St. Paul Pioneer Press

Nov 12 2022

A Q and A with the east metro’s beloved explorer

World explorer and author Ann Bancroft has a new distinction to add to her career: godmother.

Not to a child, though; to a ship.

Earlier this fall, the St. Paul native and her expedition partner, Liv Arnesen, were in Amsterdam to christen Viking’s two new expedition ships, the Polaris and Octantis, and became the ceremonial godmothers of the vessels.  Ann was christened Godmother of Polaris while Liv holds the title of Godmother of Octantis.

I was honored to attend the christening event, which was part of four days of festivities in celebration of Viking’s 25th anniversary. In ceremonial splendor, Viking marked the anniversary by having their three classes of ships … a river ship, an ocean ship and the company’s newest vessel, the expedition ship, travel in procession to IJmuiden, Netherlands from Amsterdam.

The Viking Polaris and Octantis will spend the austral summer in Antarctica before heading to the Great Lakes for voyages planned for the 2023 spring and summer seasons. The expedition ships have 189 staterooms which accommodate a total of 378 passengers. The ships are identical twins and have state-of-the-art features creating a unique guest experience. The hangar allows guests to embark and disembark the ship onto special operations boats and other small-excursion crafts. The Hangar also is home to the ship’s two signature yellow submarines.

Here’s my chat with Bancroft to catch up on her life, her role as a godmother, capture a bit of explorer wisdom and find out what might be next on her life’s agenda.

Q: Ann, you have had an exciting fall!  As a world explorer, you have lived a lifetime of firsts. However, the honor of having Viking ask you and your exploration partner Liv Arnesen to be godmothers of their two new expedition ships — the Polaris and Octantis — had to come as an unexpected surprise. Perhaps you can share with me how this all came to be.

A: I believe the honor came to us at a chance meeting. My expedition partner Liv Arnesen was meeting a friend who just happened to work for Viking. A few moments later, she was introduced to Viking Chairman and founder Torstein Hagen and his daughter Karin. It went from there. Always good to hang with a Norwegian treasure like Liv.

Q: As the godmother of Polaris, are there responsibilities that come along with this distinction, and is the role of godmother in perpetuity?

A: My duty as godmother is complete after the christening in Amsterdam. The honor of being a vessel’s godmother is for perpetuity but I have no other responsibilities. However, once a godmother always a godmother!

Q: Not only are you the godmother of the vessel, but there is also a fascinating area in the charming Hide speakeasy in the lower area of the ship where you have hand-selected personal artifacts from your expeditions to be on display. What are some of the highlights of what people will see when visiting The Hide on Polaris?

A: The Hide is such a fun space, filled with polar books and good whiskey and windows just above the crest of the waves. It was fun to select some of my expedition gear for display that spans over three decades of polar travel. Since Polaris will travel to both ends of the globe, it was fitting to loan artifacts from those regions. My beaver mitts from the 1986 expedition to the North Pole and my compass from the 1992 All women’s expedition to the South Pole are perhaps my most treasured items.

The Viking Polaris and Octantis travel on a river near Amsterdam. (Courtesy of Viking)

The Viking Polaris and Octantis travel on a river near Amsterdam. (Courtesy of Viking)

Q: I had the opportunity to travel on the Viking expedition ship the Octantis and found it to be an amazing experience, especially discovering all of the available activities and offerings an expedition ship has to offer. Tell us about your ship the Polaris and what type of adventures people may experience.

A: Polaris and Octantis are sister ships so much is the same within — the two submarines lend a unique adventure and opportunity to experience the deep waters below. Torstein Hagen is a big Beatles fan and has named the submarines after the Beatles. Polaris’ subs are named John and Paul, and Octantis’ are named George and Ringo. The ships also have kayaks and special operation boats that are very fun as well.  And to travel with real scientists and visit their lab adds a deeper dimension to the adventure as well.

Q: I was honored to have attended your christening ceremony of Polaris in Amsterdam. The event was filled with excitement and Norwegian-themed ceremonial grandeur, including breaking a bottle of Norwegian aquavit on the haul of the ship. It was a thrilling experience to be able to witness St. Paul’s own Ann Bancroft being front and center of the celebration. How would you describe the experience of pomp and Norske tradition?

A: The christening was a bit overwhelming and somewhat of a blur. I was just mostly thinking about my blessing and making sure the ribbon got cut!  I could have listened to famed Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebø (one of the world’s leading crossover sopranos) and violinist Tor Jaran Apold all day. My blessing was a hint of an Irish blessing with my own added twist. “May a gentle breeze fill your sails. May sunshine warm your face, and kindness your soul. Until we meet again, may the spirits keep you safe, may the spirits keep you safe my Viking family.  I now name you Viking Polaris!”

Sissel Kyrkjebø, Godmother of the Viking Jupiter, Live Arnesen, Godmother of the Viking Ocantis, Ann Bancroft, Godmother of the Viking Polaris and Viking Executive Vice President Karine Hagen, Godmother of the Viking Sea, at the christening of the Viking Ocantis and Polaris in Amsterdam. (Courtesy of Viking)

Sissel Kyrkjebø, Godmother of the Viking Jupiter, Live Arnesen, Godmother of the Viking Ocantis, Ann Bancroft, Godmother of the Viking Polaris and Viking Executive Vice President Karine Hagen, Godmother of the Viking Sea, at the christening of the Viking Ocantis and Polaris in Amsterdam. (Courtesy of Viking)

Q: Ann, we talked on board the ship about a possible upcoming expedition that you and fellow explorer Liv Arnesen are plotting and planning. What details can you share about the expedition the two of you are about to embark on?

A: Following the COVID pandemic, and the years of shutdowns, closures and delays it feels good to begin planning again. We are in talks right now discussing dates for our next expedition with our New Zealand team member Lisa te Heuhue about paddling New Zealand’s Whanganui River. The river was given the designation of human rights to safeguard it for perpetuity.

Q: The Viking ships Polaris and Octantis call two lands their homeland … the Great Lakes and Antarctica. Being an experienced explorer of both the Great Lakes and Antarctica, what do you believe makes both of these destinations popular for travelers?

A: For many, the Great Lakes and Antarctica are areas that guests have never sailed to, and of course they are hugely different environments, but the discoveries are no less exciting. The Great Lakes is in our backyard, and there is so much to experience, such as the Northern regions of Lake Superior. Guests traveling to Antarctica will have the chance to see whales, seals, a wide variety of bird life and thousands of penguins amongst a constantly changing icescape. The vastness of both will provide stunning beauty that will also at times showcase nature’s power.

Q: Ann, you have been very open about your struggles growing up with Dyslexia, in a time when services and an understanding of dyslexia was not as advanced as they are today. What strengths did you find in working through the challenges of having dyslexia and how did this impact your life as an explorer?

A: Having a learning difference such as dyslexia was a gift, really. I learned as a kid to “keep on keeping on” putting one foot in front of the other. I also learned about the power of humor and perseverance and to eventually trust myself, taking creative approaches to situations. This was great training for my expeditions.

Q: Your strong St. Paul roots and close family ties throughout your life and career have been two of your strong life pillars. How has your family been involved in supporting many of your personal and professional endeavors?

Q: My family has had my back my entire life. In all I do. Each one of my journals has a photo of family and home. They get me through the highs and the lows.

Q: Being an explorer creates an image of strength and self-reliance. However, you also had to know when to rely on teammates on your expeditions. How did you know when to dig deep in yourself or to lean on your teammates when you were faced with challenging situations?

A: Perhaps the hardest lesson for those of us in the expedition world is to ask for help. During an expedition, of course, we rely on each other every day in so many ways but to actually ask for help in a world where self-reliance and toughness is considered a strong value is difficult to muster. I really struggled asking Liv for help after I suffered a shoulder injury while crossing Antarctica. The perception of weakness rather than putting heads together to find a solution kept getting in the way. It also then puts strain on the relationship. We had to have a couple of difficult conversations to move me out of my stubbornness. Having a good laugh doesn’t hurt either.

Q: To say that you are a “risk taker” seems almost insulting for woman who has lived her life in some cases literally hanging on an edge in some of the most challenging life environments most will never even come close to experiencing. What advice do you have for the average layperson who is regularly told to “take risks” or “get out of your comfort zone.”  How does one actually take that first step on the icy terrain? Asking for a friend!

A: Risk is all relative to the risk taker.  A 5th grader taught me an example of this when she wrote me a note saying “I hope I am as brave as you when I switch schools and make new friends.”  I realized there are things in life that I feel more afraid of … school, for example, scares the pants off of me. On the other hand, The Poles are something that I love and am good at. We all have to find the things that make us feel complete, then there’s only one direction or choice to be made … which of course lowers the risk.

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