An exciting voyage through France’s proud sailing history

The frigate Hermione is a working replica that makes an arresting sight. Pic: Association Hermione L

The frigate Hermione is a working replica that makes an arresting sight. Pic: Association Hermione La-Fayette - Credit: Archant

Take a voyage of discovery through France’s maritime heritage, all the way through to the present day

Life on the ocean waves. Pic: Yves Ronzier-Goelette

Life on the ocean waves. Pic: Yves Ronzier-Goelette - Credit: Archant

Although you can already visit, the Musée Mer Marine in Bordeaux doesen’t fully open until June, when people will be able to explore about 10,000 seafaring artefacts, including one of the first drafts of Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. With this exciting news on the horizon, Sandra Haurant charts France’s history on the high seas and suggests some other museums and events that are well worth a visit.

France has a proud history of navigating the globe, embarking on improbable journeys across the oceans and discovering new lands. Breton Jacques Cartier (1491 – 1557) was one of those to undertake a daring voyage across the Atlantic to explore the Canadian coast. There, he discovered Prince Edward Island and the Gulf of St Lawrence, as well as the St Lawrence River, a trip which later led to France laying claim to North America.

More than two centuries later, Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was to set sail across the Atlantic for very different reasons. Having already travelled to North America and met with George Washington, Lafayette convinced France’s Louis XVI that he should support the American fight for independence. He took to the seas from Rochefort in a frigate named the Hermione in 1780, arriving in Boston some weeks later with the news that French reinforcements were on their way. A faithful reconstruction of the Hermione was begun in Rochefort in 1997, and in 2015 the ship made the voyage to Boston once more.

In the 1800s, the navigator, naturalist and explorer Nicolas Baudin was selected to go even further, reaching the other side of the world and mapping the coasts of Australia (then called New Holland) while his home country was in turmoil. Travelling with zoologists and botanists, he reached Australia in May 1801 and mapped the western and southern coasts. However, he never made it back to mainland France after he succumbed to tuberculosis on the island of Mauritius in 1803.

Cite de la Voile Eric Tabarly is dedicated to one of France's most celebrated sailors. Pic: Yvan Zed

Cite de la Voile Eric Tabarly is dedicated to one of France's most celebrated sailors. Pic: Yvan Zedda - Credit: yvan zedda

But grand voyages are not just a thing of the past, with modern navigators embarking upon equally challenging journeys. Éric Tabarly was born in Nantes in 1931 and sailed from his earliest childhood. It was during the 1960s while in the Navy that Tabarly really began to make a name not only for himself, but for France. In 1964 he won the second ever Transat, the world’s oldest transatlantic race, sailing from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, in 27 days. In the first race, in 1960, the winner Sir Francis Chichester had completed the race in 40 days. Tabarly didn’t realise he had won on his arrival, since he hadn’t used his radio, and it turned out his self-steering system had given up the ghost eight days into the race. He went on to win the Transat again in 1976, and French names dominate the list of winning skippers over the years.

During his eventful life, Tabarly also changed tack and took to the skies in the 1950s, becoming an aircraft pilot with the French Navy. But he returned to the seas almost a decade later, soon becoming an officer. He ended his formidable naval career as a captain in 1985 but not before Tabarly, who drowned in the Irish Sea in June 1998, had awoken a fresh passion for sailing in France.

In 1989, the Globe Challenge, now known as the Vendée Globe, was launched. Often called the Everest of the Seas, the race sees sailors start and finish in Les Sables d’Olonne in the Vendée. The challenge involves sailing around the world singlehandedly – with no stops and no assistance – navigating the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Cape Leeuwin in Southern Australia and South America’s notorious Cape Horn. The last race, which spanned 2016 and 2017, was won by Breton Armel Le Cléac’h in 74 days, three hours, 35mins and 46 seconds. The next race sets off in 2020.

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Not long after the first Vendée Globe, in 1991, Isabelle Autissier became the first woman to complete a solo navigation of the world in competition, during the BOC Challenge. And France continues to be a world player in sailing today, with world class competitors such as Marie Riou and Billy Besson, Claire Leroy and Elodie Bertrand bravely taking on the oceans. While the early French navigators were discovering unseen coastlines, today’s sailors explore the very limits of human endurance.

L'Hermione - French Frigate. Pic: Association Hermione-La Fayette

L'Hermione - French Frigate. Pic: Association Hermione-La Fayette - Credit: Archant


Porte Musee in Douarnenez is a unique museum on the quayside. Pic: Francis Holveck

Porte Musee in Douarnenez is a unique museum on the quayside. Pic: Francis Holveck - Credit: Archant

1. Port Musée

The Port Musée in Douarnenez in Finistère is a unique museum with a quayside area covering more than 1,500m². There are a number of interesting boats you can board and explore, from humble fishing boats used for sardine fishing to the reconstruction of a dhow, an Arabian wooden sailing boat. There is even a pleasure yacht, the Viviane, which dates back to the 1860s and is considered the oldest boat of its kind in France.

Place de l’Enfer, 29100 Douarnenez

Tel: (Fr) 2 98 92 65 20

Les Sables d'Olonne plays host to lots of races but has plenty of charms on dry land too. Pic: Natha

Les Sables d'Olonne plays host to lots of races but has plenty of charms on dry land too. Pic: Nathalie Chevre - Credit: Archant

2. Cité de la Voile Éric Tabarly

A museum dedicated to one of France’s most celebrated sailors, the Cité de la Voile takes visitors on a journey across the seas. It boasts three hours of sailing and offshore racing discovery, including an interactive museum space, tactile activities racing boat simulators and a 4D cinema. Take a guide of the outdoor quayside area and see Vendée Globe racing yachts, maxi trimarans and more, close up.

Lorient La Base, 56323 Lorient

Tel: (Fr) 2 97 65 56 56

3. L’Hermione – French Frigate

The Hermione is a working replica of the magnificent frigate that took the Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic to join the Americans in their fight for independence in 1780. The ship was painstakingly recreated by dedicated craftsmen, using 2,000 French oak trees, 1,000 pulleys and 2,200m² of sail. The ship retraced the watery trail of the original in 2015, crossing the ocean and sailing to Boston. Hermione sets sail every few years to tour near and far, but returns home to Rochefort, Charente, where visitors can admire the ship up close and learn about this fascinating labour of love.

Arsenal Maritime, Place Amiral Dupont, 17308 Rochefort

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 82 07 07

4. Les Sables d’Olonne

The Vendée Globe sets sail from here every four years and the town plays host to many other races, but Les Sables d’Olonne has plenty of charms on dry land, too. Take a stroll around its central sweeping sandy bay and along the seafront, with handsome buildings on one side and the great blue ocean on the other, to breathe in the sea air in this sunny corner of France. In the evenings, the promenade comes to life as the light dips and musicians and street entertainers come out to play. If you’re feeling adventurous, test your sea legs by taking a trip out on the bay in a sailing boat. Contact the Tourist Office for details.

1 Promenade du Maréchal Joffre, 85104 Les Sables d’Olonne

Tel: (Fr) 2 51 96 85 85

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