Crouan`s Yacht Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

Belem has served as a West Indiaman, a luxury yacht and a sail training ship in her century plus of life.

In December 1895, Ferdinand Crouan (photo) and Adolphe Dubigeon, shipbuilder of Chantenay-sur-Loire, signed a contract for a steel ship, 48 metres on the waterline, to be built under Bureau de Veritas surveillance to “First Division” – the equivalent of Lloyds +100 A1.

The incredibly detailed contract listed innumerable prime quality items – from ‘sheets of finest hemp’ and ‘sails of first quality Joubert Bonnaire’ to minutiae like silver spoons for the captain’s table!

In July 1896, Crounan’s newest boat, named Belem, sailed on her maiden voyage, commanded by West Indian, Captain Lemerle. He was nicknamed Le Merle Noir (The Black Blackbird), not for skin colour but ill temper! In the next four years, the ship had five more captains until, in January 1901, Jacques Chauvelon became her maitre après Dieu. Chauvelon and Belem made twenty five ‘campaigns’, as the trans-Atlantic round trip was called. Few lacked drama for chart names evoke the hazards of the hostile Caribbean – Bay of Death, Door to Hell, Coffin Islands. Cyclones were another danger – in the last decade of the last century, fifty six caused tremendous losses – but land, not sea, was responsible for Belem’s narrowest escape. In 1902, Chauvelon arrived at Martinique’s Saint Pierre and found another Nantes West Indiaman, Tamaya, in Belem’s usual berth. Ordered to Port Robert, Belem escaped, with cinder holed sails and volcanic ash on deck, when Mount Pele erupted and every ship in Saint Pierre, including Tamaya, foundered in tidal waves.

Belem has always commanded admiration and affection. After one Transalantic crossing, she approached in a near hurricane, signalling for the pilot. He flashed back ‘What ship?’, before venturing out, and said afterwards ‘If it had been any ship but the Belem that night, they could have gone to the devil.’.


In Nantes, even today, they speak about 19th century locals, well used to majestic West Indiamen sailing upriver, who always came out to watch, when ‘Crouan’s Yacht’ was sighted.

Belem’s nickname proved singularly prophetic, for she had scarcely unloaded her final cargo, when the Duke of Westminster gave her owners £3000 and whisked her away. She docked at Nantes on January 31st 1914 and arrived in Southampton on February 23rd. Julien Chauvelon, who commanded her delivery crew, spoke of ‘the worst voyage of my life’. He wasn’t referring to weather – Channel storms were bad, but scarcely troubled the trans-Atlantic veteran, except to slow progress. Chauvelon’s problem was that, as Belem beat her way to England, he had to come to terms with leaving his ‘home’ for the last 13 years – even his honeymoon had been a ‘cruise’ aboard.

As a West Indiaman Belem would not have disgraced the Royal Yacht Squadron, for Chauvelon – nicknamed ‘Captain Paint’ – kept her ‘as smart as a new sou’. His linseed oil, shellac and garlic mixture made masts look varnished but below, the cabins did not have ducal proportions so the hold was turned into sumptuous apartments. Outwardly, Belem hardly changed except that, perhaps influenced by mock gun ports, Westminster had the poop raised and surrounded by massive pillars giving the yacht a rather piratical air. In contrast, conversion of deckhouse to panelled dining room was the epitome of discrete Edwardian elegance.

French society magazines, entranced by the romance of West Indiaman turned yacht, reported Belem’s every move but, when the Duke sold her in 1921 (too small!!!), reports changed. Gossipy titbits – ‘The Duke of Westminster has escaped the chill of England and joined “Belem” at Monaco’ – gave way to accounts of heavy weather sea trials. New owner, Arthur Edward Guiness – who renamed her Fantôme II – was a much more serious sailor than the Duke.

Before long the Times correspondence columns were debating whether, or not, Fantôme II had gone closer to the Arctic Circle than any other yacht. What is certain is that, during that cruise, wealthy passengers endured horrendous storms and, several times, her crew had to hold fenders over the side to protect the hull from icebergs.

Back home, there were more modifications, including conversion of mizzen mast to double as an exhaust pipe, for Guinness was preparing for a world cruise, which began with the ex-West Indiaman reliving her days of commerce, as the trade winds pushed her to the Trinity Isles. That was the first of many fascinating places which were written in her log, during a 40,000 mile voyage.

It is hard to imagine the reactions of people, who had never watched T.V., when confronted with sights like awesome Galapagos tortoises, the bewildering bustle of a South American trading quay and a Tongan monarch, in tribal dress. After the stopover in Tonga, the adventurers visited the New Hebrides and Solomons and were so enchanted that they dallied longer than planned. It was fortunate they did, otherwise Fantome 11 would have been in Yokohama, when an earthquake devastated the city and many fine vessels were lost in a tidal wave.

Whilst Fantôme II was returning to the Riviera – via China, Borneo, and Aden – her ex-owner was also Med-bound in his bigger Flying Cloud. The French clearly preferred the Duke’s previous boat – ‘Those who love beautiful boats missed “Belem” who combined the elegance of a pleasure ship with the majesty of a frigate.’ was the comment of one Monaco journalist.

Early this last century, magazines loved to regale reader with such titbits about comings and goings of mighty men in their ‘upstairs downstairs vessels’, the leviathans of that exclusive Lloyds appendix – “Sailing yachts over 500 tons.” When sailing was a rich man’ prerogative, the flamboyant lines and colossal sail plans of those great cruising yachts were the ultimate status symbols but the twenties witnessed dramatic social changes. As early as 1923, one magazine reported that “certain owners of great yachts are reluctant to fit out, until crew wage demands are known.” By 1930, there were just nine British owned and registered yachts in that select Lloyds list and, twenty years later – following Guiness’s death – yachting magazines, local papers and, even the Times, mourned the departure of the last, and most beautiful. The Guiness family had sold Fantôme II to Count Vitttorio Cini.

Renamed Giorgio Cini, she served as a training ship for orphans of fishermen and sailors until 1972, when the count gave her to the carabinieri as a luxury cruise ship for police families.

They commissioned a refit but laudable plans had an ignominious end when, after new engines and generators had been installed, the unpaid bill reached 900 million lira! The yard said ‘enough’, seized the boat and offered her for sale.

On August 25 1979, surrounded by pleasure boats, Georgio Cini was towed into Toulon.


We left Boulogne with waves crashing over the mole and the weather man gloomily predicting “worse to come.”

The weather man was absolutely right! By dinner, many only had appetites for Dramamine, leaving the rest of us to sate our wind sharpened hunger with extra portions of hors d’oevres, succulent cotelets aux flageolets and ripe camembert!

It was not one of those days when wind and light fade together. Gales were predicted all around, as night fell, troubled radio calls began. One giant, hampered by its draft, struggled to hold course in mountainous swells, rudder damage forced another to anchor. Then a poignant message brought silence to the wheelhouse. “Mayday relay, mayday relay. Pere Luigi has sunk of St Malo with four on board. I have picked up a survivor and request all nearby ships to assist in search of others.”

On a night when most yachts would be under bare poles, or desperately running before, we tacked down channel – with sail for 7 knots. I spent all night on deck, reluctant to miss a minute of the most exciting sailing I’ve experienced. It was sheer exhilaration, coupled with a feeling that, if gale turned to hurricane, this boat would bring me home.

Today, anyone over sixteen is welcome on Belem, there’s no upper age limit and her oldest ‘crew member’ has been an 86 year old. Cruises last 2 to 10 days and, on longer voyages, lessons on astral navigation, meteorology etc supplement instructions in square rig sailing.

“Can’t speak French.” is no excuse not to join in. Officers speak English, sign language is used for many commands and, as you’ll be learning new words, it scarcely matters whether you furl the main Royal or le Grand Cacatois!

No other tall ship offers that rare glimpse into a splendid era – a chance to sit in a Duke’s dining room adorned with magnificent, irreplaceable Cuban mahogany panelling and graceful double staircase, leading below, a chance to stride a poop that Arthur Guiness strode in almost every ocean in the world. This is also a ship which will dispel any illusions about sailing qualities of square riggers. She is perhaps best summed up in the words of one of her masters, Michel Pery, “I’ve sailed on everything – from 4 metre dinghies to 273 metre cargos – and Belem is the finest sea boat of all.”

Belem made 33 journeys to Brazil, the Azores and back as a West Indiaman. Last year she made her 34th.

Photos of Belem under sail and archive pictures were supplied by Fondation Belem, 23 rue de la Tombe Issoire, 75014 Paris, France. Tél. : 33 (1) 01 58 40 46 46 Fax : 33 (1) 01 58 40 48 47 .

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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