Smooth Sailing: Experiencing the Rouen Armada  

Smooth Sailing: Experiencing the Rouen Armada  

Watching the Rouen Armada from the riverbanks of the Seine is one thing, enjoying the event aboard the tall ships themselves is an unforgettable, almost regal experience.  

I now know (a bit) how royals feel as they wave gently to crowds who’ve come to see them! I was aboard the Finnish schooner Joanna Saturna as she sailed down the Seine from Le Havre to Rouen for the Rouen Armada 2023 earlier this month. In various strategic spots along both sides of the riverbank people waved flags, honked air horns and waved generously at us as we sailed (well, motored) past. And so, we royally waved back! 

Staying on course © Christina Mackenzie

The 120-yr old Joanna Saturna, owned and captained by Mikko Karvonen, is a gaff-rigged schooner because she has two masts that are the same size and her four-cornered sails are fore-and-aft rigged: that is, they are parallel to the length of the ship rather than perpendicular to it as on a square-rigged vessel.  

You can’t sail a fairly large ship (she’s 34m long) down a river, so instead we chugged along, overtaking a number of other tall ships in our convoy heading to Rouen for the Armada, waving at them too and honking the ship’s horn as we did so. 

Karvonen bought the ship in 2000 and spent five years renovating her. He started chartering her with the help of three full-time crew members in 2005. “We do mostly day trips and events based in Helsinki,” he explained.  

We joined her in Duclair, a 20km, half-hour road journey west of Rouen. But it took us over three hours to do the 35km reverse journey along the central of the three great meanders the Seine makes on its slow journey from Rouen to the sea at Le Havre. 

All aboard! © Christina Mackenzie

Us passengers were kept busy not only waving at the spectators and admiring the singular vista of towns and villages seen from mid-river, but also eating quantities of petits-fours.  

We had a river pilot with us, not because this was the Joanna Saturna’s first voyage up the Seine but because it’s obligatory when there are passengers aboard. I could hear him holding great discussions over the radio as to whether we were going fast enough to pass under the Pont Gustave Flaubert, the lift bridge which had been raised to let the tall ships pass, before it was lowered at 10.15pm so that traffic could drive over it again. We did, and I wondered if our masts would touch it as we slipped underneath. They didn’t! 

Christina was lucky enough to spend the night on board the Thalassa © Christina Mackenzie

Bunking down on board 

After mooring on the left bank of the Seine, just next to the spectacular Métropole Rouen Normandie regional government building, we disembarked. I have to admit to feeling a bit smug as I walked down the gangplank of “my” ship!  

Although a weekday and almost 10pm, families, groups of youngsters, couples, were scattered along the quays to watch the tall ships moor.  

I was concentrating on finding another ship in the dark, the one I’d be spending the night on: the Thalassa, a three-masted Dutch ship which had arrived earlier that day. She’s a barquentine, which means she has three masts with only the foremast square-rigged, the two others: the main mast and the mizzen (the aftmost mast), being rigged fore-and-aft. She was built in 1980 in the Netherlands but sank five year later. Arnold Hilkema and Jacob Dan acquired her and totally rebuilt and refitted her, before relaunching her in 1985. Today she’s owned by Maarten Van Eden who bought her 18 months ago. 

Cosy cabins for the night! © Christina Mackenzie

The 39m long vessel has a permanent crew of five (2 officers, 2 deck-hands, 1 cook) and can accommodate 30 guests in 15 cabins. Before sailing to Rouen she’d been sauntering around Scotland taking her passengers from distillery to distillery on a whisky tour. But she only spends six months on these kinds of charters. The rest of the year she is a School at Sea vessel, taking some 35 youngsters sailing to the Caribbean and back. They keep up with their homework, but also learn to function as a team, helping with the planning, navigating and organising. It’s a programme Van Eden has been involved with for years which is why he was eager to buy the ship when the previous owners, now in their mid-70s, decided to throw in the towel. “We take children on board and come home with young adults,” he told me proudly. 

I can vouch for the comfort of Thalassa’s bunks as I slept soundly and even if you can’t open the porthole the air-conditioning stops the cabin from getting stuffy. And that cupboard door? Inside is a shower, perfectly adequate for a quick wash. 

A tasty breakfast with the crew © Christina Mackenzie

I woke in the morning to the smell of bacon and quiet voices in the galley a few doors away. At 7.30am sharp the breakfast bell was rung and we were greeted with bacon and eggs, viennoiseries and fresh bread, cheeses, charcuterie, fruit salad and different fruit juices. Coffee and tea were self-service from the machine on the main deck.  

I was free to explore, admiring the complex web of ropes and ladders on deck, wondering how sailors didn’t confuse them until a closer inspection revealed they are all a bit different. I peeked in the steering-house, admiring the shiny wood, looked in the galley and generally familiarised myself with the ship. 

 The occasional ripple made by passing river police and life-boats would give the Thalassa a brief lift and for a few seconds I could almost believe we were at sea. But no, a billowing rumble of human voices indicated that visitors had already begun promenading along the quays! We had to be ashore by 10am to give the crew time to get the ship ready for these visitors prepared to queue for long minutes in the hot sun to have a quick visit of the ships I’d been lucky enough to spend many hours on. 

Details on board © Christina Mackenzie

Lead photo credit : Ships moored up along the Seine riverbanks in the heart of Rouen © Christina Mackenzie

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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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  •  Graham Bibby
    2023-06-28 05:41:18
    Graham Bibby
    Sorry to say, I think you've got your conversions wrong. 34metres is 111 feet. 34 feet is 10.3 metres. I think the former is correct, and makes the Seine voyage all the more challenging!