A photographic walk through the modernising gigayacht shipyards in La Ciotat.
My love for La Ciotat is a secret to no regular reader of this blog. The reason for this is how this small seaside town has managed to rise from the ashes of the closure of its main employer, the shipyard that used to build, among others, France’s first post-war cruise ship (La Marseillaise, now a diver’s paradise in Granada, sadly) and turn into a thriving place that now caters for the ultra rich but has lost very little of its old popular Provence charm.
La Ciotat illustrates the power of brands. Most people have heard about Saint Tropez, and seen the paparazzi pics. Few have actually been there. Saint Tropez is a powerful brand. Because film stars used to play petanque and sip pastis from its tiny main square, half a century ago, it has gained this aura of jetset life. And the abundant night clubs and assorted bar that even Bezos couldn’t pay me enough to set foot in, have done much to maintain that image. But, unless you parachute into your hotel, or arrive by sea, your Bugatti – whatever its model number – is likely to crawl into town for hours in between Peugeots and scooters before you can set foot onto the hallowed ground immortalised by Yves Montand, back in the days, and Intagrammers today. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice enough. But there are other similar (to my taste, prettier) places along the coast, whether to the East (Antibes or Menton) or to the West (Sanary and La Ciotat) that won’t require you take a sleeping bag with you to weather the traffic jams. Besides, La Ciotat has far more superyachts. Yup. The cool kids may party in Saint Tropez, the super rich stop off at La Ciotat.
All because of the shipyards, you see.
La Ciotat consists of three main areas. The old port, almost circular in shape, much like Saint Tropez and others. To one side, the more modern developments around the beaches. I often quip that this is the closest we have to California in the area: wide areas to jog, walk, cycle, for miles along the beach, people playing beach-volley, the odd weirdo, the street art … To the other side, the shipyards, and then on to stone cliffs with rocky creeks, some accessible only via rope or boat.
The shipyards are some of the biggest in France and delivered 207 ships – among the largest and most beautiful in the world – from 1948 to 1987 (but the yards are actually far older than this). Competition from the cheaper far East led the E.U. to recommend to its members to maintain only one in each country. We weren’t gonna fight to keep our industrial know-how, now, were we? In France, this chosen one was Saint Nazaire, so La Ciotat closed down in 1987, plunging the town into deep social gloom. When I moved to the area in 2000, it was a deeply depressed area. Achingly beautiful landscape and dirt cheap houses tempted us, but the drab poverty and associated social problems scared us away. Shame.
In 2007, brilliant minds saw the opportunity to use the infrastructure to offer yacht maintenance services. And the company services 100 yachts a year, almost 15% of the world market. The influx of money has had a profound effect on the little town, which is now vibrant and fresh. But it’s deep social roots haven’t yet been forgotten. The Cité ouvrière Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, a city build for yard workers, is reported to be France’s first example of “paternalist” politics which theorise the relationships between company owners and company workers as a family, the bosses taking good care of the employees. And, while it caters to the world’s richest people, life is still very affordable in La Ciotat, and other heritage (like the world’s first cinema, very old cafes, the birthplace of pétanque) are maintained ‘in their juice’, as the French say. There is no room for unnecessary luxury here 🙂
Although I make numerous visits to this charming place, one part was sorely missing from my photographic gaze: the shipyards are private land, strictly off-limits for non-professional visitors and particularly to photographers.
Imagine my surprise when the city’s website announced the yards to be open to the public during France’s annual “heritage week-end”, mid September. With lovely weather overhead and a full battery in the camera, we drove off to eye many locations usually shut to the public, visit space exploration, oceanography and ethnography scientific stands (nearby Marseilles hosts a very large oceanography lab, and there’s a massive underwater neutrino “telescope” not far off La Ciotat, which the oceanographers help maintain).
Plus, of course, we headed out to the shipyards, which had organised a free-for-all wander along a one mile track through the derilict and the modern. This post is about this walk. And for the photographic account – this is serious business – I need to switch to black and white.
Aaah, that’s better, right? 🙂
There’s not much more to add to the above intro, so I’ll mainly let the pictures do the talking, only describing important evolutions here and there.
Leaving the employee car park at the entrance, above, our first stop was a very large and very crumbly old building that looks very interested in taking a long nap on the group. Still, it must be safe enough, as we were allowed underneath it, which I’ve been longing to do for a long time.
What a place for b&w, and what a test for post-processing 😉
Outside the building lie the visual highlight of the yards : the mahussive cranes used to lift ships or sections from one area to the other. While some are ancient, most have been maintained, even when they weren’t being used. And this has been key in the rebirth of the yards and the city.
We’ll get back to the cranes later. First, I wanted to present a series of photographs that best describe the ambience of the yards.
There’s this mix of past and future that I have described in a post about London and that I really love. Plus a sense of opportunity and abundance. With lovely personal boats left lying around in dark corners and even on the top of containers. I’m not sure why they are here? Simple parking? Refurbishing? But they make for fun photographs and I would give a politician’s left lung for the middle one 😉 What a beauty!
After a stroll round the shrinking derilict area, we come to the new developments, dedicated to gigayachts. Believe it or not, La Ciotat is suffering from competition from other local ports when it comes to refurbishing the tiny 50-meter yachts of mere fractional-billionaires 😉 Apparently, the low entry barriers in this section of the market (84% of all yachts are less than 50 meters, puny), and the great financial results of La Ciotat have enticed others. So La Ciotat is moving to a new corner of the market, one that only yards with incredibly large infrastructure can accommodate : the 100m+ giga-yacht.
Three 115m docks and undewater lifts are being dug into the existing work area, which will supplement the existing 240m dry dock and other undisclosed infrastructure. Apparently, in a couple of years, the yards will be able to work on 7 gigayachts simultaneously, out of the 100-ish currently on the seas. Last year, Sailing Yacht A spent a few months there (not a pretty sight, unfortunately). At the same time were yachts owned by the King of Morocco and other 70m+ beasts.
Obviously, long holes in a flat surface don’t make for a very photogenic scene, from afar. So here it is, with cranes as background 😉
Speaking of cranes, here’s the star of the show. There are two similar ones, each able to lift 600 tons out of the water. Only one will be used, the other being kept for spares. While it’s hard to show just how large this thing is, the fact that it dwarves a 70 meter yacht probably gives some sense of scale.
The final part of the visit is a flat land, 17 artificial hectares of it, gained over the sea, neighbouring the long 115m docks and 240m dry dock. This land is criss crossed with straight railway lines.
When a yacht comes to moor, it is lifted out, either by the big crane or by underwater lifts and dropped onto a rolling structure so than it can be placed more or less where there’s room. Then, a hangar is built around it using scaffolding and white plastic fabric, so as to ensure no pollution escapes the purpose-built enclosure. Everything, from toxic waste to rainwater is collected and dealt with according to ever greener regulations. Just next door is the highly protected Calanques Marine Park I’ve written about previously.
Around that temporary hangar, a little city of provider company containers pop up like burning man in the desert, and the work begins on restoring a majestic machine to its best possible state. When the work is done, the city dissolves, the scaffoldings return to tube piles and the ship is railed back to its underwater lift and on to the open sea. Wonderful.
Guided tours were on offer that probably provided more information than the various panels displayed here and there. But, with a camera in hand, I have the attention span of a squirrel on coke. And, over the years, my wife has largely given up on feeding me information in such circumstances. So, instead, we roamed the area like teen detectives picking up clues along the way and trying to make sense of how everything worked. She’s scarily good at it, and keeps telling me being an MD is exactly like being a detective, forming conclusions (and deciding on treatment) based on examination of visual information, lab results and interrogation. Needless to say, she comes up with much of the explaining. But, hey, at least I provide the supporting images 😉
I would love to know more about each of those yachts and where they go. For example, Naia, above and below, is a 74m charter yacht that spends its summers in the Med and its winters in the South Pole! And I’d love to photograph the inside. If a reader knows one of the owners, please tell them I’m well behaved and eager to spend a day or two onboard with a camera 😉
Not sure we’ll ever get to see the owners when we see the future gigayachts, but I do hope they come and see how their precious boat is handled. It’s a fascinating process that few other than them, and the yard workers are ever likely to witness. I envy them that!!
Let me end this recollection with a few more random pics.
And we’re back to colour and the present moment. What do you think ?
My teachers will all testify that my school prowess, however meager, lied in science, and certainly not in history. As much as old stone appeals to me visually and architecturally, the associated dates and name just glide on me like facts on obscurantists.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like history. But it only speaks to me when it informs the present and shapes the future for the better. That’s why the idea that this wreck of a place is rising like a phoenix mainly because it took good care of its heritage and know-how in the darkest of times, and has retained its values in spite of great social change, now that’s something I can get behind and want to photograph all day.
I wonder how many of the grand old beauties that left the shipyards between 1948 and 1987 are still afloat today. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see some return to their place of birth to be refurbished and pampered? What a turn of the wheel of life that would be 🙂
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