Sunday, January 27, 2008

 

Calypso sails free of Jaque Cousteau feud

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The Sunday Times
By Matthew Campbell
January 27, 2008




SHE may look ready for the scrapyard but Calypso, the former British minesweeper from which Jacques Cousteau explored the undersea world, is to be rebuilt to roam the oceans once more as the symbol of an environmental campaign being piloted by his widow.

Calypso had been rusting in the port of La Rochelle, in western France, as a vicious legal battle raged among the fractious Cousteau clan over ownership of the legendary vessel which had featured in so many films and books about the deep.

“All these awful legal battles are over, thank heavens,” said Francine Cousteau, second wife and widow of the explorer. She has been at loggerheads with Jean-Michel, Cousteau’s son from his first marriage, and Alexandra, the explorer’s granddaughter, both of whom she accuses of trying to profit from the illustrious family name.

She said that a recent court decision on the Calypso in her favour would have been welcomed by the figure universally referred to in France as “the commander”. He died in 1997, aged 87, and is remembered as a pioneer of scuba diving, underwater photography and environmentalism.

She wants his vessel to play a symbolic role in international environmental politics after an estimated £3m facelift, preparations for which were beginning last week at a shipyard in Brittany.

“No matter how much effort it takes, I am determined that Calypso will return to the sea,” she said. “Calypso is like the Eiffel Tower of the seas, the Mona Lisa of the environment. She can travel from place to place, offering herself as a platform for the signing of international environmental treaties.”

The 43-metre Calypso could also host seminars on the environment, she added: “She can anchor in front of the United Nations or cross the Red Sea, wherever she can highlight the cause of the environment, wherever she can be useful.”

Jean-Michel Cousteau has accused his stepmother, a former air hostess, of “walking off” with his father’s legacy and showing no interest in “ecological missions”. She has accused him of using the family name to promote maritime holiday resorts in America.

Jean-Michel’s efforts to prove a legal title to Calypso were matched by those of 33-year-old Alexandra, head of the Philippe Cousteau Foundation, named after her father, the explorer’s second son, who was killed in a seaplane crash in 1979.

Various retirement schemes had been suggested for Calypso – even for the boat to become a museum or the centrepiece of an environmental theme park in the Caribbean. Francine changed her mind when she saw the vessel being towed to dry dock in October last year.

“When I saw her moving over the water again after all those years, I knew that she had to return to sea,” she said. “It is a very big job. Fortunately the funds are available.”

Calypso’s woes began in Singapore in 1996 when she sank in the harbour after a collision with a barge. She was dumped in La Rochelle where she was left to rot as the Cousteaus battled in court over the legacy of “the commander”.

The dispute had its roots in family history: Francine had two children with Cousteau before she married him after the death of his first wife, Simone, in 1990. The marriage prompted a rift between Cousteau and Jean-Michel, whose loathing for Francine is reciprocated.

Francine called it “sad” but said she wished Jean-Michel would stop trying to make unauthorised use of the family name, exclusive control of which has been retained by Equipe Cousteau, her organisation.

“They [Jean-Michel and Alexandra] want to capitalise on the name,” she said. “If their name was not Cousteau, nobody would know who they are. I have to put a stop to it.” Jean-Michel had wanted to make the Calypso a floating museum and “educational” project on the French Mediterranean coast, arguing that it would be a catastrophe if such a national treasure ended up on the other side of the Atlantic.

He said his father had stipulated that Calypso should end her days in the Mediterranean, where he first clasped her wheel in 1951.

The plans to turn Calypso into a museum were undermined, however, when a French radio station dug a soundbite out of the archives in which Cousteau, in his familiar rasping voice, was heard saying: “I would rather sink her than allow her to be turned into a museum . . .

“I don’t want this legendary ship to be prostituted by having people picnicking on the decks.”

The ship is to be completely refitted by a company specialising in the renovation of historic naval vessels. IWC, a Swiss watch company, has offered to pay for new engines. The original hull, made of Oregon pine, is apparently still seaworthy. The restoration is expected to take up to 18 months.


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