to solve the difficulties he will encounter.
This might sound crazy, but no one could make him change his mind. So he took on board 40kg of rice for himself, 60kg of seeds for Monique, 2,000lt of fuel for heating and electricity, as his solar panels won’t operate during the polar night. For the rest, he wanted to hunt and fish in order to survive.
They reached their wintering area in late November, hundreds of miles from everywhere in huge Disko Bay.
An incredible twist of fate occurred on that day. Sadly, his father died just as he had reached his wintering site and had switched off his satphone for the next six months.
But thanks to Uno, an Inuit fisherman, who was contacted via Facebook, we learned that the ice had not yet set in. Uno immediately agreed to take his boat to find Guirec to pass on the terrible news.
When he found out, Guirec turned on his satellite phone briefly to talk to his family, but confirmed that he couldn’t return to France for the funeral. He assured them that he would be strong until his return to the village in June 2016. Since then there has been no news of Guirec and Monique, leaving his family, his friends and his Facebook followers to wait for his next sign of life.
On through the North West Passage
When the ice melts and releases their boat Guirec and Monique plan to continue their journey through the North West Passage and reach the Pacific before carrying on round the world. This amazing duo are not yet done with inspiring their followers. Guirec has plenty more ideas in mind, so his journey could last a lifetime.
And as a hen can live for more than ten years, Monique has plenty more beautiful years ahead to experience new adventures!
Virginie Nolen-Laissy is Guirec’s and Monique’s friend who helps them publicise their adventures. To avoid thinking about what might happen to them during this winter, she is currently looking for sponsors who could provide the necessary funding for the new project to the North West Passage and would be pleased to hear from any interested parties.
Rendezvous is in June for the debriefing of this risky, but exciting winter. Meanwhile, you can get more information on or the Facebook page Voyage d’Yvinec – Guirec Soudée.