The Rouen Armada: Tall Ships, Free Concerts and Sailors in the City

The Rouen Armada: Tall Ships, Free Concerts and Sailors in the City

Ships ahoy! This June, don’t miss the 2023 Rouen Armada held along the banks of the River Seine in the capital of Normandy. 

From the 8th-18th June 2023 Rouen will be hosting one of France’s major public events: the Armada which is also the world’s biggest gathering of Tall Ships. Held more or less every five years since 1989, this eighth version has drawn 43 magnificent many-masted sailing ships from all over the world. But don’t think it’s just a question of wandering up and down the quaysides admiring these Tall Ships. Oh no! A host of other activities are organised in, on and around the ships 
including superb fireworks and free concerts every evening.

“Everything is free for the general public,” Jean-Paul Rivière, chairman of “l’Armada de la liberté”, the non-profit association that organises the event, told France Today over lunch in Rouen. “And I want to keep it that way,” he stressed.

Enjoy the spectacular fireworks held every night of the Armada © l’Armada de la Liberté

The chance to see the world’s most impressive tall ships

Equip yourself with a picnic and a pair of binoculars and post yourself along the Seine river banks (which rise to cliffs in certain places) to see these majestic ships sailing the 123km up the Seine from Le Havre (discreetly helped by their engines for safety’s sake on the relatively narrow river) on 7th and 8th of June (from 15:30-21:30) and again on 18th June when the ships will all sail back to Le Havre together in “La Grande Parade”, the Big Parade. “Some of the ships will have to navigate at low tides so as be able to sail under the three big bridges,” Rivière explained.

Check precise passage times of the ships on

Once in Rouen, the vessels will be moored along 7km of quayside. Ten will be along the left bank between the Gustave Flaubert and Guillaume le Conquérant bridges. All the others will be on the right bank (cathedral side) anchored from the entrance of the port just beyond the large ferris wheel to the G. le Conquérant bridge.

Fireworks will be at the tip of the left bank’s Rollet peninsula starting at 23:30 every night from 8th-17th June. 

Meet the crew

Twenty of these beautiful vessels belong to navies who use them for training. It may seem strange to train sailors on ships that seem far removed from today’s modern warships but the idea is to use this labour-intensive, low-tech environment to teach sailors to work as a team and to give them their sea-legs. They also learn how to control a ship using only the wind (mostly!) and how to compensate for current when there is reduced propulsion. Once the young sailors are aboard a modern warship, sitting in front of a computer screen in a darkened room, they may easily forget that they’re at sea so this experience is designed to remind them!

You’ll be able to visit all these ships in the company of a crewmember who’ll proudly show you around and answer any questions you may have. Visiting times for each ship will be posted next to its gangplank and also on the Armada2023 app that you can download onto your smartphone, if you have one. You can’t reserve ahead so you’ll just have to chat to the others in the queue whilst you wait your turn to go aboard!

The 23 other, privately-owned ships, such as the Tante Fine, the Thalassa or the Vera Cruz amongst others, have been chartered by the Armada which then rents spaces aboard them to companies who host guests for lunch or dinner. “We have at least 230 rental contracts,” Rivière noted with satisfaction, adding that these contracts contribute 55% to the Armada association’s income, the remaining 45% provided by public bodies. 

Special guests

There will be no Russian ships this year, but you might note one whose name is written in Cyrillic, the Штандартъ (Shtandart), a replica of the first ship of Russia’s Baltic fleet (1703-21). This 24-yr old version was built by a small group of sailing enthusiasts. The vessel today is stateless with no home port in Russia. And to counter any potential ill feelings “this year we’ve invited 300 or so Ukrainians currently living in France, to come and enjoy breakfast aboard one or two of the ships,” Rivière explained.

Not the prettiest ship but certainly eye-catching: from 6th-12th June the 121m long Canopée will be part of the show. Launched last year, she is designed to carry segments of the Ariane 6 rocket from European ports to the European Space Agency’s launchpad in Kourou, French Guyana. She undertook her first voyage there this February. Her four 36m high masts, two on each side, bear vertical wingsails called Oceanwings, each of which measures 363m². These can be reefed or lowered. Propelled in this way partly by wind, Canopée is designed to reduce fuel consumption by 42%.

Her spot will be taken from 12th June by the FREMM-class Normandie, one of the French Navy’s newest, stealth frigates.

The Armada takes particular pride in the welcome it gives to the ships’ captains and crew. “We organise a car-trip to Paris for the captains and a coach-trip for the crew.” Rivière noted with some amusement that a number of marriages between crew members and locals have taken place over the years. 

Rivière stressed that “this is a zero plastic event. We’ve imposed recyclable goblets and cutlery on everyone. We’re aiming for a lower carbon footprint than in 2019 and have asked specialists for an audit to see how we’ve done.” 

Events to watch out for around the Armada

• On 7th June from 17:00-19:00 la Grande Pagaille (What a Shambles) is when you can have a giggle at the floating objects navigating the Seine invented by individuals, associations, clubs, schools and companies who’ve been working for weeks designing them. No thermal engines are allowed and everything used to make them must be recyclable.

• On 11th June from 11:00 the Archbishop of Rouen will lead the Sailors’ Mass from aboard the Atlantis which you can follow from the left bank on the Rollet peninsula. 

Lead photo credit : The impressive Grande Parade is not to be missed! © L'Armada de la Liberté

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Christina Mackenzie is a Franco-British journalist who's spent all her adult life in and around Paris apart from a year in Chicago where she got her MSc in journalism and four years in Brussels where she worked for AP and learnt to navigate the corridors of the European Union. She is addicted to travel, and as she writes in both English and French her stories have been published in anglophone and francophone media. She has a travel blog "What I saw" on her professional website but sadly doesn't have much time to keep it updated as she's kept busy with her other jobs: reporting on military matters and mother of four. But that's another story!

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