The three masted barque Belem is the last 19th century French trading ship still under sail.
The three masted barque Belem is the last 19th century French trading ship still under sail. The Belem was built at Chantenay sur Loire, near Nantes and put to sea in 1896. As a merchant vessel she crossed the Atlantic 33 times from 1896 to 1913. In those days, her single deck covered 153 square metres of hold containing up to 650 tons of goods and merchandise, mainly cocoa from Brazil, rum and sugar from the French West Indies. The only structure built on deck was the galley.
In 1914 the Belem was sold to the Duke of Westminster, turned into a private yacht, refurbished and fitted with engines.
Originally the Belem's hull was painted black with a gold edging. In 1906, she was taken over by a new ship owner, Demange Frères, who had the hull painted grey and decorated with blind gun ports. Her present look – black hull, white gun ports - dates from the Westminster era; so does the very distinctive balustrade surrounding the quarterdeck.
The original masts were made of wood – except for the steel bowsprit. Today, all the masts are made of steel. In 1914 The main deck house was built in 1914, the small deck house after 1921; the two were joined together in the 1960s. The wheelhouse on the quarterdeck is a more recent addition, dated 1984.
However, the changes made to the Belem throughout her life, first as a merchant ship, then a yacht and finally as a training ship, never really altered her basic appearance. She looks today much as she did when she was first built. The option taken by the Belem Foundation when it had the ship restored in the early Eighties was to respect the modifications made in the successive episodes of her exceptional career.
The school ship Belem
The newly refurbished Belem was put back to sea in 1985, the Belem Foundation having decided she would sail as a training ship. She is manned by a crew of 16 experienced officers and men, chosen from the ranks of the merchant navy ; not only are they fully qualified to sail this very special ship in maximum safety conditions, they are also skilled teachers, since the Belem's basic mission is to promote the knowledge and understanding of France's maritime heritage.
The Belem has a capacity of up to 48 trainees. The ship is also available for functions and private events. She is officially authorised to sail on the Eastern Atlantic, the Channel, the North Sea and the Mediterranean. Special authorisation can be given to sail to further destinations, such as the transatlantic crossing she made to New York in 1986 and her 2002 “Atlantic Odyssey” to Senegal, Brazil, Martinique and the Azores.
The Belem is also regularly involved in the Tall Ships events as a living symbol of France's naval history, since she carries the French colours, but also as a reminder of the other flags she flew in the course of her long career : the British flag for 38 years, the Italian for 27.
Stringent safety rules on board
The Belem Foundation is responsible for the sailing and the maintenance of the Belem with the assistance of the Compagnie Maritime Nantaise, in charge of commissioning and fitting out the ship. The Belem must follow all the regulations that apply to sailing ships carrying passengers, such as the International Safety Management Code (ISMC) that establishes safety rules on board and the International Ship and Port Security Code (ISPSC) that specifies safety rules for the ship itself. The crew is responsible all year round for the maintenance of the ship. Daily tasks are done with the help of the trainees. Every year, the Belem is put through several weeks of complete overhauling : this is the time for any major work that needs to be done to the hull, the engines or the rigging. The results are officially certified by the Bureau Veritas who orders and supervises the work and, every 3 years, delivers a conformity certificate : this is mandatory to obtaining the navigation permit delivered by ( the Bureau of ) Maritime Affairs. The Belem is the oldest ship in the world figuring on the register of the Bureau Veritas.