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An account of our journey aboard the Bélem, a three-masted sailing ship…

A French three-masted boat, built in the 19th century in 1896, it is the oldest in Europe, and classed as a historic monument. It took us back in time, and into a Breton storm…

     "Tonight the wind again blew hard on Brittany’s southern coastline. I was woken by the shutters banging against the walls of my studio on the second floor, so I went up to close them. When I opened the window, I breathed in a good lungful of the moist sea air as it whipped my face, the clouds raced by in the sky and I heard in the distance the lowing sound of the beacon commonly referred to as ‘the cow’, which sits at the entrance to Brigneau harbour. At that moment I felt a strong urge to find myself aboard the Bélem, where I had been two weeks before during stormy weather.

Le Bélem, Philip Plisson

photo by Philip Plisson who is featured in our Partner pages, site web www.pecheurdimages.com


The Bélem is a superb three-master, over 100 years old, a 19th century sailing ship which used to transport cocoa from Brazil. It was named after a town which sits at the mouth of the Amazon river, where it flows into the vast Atlantic Ocean.

     So, two weeks previously, I had been aboard this ship off the Breton coast heading for its home port, Nantes. We navigated day and night through spectacular weather, terrifying and sublime, including a force 10 gale (which is about 80 miles per hour) with 7-8 metre high waves all around us. We barely saw the sun for four days.

     At times we couldn’t even see the sky, as the height of the waves hid it from view; we saw only the grey-green water which became our sole horizon. The only way we could walk was with our legs planted as widely as possible and always with a handhold to cling to, whilst the waves swept the bridge and filled up our boots. Sometimes it took 20 of us pulling on a single rope to handle the sails.

     Whenever there were a few moments when the wind was slightly calmer, some of the crew climbed the masts to wrap the sails around the yardarms. As we were sailing continuously day and night, we were organised into ‘watches’, so each took their turn in spending four hours on duty on the bridge. When not on duty, we could go and sleep, but it was very difficult to get undressed and climb into a bunk when one was being tossed from one side to the other of the tiny cabin by the motion of the boat. Once lying down, I attempted to keep myself in place by pushing a hip against the wall on one side and a bent knee against the edge of the bunk on the other side.

     Mealtimes were even more difficult, trying to keep hold of everything moveable, otherwise it danced about all over the table. Even as we gripped the bench to avoid being flung off, we had to hold on to our cutlery, plates and cups as well. To prevent the plates slipping around too much, a good tip was to place the plate on a damp paper napkin.

     The other great challenge was bringing dishes or soup down a ladder, as the refectory was on a lower level to the kitchen, which was on the same deck as the bridge.

     One day we were accompanied for a long time by dolphins who were absolutely unperturbed by the violence of the waves. They swam alongside the ship, performing elegant leaps right out of the water, seemingly enjoying the attention. They overtook the boat, passed in front of the prow, dived underneath it and surfaced once again… a true delight to watch…

     The first night we navigated without stopping as far as the waters off Penmarch (where the tanker ‘Érika’ sank). The watch between 2am and 4am had been hard-going, with the weather deteriorating further, the wind blowing stronger and stronger. A full blown storm was forecast, so we had to take down some sails, which was a delicate manoeuvre. That morning we kept only the topsail, spanker and jib sails up. With the forecast announcing even worse conditions to come in the following hours and especially overnight, Captain Cornil guided us between the Ile de Groix and the coast to shelter us slightly. The anchor was struck and we were safe for the night. The plan had been to have reached Belle Ile for this second night, but the skipper had judged it too dangerous and so we were holed up for long hours between Groix and Lorient. A relative calm allowed us to get going again towards Belle Ile, but as the wind was against us (south-southwest) it was imperative that we fist distanced ourselves from the shore, sailing well out to sea before being able to turn around and have the wind behind us, with no risk of being dashed onto the rocks by the current.

     That night we took shelter at the island of Belle Ile, as did many other large vessels, tankers and container ships which, despite being four or five times bigger than us and more modern, had also deemed it wise to come and shelter from the storm which had been predicted. This time, the Bélem was moored by two anchors at the end of 250 metre chains.

     The next morning, after several hours of waiting and considering, the captain decided to set off. As our boat was the only one leaving, and the other larger vessels were staying put, we did not have complete peace of mind. Thankfully the wind turned north-northwest during the day, which was more favourable a direction and we again headed out to sea, towards the mouth of the River Loire, which would lead us all the way to Nantes.

     Approaching the river estuary, a powerful speedboat came out to meet us and pilot us into the estuary to the port. Both the way the speedboat banged against the hull of the Bélem and the acrobatic manner in which the pilot climbed aboard in the midst of the unrelenting waves were most impressive. The speedboat then shot off like a torpedo towards the shore. As we entered the estuary, the waves calmed.

     It was nighttime and all the cargo ships, cranes and warehouses along the Loire were lit up, lending this modern industrial scene a fairy-tale aspect. Everyone was, of course, on the bridge to admire the view. The mooring point of the Bélem is nearly in the very centre of Nantes. Crowds were lining the quayside and their voices called out to the sailors on board.

     We were returning from a journey to the past, which had taken us almost two centuries back in time…

     In a café on the port, I drank two half-litres of an excellent brown ale, then we went back on board to sleep, for the final time.

     And for the first time in four nights, the bunk didn’t rock."

                                                                            from 27th to 30th October 2000.

Bernard Jund

Bernard Jund,
'Art singulier' artist, writer, painter.