Would you spend an entire year on a small sailing boat, whose cabin doesn’t even allow you to stand up straight? While I would not even want to think about the excruciating back pain that would cause me this is exactly what French skipper and explorer Nathalie Ille did when she sailed around New Caledonia and other Pacific islands for one year. And as you probably have guessed already – it was not to be her last adventure.

L'Odyssee Feminine - Nathalie Ille

Coming back to France she gave up her modelling career and took the exam for the captain’s licence in order to travel the world in a more conscious way. She soon joined scientific research expeditions and a charity organising sailing trips for severely ill children. Sharing her passion and experience with others and devoting her time to social and environmental causes became an important part of her way of travelling. Last September she realised her dream of sailing around the Mediterranean Sea with a female-only crew. Together with a geologist, an ecologist, a free-diver, an adventure photographer and a mountain guide she set sail for L’Odyssée Féminine – a project which deservedly brought her the title Travelette of the Month.

L'Odyssee Feminine - Nathalie Ille

The group left Cannes in September to sail around Corsica, Sardinia and Elba for six weeks.  Here is what she has to say about their journey, the importance of the Mediterranean Sea and what it is like to spend so much time on a boat with 5 other girls.

How did this trip get together in the first place?

During a trip to Callelongue with my friend, who is a mountain guide, we discussed the difference of approaching a place by water and how your experience gets turned around completely, even if you know the land by heart. I wanted to go on a journey in order to share this change of perspective. My goal was to find the unknown in the known. I love exploring exotic places, but this time I wanted to prove that you don’t have to travel far to find an adventure.

Another important factor was my experience as a female skipper. Not only once did people show up at the pier and ask me where their captain was, as they didn’t expect a woman to lead their journey. My friend had similar experiences as a mountain guide. Often people even got worried about her physical abilities. For us it was important to show that an all female crew can organise and successfully complete such an expedition.

L'Odyssee Feminine - Nathalie Ille

How was it to spend so much time in such little space?

Of course it was challenging – but because we are human, not because we are women. First of all I was worried because I was the only one with sailing experience – would the others enjoy sailing? Would they share my excitement? Would they become seasick? But the bigger challenge was the lack of personal space. When you are trapped on a boat every little change in mood can cause big waves. If one of you is in a bad mood, it won’t be long until the entire group explodes – luckily that also works the other way around. Apart from that we had a wonderful feminine energy on board – no bickering or fighting, just the happiness about the freedom of sailing.

How did you do it financially? Did you have your own boat lying around and just go?

Oh no – we did not have anything to begin with. I went to a sailing exhibition in Paris with the highest priority of getting a boat. Luckily the French catamaran company Lagoon loved our project and provided us with a spacious boat. Once we had our vessel we turned to other sponsors and a total of twelve partners helped us with sailing and research equipment as well as useful tools. We definitely had more kit than money.

L'Odyssee Feminine - Nathalie Ille L'Odyssee Feminine - Nathalie Ille

As we start talking about the Mediterranean Sea it soon becomes clear that to Nathalie it is not only an ocean but a living organism. It might be Frenglish, but somehow it is remarkable that she addresses it as “her”.

Searching the adventure in front of your doorstop you started your journey in Cannes – what does the Mediterranean Sea mean to you?

The Mediterranean region was and is influenced by many different civilisations and is rich in culture. Its biodiversity makes for one of the most important ecosystems of the world. The best thing is that it never looks the same. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Pacific islands with their white beaches and palm trees, but eventually they all look alike. The Med on the other hand has everything from white beaches to rough sea cliffs. You see, to me this matters on many different levels, it has a special place in my heart.

Like you we are interested in the unknown – do you have some insider tips on where to visit?

Well, I found it almost impossible to find an unknown or unexplored place in the Mediterranean. We did however reach spots of which I had never heard or read about before. They might be well-known in the area, but for me and especially as a sailor they were new. One of them was Cala Luna in North Sardinia, which I found out later is a rather famous beach. When we visited it was very calm and there were almost no tourists. It seemed very wild and the climbing in particular was very impressive. Another place was Cala Gonone a little north of Cala Luna. It was amazing, but not even mentioned in our pilot book.

L'Odyssee Feminine - Nathalie Ille L'Odyssee Feminine - Nathalie Ille

What was your favourite destination of the journey?

That must have been the island Tavolara in the north of Sardinia. From far away it looks like giant teeth sticking out of the water. You can see them 20 hours before you reach them and several after you leave. The island is hypnotizing. Most sailors will pass by as it lies on the way from Corsica to Sicily. Climbing the limestone cliffs as well as scuba- and free-diving in its protected marine area, were definitely my highlights.

Is there anything in particular that you have learnt and would like to share with other female travellers?

First of all, I learnt to believe in myself and hold on to my dreams. It was very hard finding the means to start this journey. We did not have any money and had to rely on sponsors. I feel like confidence is often problematic for women, but when they trust in their abilities they can realise their dreams. For me that was definitely the most fabulous achievement ever.

Another piece of advice is not to trust reasonable people – at least to a certain extent. The worries and logic of my ex-boyfriend for example were one of the reasons why I did not go on this trip earlier. There will always be somebody telling you that your ideas are unrealistic, but sometimes it is better not to listen to anybody and just go for it.

L'Odysee Feminine - Nathalie Ille L'Odysee Feminine - Nathalie Ille

What is up next?

Another sailing adventure of course – but bigger. The next expedition will lead us around the Mediterranean for two months a year over three years. We will sail more areas this time and focus on the links between the sea and the humans. I want to explore our relationship with the ocean and visit fishermen, scientists and artists to look at historical, present and future importance of the Mediterranean. The sea is incredibly fragile and has to be protected. I want to raise awareness for that. The team will be all female again and consist of a marine biologist, a sociologist, an ethnologist, a historic and hopefully and hopefully climber and diver again.

L'Odysee Feminine - Nathalie Ille

In the end I think Nathalie Ille is a remarkable traveller for two reasons. First, she discovers the area around her in a very conscious way instead of jumping on a plane to the other end of the world. And secondly, her journey inspires and raises awareness at the same time. She links her passion for wandering to a good cause – whether it is social or environmental.

I will keep you updated on her new expedition. Until then take a look at her L’Odyssée Féminine here:

 Nathalie Ille would like to thank the project’s sponsors Lagoon,  Eco-Med,  Beuchat,  Harken,  Polaar,  Leatherman, Millet, Bic Paddle,  Mag Lite, Goal Zero, Fuzyon, Stanley,  Suunto, Le Radisson Blu Cannes, Monoprix, Pantaenius and Encore Nous Communication.

All photographs by Krystle Wright.