Stephen Wilkins is likely – but not certainly – a direct descendant of the pioneering Wilkins family.  Stephen is most interested in Wilkins via his own experiences in the Southern Oceans. He has been present at talks when in Adelaide. I recently asked if he could tell something of his own experiences and his knighthood by the French Government. Here is his story in his own words:

I first navigated deep into the southern oceans with my first rounding of Cape Horn when captain of “the Spirit of Hong Kong” in the 2000 BT Global Challenge. It was a world circumnavigation yacht race sailing against the worlds prevailing winds and currents. A dam tough race because much of the race was sailing into the winds, it was said that your leg would grow longer on one side!

Needless to say, I do walk quite up right these days. However, as the nautical expression goes “The sea gets into your blood” and after those first months sailing deep southern, I started to realise that the south was a very different and special place.

I first commenced Antarctic and high latitudes expeditions in 2003; drawn back to the south I knew that there was something more, far more that I wanted, and maybe needed in my life.

In my first expeditions I quickly realised that in these remote territories that whilst since the 1820’s there have been expeditions and voyages to these regions, there is in reality very little usable navigation data or charts which accurately map the coasts of Antarctica, South Georgia and Tierra Del Fuego.

In the spirit of exploration and certainly no different to what so often Sir Hubert Wilkins encountered, when something had not been done or achieved, and when people told you it’s impossible, then that’s when “where there’s a Wilkins, there’s a way” attitude really shows the men from the boys.

In the 14 years in the south, after exploring Antarctica and remote regions many times, I added to the nautical expression with ““The sea gets into your blood, but the south gets into soul”, because the more you visit these pristine and wild places there is a natural magnet that draws you back time and time again, there’s a calling spirit which never ceases.

I, like many previous navigators started drawing and recording depths, anchorages and topography of the regions where we visited, referred to as “Mud Maps”, these made it possible to safely return to locations  where there were no available information as each season’s ice bergs, sea ice and snow levels dramatically change the perspective.

As an enthusiastic navigator I started to research and speak with authorities regarding the dramatic lack of navigational data and information, and I soon learned that around the coast of Antarctica only 2 % was accurately surveyed. Even if an interested country did decide to do a hydrographc survey in the south it would take between 7 to 12 years after doing the survey for the data to be released to mariners, tragic to say the least.

This reality did not deter me, if anything it spurred me on to impress upon government departments and hydrographic offices that urgent works were needed. In the early 2000’s Antarctic tourism was blooming, and there had already been some issues and even maritime disasters, and with such a pristine environmentally sensitive and remote areas, any maritime disaster was a major disaster.

I volunteered and led the hydrographic working group as part of the International Association of Antarctic Tourism Organisation (IAATO) who strives to self-regulate and protect all aspects of operations there in Antarctica. I represented IAATO at many international conventions, annual hydrographic conferences and meetings, and one thing I was starting to learn and realise was that technology was changing fast, however, government agencies were more and more tied up with bureaucratic red tape and continually put Antarctica in the “too hard basket”.

Let’s fast track to 2012, I had calculated and worked out that the latest technology was now quite small and portable, that a large hydrographic ship wasn’t necessarily needed to conduct a high resolution and certified survey, especially if you wanted to survey in coastal water with depths up to 350 meters (shallow waters are where mariners need quality information).

Each year I was visiting these remote territories using a specialized sailing yacht to take small group into remote regions for up to 6 weeks at a time. So why not fit this very capable expedition sailing yacht with high technology sonar equipment and do what the military and navy hydrographic offices can do?

I lobbied and negotiated with several technology companies to provide the equipment, at just under $500,000 USD I wasn’t in the situation to fund a purchase, but a loan of the equipment was feasible.

NO, NO, and no…………….. until on return to Chile to commence the new southern season I met a Chilean chap whose personal company conducted hydrography and who had the correct and latest technology. Fernando, I asked him, have you ever been to Antarctica? No was his answer, well would you like a free trip to Antarctica? well yes but what’s the catch he replies. Well, if you were prepared to bring your hydrographic equipment along, we together could prove that a sailing yacht can conduct a multi-beam survey in the world’s most remote location.

Within 7 weeks of his answer, I had designed a suitable mounting arrangement on board our sailing yacht “Xplore”, I had contacted 7 hydrographic offices whom I knew and had put out a call to use a certified hydrographer to oversee the project and ensure that our survey would meet international standards.

Vive la France! the heads of the French hydrographic office realised that what I was proposing and had in place was a unique opportunity to prove that a small well-found vessel could do what large hydrographic ships can do in remote locations, it was effective and inexpensive. All they needed to do was provide a hydrographer, Yoann Boulaire was put forward and a very talented chap he proved to be.

In 3 weeks of departing Ushuaia in Argentina we arrived on the Antarctic peninsula and made history, the first ever sailing yacht to conduct a high-resolution multi-beam sonar survey anywhere in the world, it just so happened to be in Antarctica.

15.2 square nautical miles of new data were collected (30 square kilometres) and within 7 months of survey we had produced 7 new navigation charts of the areas we had surveyed which we made available to cruise ships and vessels operating in the south.

The entire certified data set we presented to the World International Hydrographic Office in Monaco in 2013 to be distributed to all countries who had a vested interest in the safety of navigation in Antarctica.

My relationship with the French grew stronger, we vied to continue remote locality surveys and encouraged the promotion of small vessel research and data collection. Since 2013 this has become a widely viewed option in marine scientific studies.

In February 2021 I received a letter informing me that the French government would like to acknowledge my years of work and experience as an explorer and navigator. Despite covid and the collapse of the French / Australian submarine contract I was invited to meet with the French Ambassador to Australian.

February 15th 2022 in Hobart Tasmania the French Ambassador (Jean- Pierre Thebault) awarded me the honour of the “Order du Merit Maritime”, Chevalier (A maritime knighthood of France).

There is a Wilkins, and there was a way.

As daylight came through my hotel window of the hotel the next morning, I wrote the following:

Knight time comes to a close

As the moon still radiates it’s last beams over Hobart, dawn’s diffused light creeps into the eastern light.

Knight time comes to a close

Stiff early autumn winds race down Mount Wellington skipping tinder dry Elm leaves from Salamanca down the deserted streets.

Knight time comes to a close

The sound is more like land crabs and cockle shells dancing over a marble floor as the last waltz is played.

Knight time comes to a close

My pride, and my pleasure of these last two days comes more from the friendships and the shared experiences involved in the Knighthood process than the medal itself.

Knight time comes to a close

Distant is the catalyst that brought this to be, but the pleasure of the distinction is very much today.

Like seasons bring change, each year has repeats, each year gives 365 nights and my life now has but one knighthood.

I am truly privileged to be a French maritime knight.

Stephen Wilkins
Chevalier Maritime
February 16th 2022

Video of the Xplore Hydrographic project, known as “Operation Rock Bottom”:

Note there is coarse language in the music audio.

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