If you ever went on a cruise on a giant ship, chances are relatively high that it was built in my hometown in France. Since the second half of the 19th century, some of the most famous transatlantic liners in history have been built in the shipyard of Saint-Nazaire: ships like Normandie in 1935, France in 1962 and more recently cruise ships such as Queen Mary 2 in 2003. I wanted to try with this article to describe the deep connection between the inhabitants of the city and “their” shipyard, Chantiers de l’Atlantique; and as a mural in the town centre says: “In Saint-Nazaire, of our ships we are proud” (“A Saint-Nazaire, de nos navires nous sommes fiers”).
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Almost everyone in Saint-Nazaire knows someone “working at the shipyard”. It could be a friend, a parent, a brother… or a sister, as more and more women are hired there nowadays. My own grandfather has been working on the construction of the liner France. So every time a crisis hits, with less contracts for new ships and more competition from abroad, it’s not only bad for the local economy, but also for everyone’s morale. At some occasions, it even felt like the entire city was depressed.
The shipyard was working at its full capacity until the beginning of 2020. In the past few years, it has obtained a worldwide reputation of excellency and thanks in particular to a recent deal signed with the ship-owner MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company), the order book was full until 2030 at least. Until then, one new ship was supposed to be finished every six months; a record! But the coronavirus crisis happened in the meantime, and the consequences for the cruising industry were disastrous. It’s impossible to predict what the situation will be like in the future.
Was it the cause of this flourishing industry, a consequence, or a mix of both, Saint-Nazaire which used to be known as a grey and boring place back in the 90’s when I grew up has now changed a lot. If the city still suffers from a lack of consideration, it’s only by people who have never visited it. With its 20 beaches, its blooming cultural life or its many recent and beautiful murals, my hometown is slowly becoming a real tourist destination, and no longer known only for its industrial sites. I’m happy to contribute a little bit to this change by working at the Tourist Office.
One of the things I like most about these cruise ships being built here is the extraordinary urban landscape they create. Even if I’m used to it, I don’t think I could ever get bored of the sight of one of these giants moored in the harbour of Saint-Nazaire, making every single building or boat around it looking ridiculously small. It’s also really amazing how close you can get to them, especially when they are in the Normandie dock. This 350m-long lock was built in the early 1930’s as ships were getting bigger and bigger. The biggest cruise ship in the world today, Symphony of the Seas, is 362m long and was moored in a huge dock inside the shipyard during the outfitting stage, but some other ships such as the Celebrity Apex and its caracteristic blue hull still fit perfectly in.
Another great lookout is from the panoramic terrace on top of the submarine base, just across the harbour basin. I think that it’s the best place to appreciate how big these ships are, and how vast the shipyard is. By the way, guided tours enable you to penetrate into the shipyard: a very interesting visit that I highly recommend! More information here.
The moment when a newly built cruise ship leaves the harbour is always special for the inhabitants of Saint-Nazaire. We all know that these giants will never come back: they usually spend the rest of their lives sailing on the Mediterranean Sea or in the Caribbean. I’ve seen dozens of ships leaving the city, but it’s always a special feeling, especially when the foghorn resonates to greet the thousands of people waving goodbye from the piers and the seafront.
There was one noticeable exception in June 2017, with a unique event called The Bridge, which celebrated 100 years of French-American friendship. At that occasion the Queen Mary 2 came back to Saint-Nazaire for the first time since her construction. I unfortunately missed this event as I still was in Australia during this period, but everyone who witnessed it told me that it was really amazing and also a bit emotional to see the “QM2” back in her original home!
In October 2019, I had the rare chance of being onboard a pilot boat with a few colleagues from the Tourist Office, following the MSC Grandiosa as she was sailing out of the harbour in the evening. We were broadcasting it live on social media (the Facebook video is here – in French only) while I was also taking pictures. The manoeuvres began at dusk and it was completely dark when the Grandiosa left the harbour. I took as many pictures as possible and was very focused on my job, but from time to time I also simply enjoyed the moment, with a big smile on my face, captivated by the extraordinary sight of this giant cruise ship right in front of me.
What about the environmental impact?
I’m not going to pretend: yes, there is a contradiction between advocating a change in our travelling lifestyle for more sustainable habits and yet admiring giant cruise ships. I might have seen things differently if I had grown up in a different place, but as a native from Saint-Nazaire, cruise ships are almost part of my DNA, and I can’t help being fascinated by them and the incredible know-how it takes to build them. But yes, these giants pollute a lot and the fact that they travel all around the oceans of our planet has an undisputable impact on the environment.
That being said, this industry is also at the cutting edge of technology where energy transition is concerned. Cruise ships built today are less energy-intensive, and their gas emissions have been considerably reduced compared to their predecessors. MSC have recently announced that they intend to compensate all their CO2 emissions to be carbon-neutral, starting from this year, and the first cruise ships with sails might be built within the next ten years. There are still a lot of things to improve, but I genuinely believe that it’s a good start. Now it remains to be seen what the future of this industry will look like in the post-Covid-19 world…
My biggest concern about cruise ships today is mass tourism. Cities such as Venice suffer a lot from the arrival of these giants in their harbours, that aren’t dimensioned to host ships of this size. But in the meantime, 5,000 people on the same boat means also less cars or planes in circulation… I’d be happy to read your opinion about this complicated topic in the comment section!
I initally finished writing this article in March 2020, as the cruise ship Celebrity Apex was just about to leave the harbour of Saint-Nazaire at the end of its construction. It had officially begun on the 23rd of July 2018, which means that it took less than two years to build such a giant! I was impatiently waiting for that moment as my colleagues from the Tourist Office and I were supposed to broadcast it live again from the same pilot boat, but five months later, she is still moored in Saint-Nazaire. More than 150 people from the crew were tested positive to the Covid-19 when the sanitary crisis was peaking, and all of them were eventually evacuated. No one knows today when the Apex will finally leave… Here’s a picture of her taken a few days ago, in front of the gorgeous three-masted barque Belem built in Nantes at the end of the 19th century and also temporarily moored in Saint-Nazaire.