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Transatlantic ‘bridge’ to celebrate French-US links

Basketball, jazz, giant trimarans and the return of the Queen Mary 2 to Saint-Nazaire will mark the occasion of the centennial of the arrival of the first major contingent of American troops during WWI, writes Gary Lee Kraut

24 May 2017
By Gary Lee Kraut

Any transatlantic crossing by ocean liner is a special experience – but this month the crossing takes on unique significance as the Queen Mary 2 returns to her construction site Saint-Nazaire before heading to New York as part of a celebration of the friendship between the US and France.

The Bridge 2017, taking place in Nantes, Saint-Nazaire and New York, will include a basketball tournament, a trimaran race, jazz concerts, and the gathering of a military armada.

It commemorates the centennial of the arrival on June 26, 1917, of the first major contingent of American troops on the continent to join the British and French armies in the fight against Germany during the First World War.

It is the brainchild of Damien Gri­mont, jack of all sea-related trades from Vannes, Brittany: an accomplished skipper, organizer of sea-faring events and a marine engineer.

Four years ago, as Mr Grimont was looking to develop a large-scale event at Saint-Nazaire, he was not thinking of the American connection that has become central to The Bridge 2017.

He was instead trying to imagine an event that would celebrate the SNSM (Société nationale de sauvetage en mer), France’s major sea rescue association, which was founded in the town.

His intuition told him that if the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) were to return to Saint-Nazaire it would create emotion and enthusiasm. How then to create an event that would be “worthy” of bringing the ship back to the site of its construction?

While in Saint-Nazaire, he found himself contemplating the monumental statue on the seafront of an American soldier, arms raised, a sword in one hand, standing on the wings of an eagle. The monument commemorates the arrival of American troops two and a half months after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. Over two million American soldiers arrived in Europe by the war’s end, with Brest eventually becoming the main port of arrival.

Mr Grimont learnt that these troops also brought with them American culture on a large scale, including jazz and basketball.

Mr Grimont’s focus then turned away from the SNSM (he would create other events in celebration of that association) and to the centennial of the American connection.

Bringing all the elements together, he and the organising committee planned a series of events that would pay homage to the role of the US during the war, promote French know-how and industry, and display a shared appreciation for jazz and its musical descendants, and for basketball. And accompanying the QM2’s transatlantic journey, a trimaran race would add an extra element.

It took three years for the organizers to nail down most of the details and commitments. This is the first time in the life of the QM2 that Cunard Line, the ship’s British owner, has allowed the liner to be chartered for a transatlantic journey.

Giant trimarans will be racing the QM2 to New York

The tides themselves needed to be co-operative since only a high tidal coefficient will allow the QM2, with its 11-metre draught, to enter the harbour. That condition will be met on the days surrounding the centennial of the arrival of American troops.

Sponsorship was the other necessary condition. In addition to the €8m cost of chartering the QM2, €6m needed to be raised for the related events.

Over 100 French companies (‘the Club des 100’) are taking part through sponsorship and the purchase of cabins and suites for the journey.

The general public is also invited to embark. Prices of accommodation are similar to those that Cunard practices on non-chartered crossings on the QM2, ranging from €2,450 to €4,900 per person, double occupancy, for cabins and from €7,200 to €30,500 per person, double occupancy, for suites. Passengers may embark at Southamp­ton, Cherbourg, or Saint-Nazaire.

While the passengers of the QM2 are enjoying the well-heeled pleasures of a transatlantic crossing, along with exceptional entertainment and networking possibilities, four 100-plus-foot trimarans, will race to beat the ocean liner and each other to New York Harbour. These racing giants, each with a crew of six, are part of the Ultimes multihull collective: Macif (skipper François Gabart), Sodebo (Thomas Coville), Actual (Yves le Blévec) and IDEC (Francis Joyon).

The skippers are familiar rivals. Gabrat, at 34 the youngest of the skippers, holds since July 2016 the record for distance covered in 24 hours (1.261km), solo sailing with a multihull, beating the previous record set several weeks earlier by Coville.

Last December Coville, 49, broke the round-the-world solo sailing record by eight days, returning to Brest after 49 days, a record previously held by Joyon. Joyon, 61, currently holds the sailing record for crossing the North Atlantic (New York-Cape Lizard), for which he beat an earlier record by Coville. Le Blévec, 41, is the winner of numerous races.

Under ideal conditions these giant trimarans can accelerate at more than 35 knots and reach even higher peak speeds, however it is unlikely that any of the trimarans will beat the QM2.

Steadily plying the ocean at a cruise speed of 28 knots, the QM2 will most likely cross the finish line (New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) on the morning of July 1 after six days at sea. Only exceptional meteorological conditions would allow one of the trimarans to arrive first. Chances of a trimaran victory are estimated at one in ten. More likely, the first trimaran will arrive in New York Harbour 24 to 30 hours after the QM2.

Nevertheless, Mr Grimont said the Bridge will create a “reference time” for a France-US trimaran crossing. (UK-US times already exist.) “That record will then surely be beaten as skippers subsequently setting out to break it will no longer be tied to a specific starting date but can adapt their departure to weather forecasts.”

While racing between giant trimarans is well known to the British and the French, Americans are less familiar with the sport. Mr Grimont is hoping that this visibility will help Americans discover the excitement and the human and technical prowess the sport requires.

Basketball, on the other hand, is an American-bred sport now played around the world. Basketball was developed in the United States in the 1890s and soon made its way to France, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that it took off at a national level here, in large part due to the country’s exposure to the sport through American troops during the war.

Today a love of the sport is something France and the US have in common on both amateur and professional levels, and it will be one of the main draws to the festivities that begin in Nantes prior to the QM2’s arrival in Saint-Nazaire.

The 3x3 World Cup (three players per side) will take place in Nantes on June 17-21. During that time, the trimarans will be docked on a branch of the Loire at the centre of Nantes, awaiting their own competition.

Featuring 20 men’s teams and 20 women’s teams representing 34 countries, this is the first time the 3x3 World Cup is being held in France.

Tony Parker, the NBA star and a dedicated member of the French national team, will attend the tournament in his role as ambassador for The Bridge 2017.

The Americans also introduced the French to chewing gum, while awing them with their abundance of soap, chocolate and cigarettes.

The Bridge 2017 won’t be celebrating those, but it will celebrate jazz, a musical genre which also arrived in France with the American troops. Jazz and its musical descendants will hold a place of honour before, during, and after the crossing. Highlights include concerts during the June 21 Fête de la Musique festivities in Saint-Nazaire on June 21 and in New York’s Central Park on July 1, the day of the QM2’s arrival. The QM2 will offer music during the crossing, including concerts by French soprano Natalie Dessay.

The president of the Cunard Line, David Dingle, has said that “the Queen Mary 2 is not only an ambassador for Great Britain, it is also an ambassador for France”. 

Christened by Queen Elizabeth in 2003, it set sail on its first passenger journey on January 12, 2004. The QM2 was then the longest, tallest and most expensive passenger ship of all time. Last year the Royal Caribbean’s Har­mony of the Sea, which was also built at Saint-Nazaire, became the largest passenger vessel. Symphony of the Sea, currently under construction at Saint-Nazaire, will take the honours when delivered to Royal Caribbean in 2018.

The ship is used for crossings between Southamp­ton and New York as well as for cruises, including an annual world cruise.

It would be inappropriate to speak of the return of the QM2 to its place of construction without also acknowledging a tragic accident that occurred a month before the ship was set to leave Saint-Nazaire for delivery to Cunard Lines. On November 15, 2003, while family members of employees of the shipyard were visiting the ship, still at dry dock in the shipyard, to witness their achievement, the gangplank between the dock and the boat collapsed, leading to the death of 16 people, with 29 wounded.

“A discrete, private event” will be held with families of victims of the accident, Mr Grimont said.

Mr Grimont said he is pleased about the growing enthusiasm on the French side of the ocean for the project. 

He said that it has managed to create “an exceptional dynamic on the French side, particularly in coastal western France.” 

However, interest on the American side, had lagged so far in comparison.

“But in the construction of a bridge there’s always a moment where the juncture takes place, and I expect that the Americans will be there when the time comes. At a time when many are speaking about closing themselves off to other cultures this is an event that speaks of openings.”

QM2 to join Le Havre festivities

The Queen Mary 2 will make a second commemorative port call along the French seaboard this year when it docks at Le Havre on September 15 to embark passengers for its final summer crossing of 2017, departing the following day.

The occasion is the 500th anniversary of the founding of this port city, which will be celebrated from May 27 to November 5. 

Le Havre is now more the city of architect Auguste Perret than of its founder King Francis I since it was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in September 1944. It is Le Havre’s post-war architecture and use of concrete that have earned it the status of a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Nevertheless, the QM2 will grace Le Havre with her presence as a reminder of five centuries of seafaring departures.

No chartering this time, just a leisurely six-day Cunard crossing with all the amenities for the lucky few (actually the lucky 2,691 plus a crew of 1,292), followed by a return flight to Paris.

The year’s quincentennial festivities were launched on May 27 with a parade and concert and the opening of exhibitions; among them a retrospective of the works of artist duo Pierre et Gilles (Gilles was born in Le Havre), until August 20, and an exhibition called Floating Cities presenting photographs, objects, models and documents related to ocean liners, until October 8.

From September 9 to October 8, the loan from Paris’s Marmottan Monet Museum of Monet’s seminal work Impression, Sunrise, depicting sunset beyond the port of Le Havre, creates the centrepiece for a rare exhibition of the works of artists who were inspired by Le Havre and its seascapes, including Turner, Dufy and Boudin.

Installations will be presented at locations ranging from the train station, with a rooftop video screen projecting image of the skyline, to the port where Julien Berthier’s droll sinking sailboat installation Love Love nosedives into the water.

Two power station chimneys are being lit up as part of an installation imagining a journey to Venus and Mars, while a whirlwind of red thread invites visitors to an ‘inner journey’ in St Joseph Church, which dominates the centre of the city.

The boating highlight of the season will be the arrival on August 31 of the 2017 Tall Ships Regatta. 

Having set out from Greenwich in April, this 7,000-nautical-mile spring-summer racing regatta ends its voyage at Le Havre with a gathering of 40 sailing ships from around the world. 

Among them, the Russian three-masted Mir, the Dutch schooner Gulden Leeuw and the English gaff-rigged pilot cutter Jolie Brise, which was built in Le Havre in 1913. The ships then depart on September 3.

On October 27, world-class sailing ships will again gather at Le Havre for one of the Atlantic’s most important multiclass races, the Transat Jacques Vabre. The race begins on November 5, destination Bahia, Brazil. The ships’ departure and the day’s celebrations will signal the end of Le Havre’s anniversary festivities.

Major events of The Bridge 2017

  • June 16: Arrival of the four trimarans in Nantes.
  • June 17-21: 3x3 Basketball World Cup in Nantes.
  • June 21: Fête de la Musique, including jazz concerts in Nantes and Saint-Nazaire.
  • June 22: Departure of the Queen Mary 2 from her home port of Southampton. The trimarans descend the Loire to Saint-Nazaire, accompanied by the Belem, the last of the great French three-masted sailing cargo ships of the late 19th century.
  • June 23, morning: Arrival of the QM2 at Cherbourg.
  • June 23, afternoon: Departure of QM2 from Cherbourg.
  • June 23-24: A military armada, including ships of the American, French, and British navies, along with others, gathers off the coast of Brest then escorts the QM2 to Saint-Nazaire.
  • June 24: Arrival of the QM2 at Saint-Nazaire.
  • June 25: Departure of the QM2 for the crossing and start of its race with the four trimarans. Leaving the harbour, the QM2 and the trimarans will salute the Ameri­can Monument. (The original statue, inaugurated on the 9th anniversary of the arrival of the first troops, was destroyed by German occupiers in 1941 and replaced in 1989.)
  • July 1: Arrival of the QM2 in New York Harbour.
  • July 2: Estimated arrival of the trimarans.
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