Maud Fontenoy: I rowed the oceans

Maud Fontenoy was the first woman to row across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Now she's fighting to save them

22 September 2009

ROWER and sailor Maud Fontenoy, 31, was the first woman to row across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Oliver Rowland caught up with her as she was about to take a group of children sailing on her boat from Marseille Old Port.

What are you doing today?

I am taking the children out in my boat in the context of my foundation. The object of the foundation is educational - we work with schools and the Education and Ecology Ministries.

We have distributed 55,000 kits to primary schools about the protection of the oceans and I take groups out on the boat to teach them about the harmful effects of marine pollution.
In November we are preparing kits for collège children on marine biodiversity.

Can you tell us about your own childhood?

I was barely a week old when my parents took me travelling around the world on their boat, with my brothers. They wanted to give us a different kind of education.

I never went to an ordinary school. I did my studies from the boat by correspondence then I went to school in France for the last year to take the baccalauréat.

You got a job in an estate agency to start with, but you were still passionate about the sea...

I wanted to go back to the sea - I was rowing with traditional boats and taking young people sailing and I met Gérard d’Aboville [the first man to row across the Atlantic]. We often spoke and I admired his career.

The fact that no woman had rowed across the Atlantic inspired me - I wanted to show it could be done.

Also doing things like this is a great way for me to raise awareness of the need to protect the oceans.

It must take a lot of preparation, special training and a special kind of boat?

It took a year and a half of preparation - you have to find a partner, someone to design and build the boat, make sure it’s equipped with everything you need and stocked with food and you must make sure you are in good physical condition so as to be as prepared as possible.

Once you are doing it - you are taking a real risk, alone in the ocean

There is no support boat, no helicopter, no way of going home - you’ve set off and you’ve got to get to the other side and it takes several months to do.

There are always unknowns, it is a very long time and you are very isolated in an ocean you can’t control, but you are very well-prepared and you take it very seriously.

How do you manage to stock enough food for several months? Did you ever try to fish?

I took freeze-dried food that does not take up too much place and I had a desalination machine on board for water.

I have tried to catch fish but I’m not a good fisherman. In a rowing boat you are going too slowly to use a dragnet and when I am sailing I go too fast. On all my crossings I have only ever caught one fish.

When you decided to row across the Atlantic did people try to put you off?

Yes, in general human beings have a lot of doubts and are afraid of society, afraid of going for things, of what other people think, of failure, of not being good enough.

Something like this is not what people are used to so it seems worrying to them, but I had a few people who believed in me and they agreed to help.

Were there moments that were especially difficult?

There was one storm, when the waves were 10m high and with winds of 120kph and my rowing boat capsized 17 times in one night.

Because of the ballast in the boat it rights itself, but my seat kept being pulled off.

Now you have several roles representing the oceans and coasts

As I was rowing I could see with my own eyes the effects of pollution and the melting of the icecaps or the use of bigger and bigger fishing nets.

Now I have multiple responsibilities but they all have the same aim: whether as a Unesco spokeswoman for the oceans or vice-president of the Conservatoire du Littoral [French coastal protection body], with my foundation or when I talk on television - it is all linked to the oceans and helping people understand how important they are. They are the machinery that powers life on Earth.

What are the biggest concerns for the oceans and coast around France?

There is an enormous amount of pollution and 80% of it comes into the sea from the land. Take the Mediterranean - it is a little sea and very fragile.

Each year there is about 50 times the amount of oil spilled into it as was involved in the Erika disaster [when a tanker was wrecked off Brittany in 1999]. What is known as le dégazage is often responsible [where oil residues are deliberately discharged by ships cleaning their fuel tanks at sea].

There are positive things happening too though, as regards the sea and coast - for example the Conservatoire du Littoral buys up coastal land so it is protected and no one can build hotels on it.

More than 1,000km of coast has been safeguarded for the public. I always like to be optimistic and I am happy when I see positive initiatives going on - like the recent Grenelle de la Mer which looked at all the important maritime politics issues - fishing, energy [eg. offshore windmills or tidal energy], the fight against pollution, raising children’s awareness...

It brought together industrialists, professionals, politicians and scientists to find solutions. It should result in concrete ideas put into a law and acted on so France can set a good example.

France is the world’s second biggest maritime power in terms of its seas at more than 11 million square kilometres [partly because of its overseas territories].

I was involved in the grenelle in the sense of helping raise public awareness - getting everyone motivated and concerned, getting them to understand what the oceans bring to us.

We have heard a lot about over-fishing lately - a recent documentary raised fears that the stocks could completely disappear.

It is true that some people have been taking too much from the sea over the last 50 years. The equipment has become colossal - nets more than 100km long, no allowance made for different sizes of fish... and there is a lot of illegal fishing.

There are 90 million tonnes of fish caught a year legally and seven million tonnes are wasted [damaged or over-quota fish and unwanted species thrown back], which is terrible, and on top of that there are 30 million tonnes fished illegally.

We need to fish better, to have less waste and more care taken over the size of fish.

However, once again the Grenelle de la Mer shows that France is really doing something about the oceans and that is very positive.

My aim now is to keep raising awareness, particularly among young people, to teach them to love the sea but also to understand concretely what needs to be done.

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