Inside luxury cruise operator Ponant’s new electric hybrid ship

October 2, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

French cruise ship operator Ponant is preparing for the launch of what the company touts is the industry’s first luxury electric hybrid cruise ship.

After a dry run to the geographical North Pole this summer, Le Commandant Charcot will make its official maiden voyage with passengers this November. (The trip also made the vessel the first French ship to reach the North Pole.) The 492-foot-long, polar expedition ship—named for French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot—will operate tours to Antarctica.

Mathieu Petiteau, director of research and development at Ponant, says that plans for Commandant Charcot came to fruition in 2015, but it wasn’t an easy process to take the ideas from the brainstorm session to engineers’ drawing boards. Petiteau describes that the Ponant team met with experts in Helsinki, Finland about an electric hybrid passenger ship that could travel to the North Pole, but were quickly met with skeptical responses.

A rendering of Le Commandant Charcot out at sea.
Courtesy of Ponant

Constructed in Norway, Commandant Charcot was designed by two French architectural firms: Studio Jean-Philippe Nuel and Wilmotte & Associés, whose brief was to create a connection between the ship and surrounding icy landscapes—a crucial design detail for this particular mission.

Petiteau outlines that there were four criteria that the architects needed to address: environment, safety, science, and comfort. The last one, being a luxury liner, is obvious. But environment was difficult as Ponant wanted to push the boundaries of where a passenger ship could go. The basis for the environmental aspect revolved around three data points: temperature that the ship could travel in (as low as -25 degrees Celsius/-13 degrees Fahrenheit); ice coverage, and ice thickness.

(The ship needs to be able to maneuver through at least 2.5 meters (eight feet) of ice thickness (Commandant Charcot can handle at least three meters), and ice ridges as thick as 15 meters (49 feet). Given that the Commandant Charcot can withstand this, the ship was certified as the first Polar Class Two vessel ever built in the world—a designation only achieved by rough-riding commercial freighters; most other comparable cruise ships are only Polar Class Six.)

The reception area looks more like something out of a starship than a cruise ship, with digital artwork by France’s Miguel Chevalier.
Courtesy of Ponant

The ship has five dual-fuel engines but also two chambers with 50 tons of Lithium Ion batteries, which are guaranteed to have a 10-year lifetime, and the ship’s engineers say that they expect the batteries to still operate at 90% capacity at the end of the decade. While the ship will run primarily on liquified natural gas—which the operator says is a cleaner fuel source—it can operate off-battery (but only for up to one or two hours at fully battery and zero fuel), more so as a backup generator.

Passengers can also look forward to a number of excursions, such as tethered hot air balloon rides, polar diving, dog sledding, kayaking, and hovercraft outings. The ship will also serve as a floating research center with an onboard lab, allowing passengers to participate in the research and experiments during sailings, including helping set up a research station on an ice floe as well as deploying an Argos transmitter, a satellite-based system that collects and shares environmental data.

Open-air bar Inneq serves a range of international sweet and savory dishes throughout the day.
Courtesy of Ponant

Wassim Daoud, head of sustainability, describes Le Commandant Charcot as a new kind of ship: a science-ready vessel. “This is a ship dedicated to science, and the passengers will be invited to participate.”

Alison Thieffry, who oversees the citizen science program onboard, emphasizes that passengers will be heavily involved with data collection, such as taking water samples and calculating ice drifts. “We’re going where no one has ever been before, including scientists,” Thieffry says. “It’s a step further for educating passengers, and it helps them participate in a really concrete way.” 

“You have to show people how beautiful something is to encourage them to want to protect it,” Daoud says.

A rendering inside one of the staterooms.
Courtesy of Ponant

With 135 staterooms and suites hosting up to 270 guests, cruise ship lovers can expect all the usual bells and whistles, including an indoor swimming pool, a movie theater, multiple conference rooms, two restaurants (a fine dining establishment indoors and a casual spot outdoors along with an open-air bar—all with food menus developed by lauded French chef Alain Ducasse), a boutique, an a full gym equipped with Technogym machines such as elliptical trainers, treadmills, exercise bikes, and rowing machines. And each stateroom has a private balcony or terrace.

A small but important detail: Ponant designed the staterooms and common areas with the 21st century traveler in mind. There are multiple ports for USB-powered devices as well as European and North American power outlets in all of the guest rooms. And there are wireless charging hotspots in the bar and lounge areas for supported iPhone and Android smartphones.

Ponant, owned by Kering, has also inked a number of exclusive deals with other French luxury brands for food, beverage, and other amenities. For example, the onboard bar will serve Veuve Clicquot champagne as well as Ladurée macarons. 

The ‘Nuan’ wellness lounge will host a trio of massage and beauty cubicles.
Courtesy of Ponant

There is also nearly half of an entire deck dedicated to wellness. Featuring Biologique Recherche skin care products, the spa includes private massage tables, a hair salon, a nail salon, a sauna, a “detox” bar (serving smoothies and pressed juice), and even a snow room: chilled to 14 degrees Fahrenheit with fresh powder snow.

The ship’s captain, Etienne Garcia, notes that while science is a major focus for the journey, he reminds that the Commandant Charcot is still a luxury ship. “We’re not in a rush, we’re on a cruise,” he reminds. That said, he agrees that the crew and passengers can make the most of the opportunities afforded by the capabilities of the new ship and itinerary.

“To take time, to observe, is a quality of the cruise,” Garcia says.

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