Ponant: sailing into a new era of cruising in France and Iceland

Founded in 1968, Ponant has gained a reputation for five-star cruising on innovative, environmentally conscious yachts. As the first company to restart ocean cruising in France in following the Covid-19 lockdown, Frances Marcellin looks at what protocols the company has put in place and how science and technology combine to create a safe and hygienic environment on board.

Le Bellot.
Image: Ponant - Philip Plisson


onant was given the go-ahead by the French Government to restart cruises in France again from 11 July 2020. 

The coronavirus confinement period in France lasted from 17 March to the 11 May, and by 15 June all departments became “green zones”, meaning the government believed the virus was under control across the country.

The French Government also declared authorisation for river cruising and that it is working with partners on sea cruising between European Ports.

Conversely, this happened around the same time that the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised against cruise travel and the non-essential travel ban was lifted by the British Government in around 60 “airbridge” countries. 

Image courtesy of MSC Cruises

New itineraries for cruising post-Covid-19

Ponant – the first cruise company to operate ocean cruising in France since the global shutdown – had been waiting on the ministerial decree to resume cruising while working closely with official authorities to restart activity in France. 

Safety and security of passengers and crew members on board are a prerequisite for this resumption of activity

The fleet is among the most innovative in the world. From the zero-impact wastewater treatment to the low-emission engines (IMO tier III), as well as the underwater lounge and modular marina at the back for water sports, the yachts are well equipped and able to cruise into smaller, more remote places that larger ships are unable to access.

Le Bougainville. 
Image: Ponant – Philip Plisson

Ships such as Le Bougainville, which will be sailing out of Bordeaux and Le Dumont-d’Urville, which is cruising from Le Havre, feature Blue Eye, created by architect Jacques Rougerie. The only multi-sensory lounge of its kind in the world (located below the water in the hull), guests have unlimited views of the sea life around them and can sit on reactive sofas that vibrate in co-ordination with the ocean.

Blue Eye Lounge.
Image: Ponant – Christophe Dugied

The company will also run cruises in Iceland, with Le Bellot, one of six ships in the Ponant Explorer fleet, departing from Reykjavik for her inaugural season on an eight-day itinerary around Iceland.

Ponant chief sales and marketing officer Hervé Bellaïche.
Image: Ponant – Francois Lefebvre

“Safety and security of passengers and crew members on board are a prerequisite for this resumption of activity,” says Ponant chief sales and marketing officer Hervé Bellaïche. “We have developed a ‘Covid-safe’ health protocol, based on health standards that exceed international regulations. It is focused on the principle of double protection: 100% control of people and goods before boarding, then once on board strict health protocols are applied.”

The innovative ship design, combined with the small-ship-sized crew and passenger numbers, means that Ponant has been able to create a health protocol in compliance with the French Government’s regulations.

Some of Ponant’s new generation explorer fleet – six yachts with only 92 staterooms built in 2018 – and two of Ponant’s expedition ships – launched between 2010 and 2015 with 122 to 132 staterooms – will sail newly designed French itineraries.

“We have worked on five itineraries designed by the company's experts and sailor,” explains Bellaïche. “Brittany, between wild coasts and lighthouses (from Saint-Malo); authentic coasts of Normandy and Brittany (from Le Havre); nature and terroir of Nouvelle-Aquitaine (from Bordeaux); the heritage of the Mediterranean coast (from Marseilles); as well as Wild and secret Corsica (from Nice).

Pre-existing superior medical facilities

Unlike other cruise offerings, Ponant’s new ships come equipped with a laboratory, feature superior medical diagnostic equipment on board, and have at least one doctor and one nurse present.

Each Ponant ship has the capacity to test for the virus independently

Bellaïche explains that even before the threat of Covid-19, each could run fast diagnostics at mobile laboratory terminals, which can test for infectious diseases, such as influenza, malaria, fever and digestive trauma.

But to test for Covid-19, Ponant has partnered with startup C4Diagnostics. Based in Marseille, C4Diagnostics has been coordinating a new diagnostic effort in Marseille as part of Covid-19 Marseille Environmental Testing (COMETE).

Balcony – Le Bougainville.
Image: Ponant – Nicolas Matheus

“To carry out regular tests on board, our ships have been equipped by the startup C4Diagnostics, the creators of a complete and rapid solution for detecting Covid-19 in confined areas and difficult-to-access environments,” he says.

“Thanks to a portable system based on PCR-LAMP technology, which makes it possible to carry out tests in situ and obtain results in 20 minutes, each Ponant ship has the capacity to test for the virus independently.”

Bellaïche confirms that the tests have been certified by the Laboratory for Urgent Response to Biological Threats (CIBU) and give an “equivalent performance” to the benchmark RT-PCR test. 

Health protocols: boarding and cruising

Each passenger boarding is checked by the medical team and will take a PCR test a maximum of 48 hours before embarkation. For Iceland cruises, passengers must have a PCR serology test, a device set up by the country’s authorities.

Ongoing temperature checks are performed by thermographic cameras located in strategic areas

Luggage and personal belongings are sent through a disinfection zone, and all cruise supplies and equipment are disinfected via fumigation, chlorine bath or solution.

Stateroom – Le Bougainville.
Image: Ponant – Nicolas Matheus

Technology is playing a major role in helping to establish and maintain hygiene levels on board. The initial examination includes a temperature check by thermographic camera and symptom screening.

“Ongoing temperature checks are performed by thermographic cameras located in strategic areas where there is high traffic of guests and crew,” says Bellaïche. The medical team oversees the positioning of those cameras and controlling the measurements taken.”

While there have always been advanced medical facilities on Ponant’s fleet (even ultrasound and radiology equipment), in addition to mobile laboratories for testing on-site (from tropical diseases to influenza and now Covid-19), the company has also installed new cutting-edge equipment for onboard hospitals to strengthen their Covid-19 health protocols.

Common areas are cleaned every day and some furniture every hour on board Le Bougainville.
Image: Ponant – Nicolas Matheus

Numerous manual procedures are also in place. Staterooms are cleaned twice a day with “Ecolab Peroxide” (Ponant claims this eliminates 100% of germs), common areas are cleaned every day, but frequently used objects (such as door handles and handrails) every hour, and when guests come back to the marina they must go through a disinfecting footbath. 

For guests, a mask is compulsory when outside the stateroom, but not in static positions, such as sitting down or at the theatre. 

A win for small-ship cruising

While operating a safe environment against Covid-19 means implementing additional cleaning and hygiene protocols, the nature of small-ship cruising means that Ponant doesn’t have to reduce its passenger capacity. This is a great economic challenge for the bigger cruise lines, which may have to significantly reduce capacity when cruising restarts.

The capacity in the restaurants will be limited to 50%

Le Bellot.
Image: Ponant - Philip Plisson

“The number of passengers on board will remain the same as usual, that is to say 200 passengers maximum,” confirms Bellaïche. “The capacity in the restaurants will be limited to 50% and the layout reorganised to respect the onboard safety measures. Several rounds of service in small groups will be taking place.”

Image courtesy of MSC Cruises