Translation of Moura MacDonagh of an article in Le Monde, January 2012.
André-Malraux, the new research ship commissioned by Drassm (Département des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines) maintained maritime tradition when its godmother, Florence Malraux, daughter of General de Gaull’es minister for cultural affairs, christened its bows with a bottle of champagne on Tuesday 24 January, at La Ciotat Vieux Port’s ‘quay of honour’ near Marseilles.
The 36.3m ship was constructed at La Ciotat by the H2X shipyard and will be the work tool for French submarine archaeologists for the next twenty to thirty years.
By choosing this name for the ship, the world of submarine research is paying homage to the man who, in 1966, created in Marseilles the world’s first research service for marine archaeology. The following year, André Malraux equipped the service with a ship, L’Archéonaute. Michel L’Hour, Conservator General and Director of Drassm, explained that L’Archéonaute was “old, not adapted to developments in research or to the demands of a profession which it helped to invent, and required endless and ever more costly maintenance”. L’Archéonaute was decommissioned in September 2005, moored in Marseilles at a ‘forgotten quay’ and finally transferred to the French State during the summer of 2011.
The André-Malraux can carry submersibles and seven to ten scientists for long-distance exploration voyages of up to 200 miles offshore and for duration of up to 20 days, or else an excavation research team of 20 to 30 people for sites closer to the shore where the ship can return to land at the end of each day. Its hybrid character is in response to the diversity of Drassm’s missions, as Fredéric Mitterrand, minister of culture, explained at the launch at Le Ciotat. These include the identification of underwater remains and wrecks notified by divers, the development of underwater archaeological mapping and the monitoring of marine archaeological excavations authorised by the State.
The investment of 9m Euros was also justified, in Michel l’Hour’s eyes, by the necessity of protecting maritime heritage under threat, on the coastal fringe, by the development of sport diving which has meant that sites have been plundered for artefacts and, out at sea, by deep-water trawling and the exploitation of marine aggregates in the Atlantic and the Channel.
The number of sites in French mainland waters if estimated at 20,000. At present, 5000 wrecks have been listed, of which 1500 have been surveyed. The imminent ratification of the UNESCO Convention on Marine Heritage will extend the duty of protection to the whole of the French exclusive economic zone, which comprises 11 million km2 containing between 150,000 and 200,000 underwater remains to be listed and conserved.
Denis Metzher, commandant of the André-Malraux, was the Second Officer on L’Archéonaute from 1987 to 2005. He and his crew of two others – three for missions on the high seas – are impatient to proceed with the imminent engine trials, first at the quayside and then in February in the Marseilles harbour roads. Deprived of a ship for six years, Drassm will run multiple missions, some in partnership with scientists from other disciplines. The André-Malraux’s equipment will be tested in March during the exploration of La Lune, a ship that sank in 1664 in the Toulon harbour roads on its return from the coasts of Africa and whose wreck was discovered on 1993.
The decision of the French ministers of culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and then Christine Albanel to launch studies for a new scientific ship, as well as Frédéric Mitterrand’s decision in October 2009 to construct the ship, were criticised in senator Yann Gaillard’s review in November 2010. According to him, the State had acted too hastily in abandoning other solutions such as “periodic chartering of ship appropriately equipped for archaeological operations at sea on deep wrecks, complemented by the construction of a lighter and less costly inshore vessel”.
Yann Gaillard also questioned the wisdom of discarding the idea of converting a tuna-fishing ship at a time when France is putting in place community quotas for red tuna fishing and organising an strategy for lifting systems and vast platforms, adapted to the needs of submarine activities. This solution would have been as costly as the construction of the André-Malraux, retorted Michel L’Hour, who sees in the launch of the new ship a guarantee for France of preserving its role as the world leader in underwater archaeology and the protection of “the greatest museum in the world”.
Dimensions: 36.30m long, 8.85m wide, the André-Malraux is of composite construction and has a working deck area of 70m2, displacement of 300 tonnes and a draft of 2.9m. She can travel up to 2000 miles at speeds of up to 11 knots.
Crew: A crew of four is required if the ship is deployed 200 miles offshore, with 10 people on board. For daily missions, 26 scientists and divers can travel on board.
Equipment: The ship has various cranes, winches and lifting frames and can deploy submersible vessels of up to 6 tonnes and 20 sets of dive equipment. A wet area is available for treatment of archaeological artefacts.
Luc Leroux – Marseilles correspondent