In the history of man’s conquest of Antarctica, Jean Baptise Charcot’s name should be numbered with those of Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton. “No one has surpassed him and few have equaled him as a leader and as a scientific observer,” wrote Edwin Balch, the historian of Polar Expeditions (1913). With the support of the Academie des Sciences, the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle, and the Societe de Geographie (and the national subscription organized by the Parisian Newspaper Le Matin), Charcot sailed to Antarctica in August 1903 to chart the area between Graham Land and Alexander Island to collect the scientific data required by his sponsors. The findings of his first voyage were well received by the scientific community and he submitted a prospectus for a further voyage to the French Academie de Sciences which was in turn well received.
Charcot began preparing for his second Antarctic expedition almost as soon as he arrived back from his first on a ship called the Francais in 1905. It was far from clear whether or not the Antarctic Peninsula, a large portion the west coast of which had been surveyed by Charcot on his first voyage was indeed a part of the Antarctic Continent or simply a collection of islands. Initially Charcot tried to re-purchase the Francais sold to the Argentinean government at the end of his first voyage, but it was being prepared for use by Argentina’s own Antarctic program. The next thought was to purchase and convert a whaler or sealer from the Arctic fleet, but there was no suitable vessel. Eventually he turned once again to Pere Gautier of St.Malo who had so successfully built the Francais. The new vessel was the fourth one that he had owned with the name Pourquoi Pas?. She was launched on May 18, 1908, a three-masted barque constructed to the highest standards. She was immensely strong, built with thicker ribs and more of them than normal ships of her size, the ribs were covered with a double layer of thick planking, interior planking made an interior hull that was itself watertight. The ship was made entirely of oak other than the bilge of Elm and she was given a quality engine of 450 horsepower, which was installed as a result of Francais’s was having been so underpowered. The interior was provided with electric lighting and an effective heating system for the living areas. The Pourquoi Pas? was a fine ship much admired by those who fully appreciated her. The enigmatically named Pourquoi Pas? (why not?) came from an event in Charcot’s childhood when he was said to have written the words on the side of a soapbox and then launched himself in it onto a miniature pool at Neuilly-sur-Seine (France) where he was born and brought up. The box sank and he got wet, but it was the first of many voyages.
The second French Antarctic Expedition aboard the Pourquoi Pas? sailed from Le Havre on the 15th of August 1908. She had twenty-two crew, of whom eight had been aboard the Francais (such was the loyalty that Charcot engendered) and including Charcot’s wife Meg. She remained with the ship as far as Punta Arenas at the southernmost tip of Patagonia, before returning to France.
The ship left Punta Arenas on December the 16th 1908. She headed first to the whaling station on Deception Island where Charcot was pleased to see the Norwegian and Chileans using the charts of the Northern Graham land Peninsula that he had made on his first voyage. On January the 1st a sheltered harbor was found at Petermann Island that was named Port Circumcision. The late summer season weather was unseasonably warm with melt streams in February and rain in late March. Early April brought lower temperatures, but the living areas of the ship were unheated until mid April to try and conserve coal causing chilblains in many of the men, these disappeared when these areas began to be heated. Hyacinths, onions and watercress were grown under the wardroom skylight as late as April while there was still enough light to do so.
The Pourquoi Pas? continued to sail south, crossing the Antarctic Circle at the end of January. Much work was done in charting coast and islands, features were identified and named. In particular Adelaide Island previously said to be 8 miles long was shown to actually be 70 miles long – testament to the difficulties in gauging visual perception in polar regions where clarity of the air can mean that mountains 10’s or a hundred miles distant can be seen easily. Progress was at once hampered by a proliferation of huge icebergs, but aided by many days of fine calm weather. Charcot discovered and named Marguerite Bay south of Adelaide Island after his wife and Jenny Island after Bongrain’s wife, landings were made and a small party climbed to 1500 feet where the coast could be seen extending into the distance, this was named Fallieres Land (now the Fallieres coast) after the French President at the time.
By the 11th of January 1910 they were sailing towards the south of Alexander Island at about 70°S, 77’W when Charcot made his most important land discovery that he named Charcot Land after his father. They tried to approach closer, but the ice precluded it and further damage to the ship could not be risked. On the 22nd of January, the ship turned north and headed for South America arriving in Punta Arenas to congratulatory telegrams from all over the world on the 11th of February. She underwent extensive repairs in Montevideo (Uruguay), was scrubbed and painted in the Azores and was back in France on the 4th of June, reaching Rouen on the 5th.
The result of his second Antarctic expedition on Pourquoi Pas? (1908-1910) were equally impressive as his first one, mapping in the process some 2,000 kilometers of territory, so accurately that his maps were to be in use for the next 25 years. The scientific data filled 28 volumes, including some of the 3000 photographs taken during the expedition.
At the beginning of September 1936 the Pourquoi pas? was on its way from an expedition to Greenland and stopped in Reykjavík for repairs. On the afternoon of September 15th, the ship left Reykjavík, heading for France with a scheduled stop in Copenhagen. Shortly after they set sail a huge storm hit them, throwing the ship on a reef by Straumfjörður in Mýrar so violently that the ship sank. The Icelandic farmers of Straumfjörður rushed through the storm as soon as they saw what had happened, in order to rescue what and whom they could. A young man, Kristján Þórólfsson managed to get a sailor by the name of Eugene Gonidec out of the heavy seas, but he was the sole survivor of the 41-man crew. Captain Charcot, the famed explorer, went down with his ship. A memorial was held in Reykjavík after the accident as the shipwreck had caused great sorrow in Iceland.
In the 1960s, the wreck of Pourquoi pas? was rediscovered by a diving team. A monument to Jean-Baptiste Charcot and his crew was later erected at the site of the shipwreck, in Straumfjörður. The district Borgarfjörður is regulary visited by Charcot´s grand-child madame Vallin-Charcot in the memory of her grandfather.