French sailor pushes back at doubters about his exploits in the Northwest Passage

The man at the center of a Northwest Passage controversy says he’s not a cheat or a liar — and he claimed he never set a record with his 2017 solo catamaran cruise.

Yvan Bourgnon of France says he is shocked by allegations circulating in the French media that he embellished the facts of his crossing, cheated a record attempt and then tried to cover it up.

Of course, he tried to make the story come alive for those he told it to, Bourgnon said — who wouldn’t, after navigating 7,500 kilometers of treacherous Arctic waters in a cabinless boat?

“Isn’t that what every adventurer does when he describes his journey?” Bourgnon said in a written response to the charges.

“Telling, making the story come alive to share it, giving it meaning, making people feel the moment – that’s the very nature of adventure storytelling, and it in no way deserves to be accused of cheating or lying.”

At the heart of this strange controversy are headlines and articles in French newspapers that conflate two subjects: a lawsuit currently in the French courts and allegations that he fabricated or lied about aspects of his trip.

A meeting in Taloyoak

Bourgnon spent 71 days at sea aboard his catamaran, In Loulouttestarting in July 2017.

On his websitethe skipper compiles a list of trip highlights: falling overboard at Prudhoe Bay, colliding with a walrus after Bellot Strait and finding a polar bear with its paws on Must Louloutte‘s tire near Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut.

A cold looking man looks at the camera.  Behind him is a catamaran pulled up on ice.
Yvan Bourgnon and Ma Louloutte on the Arctic ice. (Submitted by Yvan Bourgnon)

On September 26, 2022, the French daily Le Figaro published a study cast doubt on some of these claims. The investigation questioned Bourgnon’s encounter with polar bears and pointed to the absence of scratch marks on the catamaran, and questioned why the on-board cameras used for a documentary all went down at Bellot Strait (which Bourgnon says was due to the difficulty of charging batteries). on board).

It also resurfaced claims that Bourgnon had lied about setting a formal record for the first solo crossing in a cabinless catamaran, which would have required him to sail the route unaided without setting foot on land.

It points to time he spent in Taloyoak, Nunavut, and help he apparently received from some other sailors, and accuses him of trying to hide both facts so he could claim to have made history as the first person to sail the Northwest Passage solo in a catamaran.

It cites an email in which Bourgnon apparently asked Pierre Guyot – the documentary producer who is now suing him – to be discreet about a meeting they had in Taloyoak, where Bourgnon spent several days.

In an interview, Bourgnon told the CBC that he never tried to hide his stay in Taloyoak. He wrote openly about it in his 2018 memoir, Ice Conquerorwhere he described sleeping in a “hut” for four nights.

Despite having given another interview Radio Canada in September 2017, describing his trip as an attempt to set a record, Bourgnon told the CBC that the record in question was just a dream — one that he knew had failed when he stopped in Taloyoak.

A map showing Taloyoak, Nunavut, in relation to Iqaluit.
A map showing Taloyoak, Nunavut, in relation to Iqaluit. (CBC)

Because of that, he never asked to have the record certified, he said.

“I said, ‘OK, I put my feet on the ground, so I didn’t respect things to make a record,'” Bourgnon said.

“For me, that wasn’t the most important thing. The most important thing was to make an adventure, to make a challenge, to be alone with a little beach catamaran there.”

However, his website describes him as “the first skipper to reach the Northwest Passage on a single-handed sport catamaran without cockpit or assistance,” and so does the website to the Bimedia Challenge – which is the challenge he had taken on.

Chuck Pizzo-Lyall, the mayor of Taloyoak, remembers meeting Bourgnon and Guyot when they stopped there in August 2017. He said Bourgnon spent about a week in the community.

There is a small secluded bay nearby where boats can seek shelter from high winds and waves. Pizzo-Lyall said he helped tow them into the safe harbor and later gave Bourgnon a tow back out.

“We saw him take off into the horizon,” he recalled.

Pizzo-Lyall said he thought Bourgnon’s journey was a “very amazing achievement”.

“I’m really glad he made it… Doing it alone has its own mental health challenges, especially if you’re facing north – whether it’s the weather or the mental well-being of being out there alone, polar bears and all that wildlife , we have in the north it’s basically bigger and can’t eat you no problem,” he said.

Sunlight hits his hair, a man laughs at the camera.
Yvan Bourgnon says his journey through the Northwest Passage gave him perspective for his ecological work with The SeaCleaners, which works to protect the oceans from plastic pollution. (Submitted by Yvan Bourgnon)

The trial

Bourgnon is facing a lawsuit over his Northwest Passage crossing — essentially a battle over who owns the rights to images filmed during his journey for use in a documentary, he said.

That case was heard by the Paris Intellectual Property Court on October 6, and a decision is expected on December 6.

Pierre Guyot — who Bourgnon says was a longtime friend before they fell out — and French production company 10-7 Productions are suing Bourgnon for 280,000 euros (almost $380,000 CAD).

Reached in Paris, Jean Aittouares, one of Guyot’s lawyers, told the CBC that Bourgnon had tried to get Guyot to hide some aspects of the trip — such as the fateful stopover in Taloyoak that disqualified Bourgnon from setting the record. Guyot didn’t want to lie, and the resulting conflict between them prevented Guyot from making his documentary, Aittouares said — so Bourgnon, without credit or permission, used the photos from the trip for his own benefit.

“He trampled on Guyot’s work at first, expelled him to punish him for his integrity, then violated his rights by exploiting the documentary for his personal needs and to gain personal income from it,” Aittouares said in French.

“He then implicated Guyot in what had already cost him his participation in the film by getting him to support the lie he had made.”

Bourgnon said the courts are only ruling on the issue of rights, not ruling on any of the other charges.

The passage

The Northwest Passage is a notoriously difficult journey. This year, two Brazilian sailors attempted this feat in a catamaran, but had to turn back before finishing, citing changing seasons and bad weather.

The first successful sail-powered crossing, which began in 1986 and spanned three summers, also documented the dangers of the trip. Sailor Jeff MacInnis wrote of bears, blizzards and 15-foot waves in his memoir, The polar passage.

And, of course, John Franklin’s famous 19th-century Arctic expedition to discover the Northwest Passage ended in his and his crew’s deaths, and still sparks the imagination of explorers today.

Sailors regularly arrive in Nunavut communities along the way. In September, a Texan sailor who had hoped to make part of the Northwest Passage had to apply help from residents of Kugluktuk after his boat cracked.

Bourgnon said his trip and stopover in Taloyoak gave him the chance to meet and talk with Inuit and discuss his great passion: the ocean. Those conversations gave him perspective, he said, for his ecological work with The SeaCleaners, which works to protect the oceans from plastic pollution.

“I had a very good experience,” he said. “It was very interesting to talk to them and understand what’s going on.”

As for Chuck Pizzo-Lyall, the mayor of Taloyoak, he said he welcomes the interest of navigators in the area, but admits that the recent increase in marine traffic worries him.

“Trying to rescue someone by boat that’s 200 miles from our community can be very complicated,” he said. “The weather fluctuates wildly here.”

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