He used his inheritance to contract the well-known shipwright, Gauthier, to build a three-masted schooner, the FRANÇAIS. She was a beautiful ship, built entirely of oak and only the best materials, measuring 150-feet in length and 25-feet in the beam. Charcot contacted Adrien de Gerlache for advice and assistance with the construction. On his suggestion, the bow of the ship was reinforced and the hull strengthened at the waterline with transverse beams.
In the spring of 1903, news reached Europe that Otto Nordenskjöld and the ANTARCTIC were missing. Although his plans were to the north, Charcot immediately turned his attention to the south determined to assist in the search for the Swedish explorer.
He wrote to his friend and supporter Paul Pléneau:
The high cost of construction of the ship depleted the financial resources of Charcot.
The doctor-turned-explorer now turned to the nation to help finance the expedition, all in the name of France. He managed to gain the support of the Academie des Sciences, the Societe de Geographie and the Museum of Natural History. But it was the Paris newspaper, Le Matin which published his plans and raised 150,000 francs for "The French Antarctic Expedition".
Other private contributions rolled in which left Charcot with a working fund of 450,000 francs. President Emile Loubet gave his stamp of approval to the expedition and the plans were set: take the FRANÇAIS to Antarctic waters, explore the west coast of Graham Land from the north, venture south to Adelaide Island and, if possible, Alexander Island, charting the coastline and gathering botanical, zoological, hydrographic and meteorological data along the way.
Charcot's sponsors also required him to determine whether Antarctica was a continent or a group of small islands, surrounded by ice.
The weather was stormy as the FRANÇAIS prepared to leave Le Havre on August 15, 1903. On board were Paul Pléneau and the Belgian explorer, Adrien de Gerlache. A sailor, named Maignan, was handling the stern rope when the vessel suddenly tore loose from it's cleat; the large stern rope struck Maignan and killed him instantly. The FRANÇAIS sadly gave up her attempt to leave and would not try again until August 27.
Finally underway, the FRANÇAIS stopped briefly at Madeira and then tracked south-south-west to the port of Pernambuco in Brazil. The voyage took two months and after arriving in Brazil, Adrien de Gerlache told Charcot of his desire to return to Belgium as his heart was with his financée and not with the expedition.
Charcot sadly capitulated and continued on to Buenos Aires, arriving on November 16.
Here news reached Charcot that Nordenskjöld had been rescued and the ANTARCTIC crushed in the ice. The Swedish and Norwegian explorers arrived in Buenos Aires in December and soon were invited to visit Charcot and the FRANÇAIS. Otto Nordenskjöld was impressed with the Frenchmans' plans and gifted him with five Greenland huskies.
Two scientists, Turquet and Gourdon, came aboard the ship and the FRANÇAIS left Buenos Aires on December 23. A month later they arrived at Orange Harbor, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, and on January 27, 1904, set sail once again for the south. By February 1 they were in the South Shetlands, where they saw the first icebergs.
For the next few days they coasted along the northwest shore of the Palmer Archipelago and on February 5 the engine began to give them trouble. The boiler pipes ruptured which created an immediate drop in pressure. With propeller jerking, Charcot was able to ease the FRANÇAIS through the icebergs and into Biscoe Bay off Cape Errera.
On February 7 the weather improved to where she could make a run for Flanders Bay. She remained there for eleven days as the engineers sealed the pipes and repaired the boiler. On February 19 the FRANÇAIS reached an inlet at Wiencke Island Charcot named Port Lockroy, after the Minister of Marine.
When they attempted to go south, more ice blocked them and further engine trouble developed.
They fought on and reached 65°5'S, 64°W, as far south as de Gerlache and a degree farther south than Nordenskjöld had reached.
It was here, in a shallow bay on the north coast of Wandel (now Booth) Island, that Charcot decided to wait out the winter.
Winter set in and everything became cold to the touch.
The men wrapped themselves in clothes as the temperature dropped to -36°F and the FRANÇAIS froze in. During one of the trips ashore, Rallier du Baty and three other sailors became lost in the fog. A search party found the men suffering from frostbite and exposure. On board the ship, Lieutenant Matha contracted myocarditis.
Charcot applied a treatment recommended by de Gerlache and by September Matha was back on his feet and performing his duties.
On November 24 the whaleboat was loaded with camping equipment, 20 days' rations, scientific instruments and a sledge. The plan was to go from Petermann Island (10 miles away) to the Graham Land coast. Petermann Island was reached despite the need to break up ice along the way.
Unfortunately, the stretch between Petermann Island and the shoreline of Graham Land was packed too tight with ice for the whaleboat to be used. To make matters worse, the ice was too thin to support the men's weight. Faced with an enormous challenge, the men put forth a superhuman effort to pull the heavily laden boat through the ice.
Standing outside the boat in freezing water up to their knees, the men agonized 10 to 18 hours per day for five gut-wrenching days before reaching the mainland. Despite wearing dark glasses, many of the men suffered from snow-blindness, described by Charcot as "a handful of pepper in the eyes".
They eventually managed to climb the 2900-foot crest of Cape Tuxen and spent a week surveying the Graham Land coast between Booth Island and the Biscoe Islands to the south.
By the middle of December the southerly winds cleared much of the ice from the bay. The men worked diligently at creating a channel through the ice from which the FRANÇAIS could escape. The engine still wasn't working properly but, nevertheless, was sufficient to drive the vessel.
With a path clear to the sea, the men celebrated Christmas--Charcot took the gramophone ashore to play popular music for the penguin colony! Presents, brought from home, were exchanged and opened; the following day the FRANÇAIS weighed anchor.
They forced their way through the pack ice, skirting the Biscoe Islands, and navigated the channel between Adelaide Island and the Loubet Coast. On January 13, 1905, Alexander Island, 60 miles to the south, presented itself in all it's glory.
Later that day, Charcot wrote,
The ship had struck a rock and water was now flooding in.
The engine was running so poorly that the pumps had to be operated by hand. The engineer, Libois, lowered himself into the water in the bow and spent several hours working on the damaged hull. The weather was worsening so Charcot was left with no other option than turning north to seek shelter.
Abandoning plans for further exploration, the men worked 45 minutes out of every hour, day and night, with fingers freezing to pump handles in their attempt to reach Port Lockroy, on Wiencke Island.
They reached Wiencke Island on January 29 and made repairs over the next ten days. On February 15, the FRANÇAIS skirted Smith Island in the South Shetlands and then struggled on to reach the sanctuary of Puerto Madryn at Tierra del Fuego. While there, Charcot learned that his wife was concerned for his safety and had attempted to organize a rescue mission---she also decided to divorce him on grounds of desertion.
They were warmly welcomed in Buenos Aires, where all the ships in the port "dressed" in their honor.
The FRANÇAIS went into dry-dock and upon inspection was discovered to have a 24-foot rip in the false keel. The Argentinean Government offered to buy her, for use as a supply ship, and since the offer was too good to refuse, Charcot quickly consented. Charcot, the crew and 75 crates of scientific results departed Buenos Aires on May 5, 1905 aboard the liner ALGERIE.
It would be several months before the results of the expedition would be published but France was already aware that she had a new hero: Commandant Charcot. Almost 620 miles of coasts and islands had been sketched and charted; a map was produced which, with corrections made by Charcot's POURQUOI-PAS?
Expedition three years later, remained the only accurate map for the next quarter of a century.