Saturday, March 7, 2009

Last of the supersize sailing ships

Who hasn’t been stirred by the romance of the tall ships?

FRANCE II The Biggest Voilier of All!
5,800 tons 5-masted barque

Ordered 1911, launched 9 November 1912, Bordeaux, France;
ran aground and made derelict 12 July 1922, New Caledonia

While it was the 19th Century that saw the great races of the clippers – I guess we’ve all heard of the Cutty Sark - and of the vigorous contest between sail and steam driven ships, the biggest wind-powered ships were in fact of the early 20th Century. Incredible as it might seem, when France II took to the seas in 1912, she was SIX TIMES the tonnage of that grand old lady (978 tons)Cutty Sark.

France II was a voilier, the French word both for a sailing ship and a soaring bird such as an albatross. Here’s what Erik Abranson said back in 1976 in his classic book Ships of the High Seas (Cassell) after first telling us details of the ship’s size and construction - and its vast sail area of 6,350 square metres: “The France II had six first class cabins – and a doctor’s cabin – opening on to a spacious and luxurious saloon with a double staircase leading to the passengers’ deckhouse. The passenger cabins were … twelve square metres … furnished with a brass bedstead, a bedside table, a double-fronted wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a settee, a desk and a sink with running hot and cold water.” This sounds like the style of the great ocean liners, not a sailing ship! Not too many homes on land in those days had hot and cold running water. Erik Abranson went on, “Lunch was a five-course meal (with French pastries twice a week); a light tea was served and the dinner also had five courses. Both main meals included wines, coffee or tea and digestifs – cognac or rum.” You get the picture!

Chief designer was Gustave Leverne

France II was originally fitted – very “leading edge” in her day – with twin diesel auxiliary engines each of 900 horsepower, intended to give her a speed of 10 knots under power alone when needed.
But in 1919 these often unreliable diesels were removed. Besides, the ship had always handled beautifully under sail; so the engine compartments were reclaimed as extra cargo space, and in the end this was perhaps her undoing.

Her sailing days came to end on the night of 11-12 July 1922 when the ship was becalmed off New Caledonia. With no engines – they’d been removed, remember – she drifted helpless onto the coral reef of Teremba Reef, fortunately with no loss of life. The ship could not be economically salvaged, so her rich fittings and upper structures were dismantled for scrap – a sad finish to a fine career of over a decade surviving right through the First World War. Not quite the end of the story! In 1944 during the Second World War the stranded old steel hulk was used for bombing practice by the U.S. air force.

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