Brittany’s ship graveyards: Temples of time, summed up in a single sigh, witnesses of a collective memory ...

 Marine Dumeurger

Centuries -old tuna boats from the isle of Groix, impressive lobster boats with their swaying hulls ... Today, these ships of another era can still be found on Brittany’s shores. Ghost ships anchored in silt, slowly submerged by grass and seaweed. They vegetate, petrified by iodine and tides. Of course, the most exposed have come apart. But Brittany is replete with these secret spots, ideal for contemplation: forgotten inlets, fragmented estuaries. Mysterious shelters first suggested then revealed by the ebb.

In these final resting places, remnants of history come together. They remind us of the maritime past of this region. Etel, Morbihan, around 1930: three hundred tuna boats used to work there. Camaret-sur-Mer, Finistère in 1960: first French lobster fishing port was home to thirty boats. They used to sail from Ireland all the way to the Mauritanian coast. A little further, Douarnenez was built thanks to the sardine industry.

In these port cities, everything is linked to fishing. Shipyards stand alongside canneries. When the fishing trade declined so did financial resources. The fleet was later modernized and wooden boats were neglected and eventually abandoned in the shelter of an estuary or nestled in a cove. At first the choice was practical: "Often we recovered the pieces for a new construction or as firewood," says Jean-Louis Dauga, curator at the Port-Museum of Douarnenez. But it was also mainly emotional: "In a cemetery, the captain lets his boat rest in peace. It can be seen slowly returning to dust. It’s as if the boat drifts gently into sleep thus avoiding a violent or painful scrapping. A legend says that after decaying on land, a boat rebuilds itself under water to carry to heaven the souls of sailors lost at sea.

Last witnesses

Today, ship graveyards are spread across Brittany’s shores. Some of them are no more than carcasses. Wood skeletons, only the frame remains. Others are still standing, bow erected, hull leaning over, paint peeling. Designed without computer aid, sometimes built with no blue-print, these traditional pieces of work are fascinating. "Today they are mass-produced from standard plastic shells. Back then, each one of them was unique," says Jean Louis Dauga. In Camaret-sur-Mer, Claude Lefur specializes in local history. He explains: "According to the shape of the ship, you know where she comes from, which construction site she was born in and where she used to go fishing." At a time when artisanal fishing is over, ship graveyards collect memories. They are a paradox: abandoned places that retain the skills and construction techniques that have almost vanished. But beyond the objects, there are men. Gaston Leroux is one of the last to have worked on these boats. He lives in Le Magouër, where he was born sixty years ago. The same little house, where every object has a special meaning. Gaston became ship’s boy at thirteen and a half, shortly after the death of his father at sea. His face bears the marks of salt and wind and the old sailor recalls thirty-five years of navigation. "We used to go to the North, up to Norway to fish whiting and cod. We did not have rescue gear. We steered thanks to Decca, a kind of compass. We roughed it out. For sure, it was more dangerous back then. I lost friends and experienced two shipwrecks. But we had to act as one." In his kitchen, Breton music audio tapes are stacked next to family photos and sailor souvenirs. "Back then, we used fishing lines. They were handmade. When we caught a ten or fifteen kilos beast, it was fun. Nowadays, it’s utter destruction. They use helicopters to detect tuna schools. Us, we spotted them thanks to birds." A few steps from his home, the Magouër ship graveyard houses the Oasis, a boat on which he worked in 1974. Bogged down in the sand, the remains of the fishing vessel are lost in the course of time and tides.

Endangered Site

As peaceful as they look, these places are far from having unanimous support. Especially when they prevent the creation of new moorings. Some, like Christian, consider them as fly-tipping sites. A realist, this inhabitant was surprised: "You find this pretty, rotting boats? I would rather see them on water." These places display the painful decline of the fishing trade. Madeleine lives in Douarnenez. She reckons: "We are used to it. I guess if you don’t know the place, it might be picturesque. We regret that there are more wrecked than brand new boats." Others are concerned about safety, unstable hulls, sharp objects, debris and pointy nails. In Magouër, the ship graveyard was set for distruction. Located by the beautiful Etel river with its golden light, the town wanted to clean it up. An association was created. In October 2006, fifteen people came together to protect the old ships. Bulldozers went away. Today, the site seems to have been saved.


In Brittany, ship graveyards unleash passions. Sources of inspiration, places of peace and quiet, ideal for walks… these sites attract photographers, painters, artists. "One day I saw a group of Japanese people travelling by bus stop there and take out their paintbrushes,” laughs a local resident. In Lanester , in the cove of Blavet, Jean Le Scouarnec, the artistic director of the Exchange Theatre in Pont-Scroff fell in love with it at first sight. In 1981, he was seeking a place to play a scene of Le Cid with his company, le Théâtre Quotidien de Lorient. "We wanted to play around a shipwreck on a beach so the water could wipe away Rodrigue and Chimene's footsteps. We toured Brittany. Then we landed here. "Kerhervy was a wintering area for Groix fishermen, a mudflat safe from currents and wind. An amphitheater made of wood and rock was built there. The festival of “Pont du Bonhomme “ was born. It still exists today. Performances take place at dusk with ghost carcasses in the background. Years later, Jean Le Scoarnec is still thrilled: "This is a magical place, with these tuna boats sent here to die, that yet live on. Here, man is made humble. "