Fleur des Mers Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

Following our article on the harenguier ‘Aimée’, in the January issue of BYM, we received an e-mail from Boulogne-sur-Mer, asking if we had any information on the former pilot boat ‘Fleurs des Mers’. This is her story, have YOU seen her?


I have received a thousand and one requests for plans for an ocean cruiser. As a true sea boat, ‘Fleur des Mers’ hull form could scarcely be improved upon.’ wrote trans–Atlantic yachtsman and editor of The Rudder, Thomas Fleming Day, in 1912.

‘Pilot cutter’ often summons mental pictures of Bristol boats, or their equally famous contemporaries of Le Havre. Yet Boulogne’s turn-of-the-century pilots, who led ships through the hazardous banks of the Dover Straits, needed equally well-founded vessels. That they are not as well known may only be due to the misfortunes of war, for the boat that Fleming Day, found so impressive was a Boulogne pilot cutter.

The pilot station, along with many port installations, was destroyed in World War 11 bombardments, so few records exist. In 1887, there were four sailing ships, ‘Notre Dame’, ‘Fauvette’, ‘Fleur des Mers’ (not the subject of this story) and ‘Cerf’ (left), which was replaced by ‘Jean et Marie’, in 1893. At that time the station was operated on an ‘attrape qui peut’- ‘catch who catch can’- basis, the eight pilots endeavoured to outwit each other, as well as men from other ports. There were also four open boats, used to guide vessels into port and to watch for ships needing pilotage. Often, they’d act as decoys, being sent by a pilot in the wrong direction to confuse the others about the position of a waiting vessel.

As the century turned, the pilots decided that co-operation was better than competition and formed a syndicate. They sold ‘Notre Dame’, ‘Fauvette’ and ‘Fleur des Mers’ to finance the acquisition of ‘Marguerite’ – a small ketch rigged fishing boat with a 105 hp steam engine – and a larger steam ship, ‘Assomption’. Then, in 1911, with the age of steam well underway, inexplicably, they commissioned local naval architect, Georges Soe, to design another sailing vessel.

The new Fleur des Mers, built by the Villeneuve brothers and launched in 1912, was 18 metres overall, carried 185 square metres of sail and, at 51 tonnes, was one of the heaviest pilot boats on France’s north west coast. Her construction was similar to the big sailing herring boats but, whereas all the main frames in a harenguier were doubled, in ‘Fleur des Mers’, this was only done to alternate frames. It was said that this economy was possible, because her hull form enabled the timbers to be especially well fastened. She differed from fishing boats in another respect – after a 4000 kgm cast iron keel had been bolted, her bilges were filled with concrete. A report said ‘this made for easy maintenance, by eliminating protuberances and corners’, but I can’t help wondering if there were later problems, with the keel bolts?

The ketch rig, as drawn by Soe, was never used. Without consulting the designer, the pilots told Villeneuve to move the masts half a metre backwards, to provide better accommodation below, and shorten her mizzen to make reef taking easier. The changes cannot have adversely affected her performance for, after trials, a journalist wrote “‘Fleur des Mers’ is a remarkable boat. She is less fine than the excellent Le Havre pilots, but more powerful. She may be a little slower in light airs but can cope more easily with heavy weather.”

The accommodation was also exceptional, the le Havre pilots slept in ‘cubby holes’, whereas ‘Fleur des Mers’ had private cabins, well lit by an abundance of skylights and glazed partitions below.

When I first started investigating the history of ‘Fleur des Mers’ there are still some very old men in Boulogne who remembered her. None seemed to know, for certain, what had become of her, but it was often said that she had been sunk, during the 1914 - ’18 war. I discovered that she not only survived World War 1, but World War 2 as well and may still exist today!

Otto Bemberg bought her—circa 1919—and had her converted to a yacht and fitted with a paraffin engine. He based her at Le Havre, where owner and friends used her for Channel cruising and she continued to be praised for exceptional severe weather performance. Reports that she had visited Cowes in regatta week led me to hope Beken might have photos, but alas no!

Doctor André Cellier, of Paris, acquired the pilot boat, in 1930, took her to the Med, renamed her ‘Grande Largue’ and, after doing one round the Med long distance race in her sold her to Leon Chiris, who called her ‘Malabar’. Before long, she changed hands again and the Saurin-Coty family named her ‘Asuma’.

Until the outbreak of war, the ex-pilot boat led a pampered existence. Reports of the time include accounts of expensive refits, of weeks spent following the racing yachts from one fashionable port to another and of monsieur Saurin-Coty being awarded the ‘Guidon de Yacht Club de France’ for his explorations in ‘Asuma’. In 1938, The Saurin Coty family decided they needed a larger yacht and ‘Asuma’ was put up for sale.

From 1939 to 1947, the former Boulogne pilot boat became ‘Valpo’ of Amsterdam, owned by Gaviota NV. Then Dr Lapeyre, also of Amsterdam, acquired her and kept her until 1952, when she became the propery of Ing A. Gorka, with a Bilbao address; c/o Senora Mendoza.I got very excited when I was told, by phone, that the Amsterdam Registry included a wooden boat called ‘Valparaiso’ but, when the extract arrived, it turned out to be a converted 1938 steel cargo boat. Curiously though, this ’Valparaiso’ had previously been named ’Gaviota’ so there was some obvious connection!

I failed to trace either Gaviota NV. or senora Mendoza. I rang every Gorka in the Amsterdam phone book but none had heard of the yacht. I wrote to Bembergs, Chiris and Saurins but received no reply, except for a letter from Switzerland from a nephew of Otto Bemberg who was unable to tell me anything,

Then I discovered that, in summarising ‘Fleur des Mers’ numerous changes of names, ownership and ports, Lloyds had omitted one vital piece of information – in 1959, she was registered in Barcelona. Optimistic again, I wrote to the port’s maritime authority. They had no record of the boat but suggested I contacted the two local yacht clubs – neither replied. I did, however, discover that the UK based firm, Initial Services had a Spanish subsidiary called Gaviota, but they did not respond to my letter.

In 1960, ‘Valparaiso’ vanished from Lloyds register, but was not listed as having been broken up, or otherwise destroyed. The evidence suggests that, although the names of her registered owners changed, ‘Valpo’ or ‘Valparaiso’ was being maintained by a Dutch company, Gaviota - presumably as a Mediterranean corporate hospitality vessel – until 1959. She would, therefore, have been well maintained and could still be sailing today.

If you recognize Fleur des Mers from these pictures, or have any information about an 18 metre ex-pilot boat, please e-mail us.


Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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