Jean Bart Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

L’Association Tourville - based in Dunkerque, France - is dedicated to realising one of Louis XIV’s unfulfilled projects.

The Sun King’s expansionist policies required France to develop a naval force which could challenge the world – particularly the fleets of England and Holland – and, between 1660 and 1689, 250 battleships and frigates were built. Many of these ships were produced under the instructions of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, but the great 84-gun vessel whose plans were laid out in the ‘Album of Colbert’ (now conserved in the Maritime Museum of Paris) was never actually constructed. Now l’Association Tourville in Dunkirk hopes to build this ship.

The ambitious project stems from research carried out by Christian Cardin, hydraulic engineer, expert diver and amateur historian of ancient sailing craft. In the early 1980s, while diving off Saint Vaast la Houge on the Cotentin coast, Cardin found the wrecks of six large warships, remnants of Admiral Tourville’s fleet which had beaten an Anglo-Dutch force off the Isle of Wight in 1690, only to be decimated in a second engagement in 1692.

The first result of this discovery was the setting up of a museum of maritime history on the island of Tatihou but, once this had been established, Cardin wanted to do more to heighten public awareness of a period which has been called the ‘glorious era of France as a naval power’; an era of which little remains, other than these wrecks and a few documents and engravings. Cardin began to investigate the feasibility of creating Colbert’s vessel which – had it been built – would have been the pride of the Sun King’s fleet; a 57 metre, 1500 ton three-deck warship.

Obviously, constructing such a vessel would be an enormous financial undertaking and early studies suggested that it might be difficult to recoup the required investment from income resulting solely from visits to the ship, so a revised project has been developed.

The new project aims to turn a piece of Dunkerque wasteland into a 17th century quayside, complete with sailmakers, carpentry workshops and houses. There will even be an auberge, with period gastronomy and the ambience of a 17th century tavern, where visitors can spend a night. One of the buildings will house an ultra modern visual world, where visitors will be able to ‘share’ the life of the port’s famous corsairs.  The vessel, which will be named ‘Jean Bart’ after the most famous of Dunkerque’s corsairs, will be at the quay.


At present, a group of young people are building a 1/15th scale prototype of  ‘Jean Bart’ - about 3.80 metres long — in the Dunkerque suburb, Grande Synthe. Retired adults are also assisting in what is a  carpentry training and social integration scheme, as well as a forerunner to the full scale project. The area, which includes an exhibition about corsairs and Louis XIV 's navy, has been named Grande Synthe Port Royal.

Construction of a prototype is essential, as it will be used to draw the plans of the full size vessel. Such plans have never existed because, in the 17th century, ships were made without plans, by a master shipwright with his compagnons and apprentices. Plans for the model were drawn from computer compilations of archaeological data from the vessels which sank during the battle of the Hougue and drawings from Colbert’s Album which shows 52 drawings of the different steps required to construct a vessel of  84 canons.

The prototype will also be a promotional tool to find private and public investors for the full scale project and there are plans to exhibit it at this year’s Paris Boat Show. The aim is to lay the keel of ‘Jean Bart’, at Gravelines, in April 2002, the 300th anniversary of the death of the famous corsair.

Financial analysis by an internationally reputed firm of accountants and design studies by well-known naval architects have shown that the project is both feasible and potentially profitable. All that now remains is to raise the FRF 174 million which is needed to build the village and the vessel.

At present Port Royal can be visited only on weekdays, but from mid-September the centre will also be open on Saturday.For more information, check out the web site.

Marian Martin

Since this story was published, the project has moved to Gravelines where, on December 14 2002, the first four sections (44 metres long) of Jean Bart’s keel were laid.

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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