The sad end of Cousteau's Calypso
One of the most famous ships of the 20th century has been left to rot in the harbour of La Rochelle, the victim of a nine-year family feud. Now the city wants rid of it. Hugh Schofield asks: will spite scuttle the Calypso?
In an obscure corner of the old trawler harbour of La Rochelle, hidden from view by the building-site that was once the city's fish-market and forgotten by all but a devoted few, lie the rotting remains of one of the most famous ships of the 20th century.
Heavy-duty rubber straps have been bound round the stern to stop it breaking apart, and the front is covered by a white tarpaulin. A large sign warns the curious against coming aboard. Understandably so, since the handrails are splitting and the metal floors have rusted through to a thin veneer.
For the intrepid visitor who ignores the advice there is more desolation to come. Inside, where once rang out the cries of hardy crewmen and a thousand instruments whirred, there are now blackened timbers, gaping emptiness and the drip of discoloured rainwater.
A tarnished symbol
Nine years after the commander's death the ship has fallen victim to a bitter family feud, and its chances of a new life as a museum or research centre — let along taking to the sea again — appear to be receding into the depths.
We had an experts report done recently and they said it was no longer a question of repairing the boat, but of rebuilding it," said Marc Parnaudeau, who is in charge of the Calypso dossier at La Rochelle's town hall.
"Every part would have to be replaced because the wood has completely rotted through. But it's like the bicycle which you change every part of. In the end you have a completely new one," Parnaudeau said.
The sad tale of the Calypsos decline began in 1996 — a year before Cousteau's death at the age of 87 — when the ship was badly damaged in a collision with a barge in Singapore. On its way to China for a mission, the 66-foot fragile wooden ship actually sunk after the barge hit it and had to be dragged to the surface and all the water pumped out of it.
Cousteau himself had been planning at the time to replace his fabled ship with the Calypso II.
Towed back to Marseille, the Calypso was brought to La Rochelle on France's Atlantic coast two years later where the plan was to make it the centre-piece of a planned maritime museum.
"The theme of the museum was going to be submarine exploration — so it would have been perfect. But then the questions over the ownership suddenly emerged," said Parnaudeau.
Throughout its decades of service, the Calypso had in fact been the property of the Anglo-Irish millionaire Sir Loel Guinness who leased it to Cousteau for a nominal rent. But since the commander's death two associations have laid claim to his legacy.
On one side the Equipe Cousteau — French arm of the US-based Cousteau Society — represents the interests of Cousteau's widow Francine. On the other, the Campagnes Océanographiques Françaises (COF) is backed by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the commander's son by his first marriage, as well as by several of his old crew such as chief diver Albert Falco.
Francine — a former air-hostess 40 years Cousteau's junior — says that since the collapse of the La Rochelle museum idea she has struck a deal with an American company to have the Calypso turned into a scientific education centre in the Bahamas.
But the COF wants the ship to stay in France.
"This is a historic vessel that should have been classified as part of the French national heritage a long time ago," said Jean-Michel. According to Falco, Cousteau told him shortly before he died that he wanted the Calypso to return to the Mediterranean.
Last November a court in Paris appeared to settle the matter when it ruled in favour of Francine.
A document showing that the Calypso was registered under the COF's name in the 1970s was erroneous, the judge found. But the COF immediately said that it would appeal — earning a vicious denunciation from Francine.
Meanwhile the authorities in La Rochelle are impatient to get rid of a boat which is now seen as an embarrassing encumbrance.
"The dispute has gone on so long that we just want to be shot of it. It is heart-breaking, but we have to think ahead. Having the Calypso falling apart on our quayside is not good publicity. We will be happy to help pay the costs of getting her out of here," said Parnaudeau.
Some have suggested the Calypso should be towed out to sea and scuttled. It could then be used as a training area for deep-sea divers. Compared to yet more legal wrangling and years of painful decay, it could prove to be the more fitting end.
Copyright AFP + Expatica