Discovering the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire

Chantiers de l’Atlantique is the shipyard located in Saint-Nazaire, in the Loire region. Heir to several shipyards that have succeeded one another since 1862, Chantiers de l’Atlantique is the last shipyard in France since the closure of the La Ciotat shipyard in 1987. The Chantiers de l’Atlantique site covers nearly 150 hectares, making it one of the largest shipyards in the world. Famous for having built the largest transatlantic liners such as the Normandie, the France and the Queen Mary 2, Chantiers de l’Atlantique also builds, to a lesser extent, military ships and oil tankers. In this article, we will look at the history of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique and its evolution, while stopping on the most famous cruise ships having been built by the shipyards of Saint-Nazaire.

The history of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire

The origin of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique goes back to 1862, when John Scott, an industrialist of Scottish origin, signed a contract with the Pereire brothers, owners of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT), who wished to build 5 liners. To realize this project, 4 construction holds are realized in the district of Penhoët, in Saint-Nazaire. At that time, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique signed a contract with the French state with which it undertook to carry out the maritime connections between Le Havre and New York, as well as Saint-Nazaire and Panama. The Empress Eugenie was the first liner to be built in the Saint-Nazaire shipyard in 1862, before being launched in 1865. That same year, the first 3 liners were delivered to the CGT but an economic crisis put an end to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique in 1866. However, the activity will be resumed but under the name “les chantiers de l’Océan”, without success. It wasn’t until 1881 that the Saint-Nazaire shipyards began to develop in a sustainable way, thanks in particular to the enlargement of the Penhoët basin. Until 1900, the Saint-Nazaire shipyards will mainly build liners.

The Queen Mary 2 is the largest transatlantic liner in the world

The birth of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the shipbuilding market became more international and the Saint-Nazaire shipyards were clearly uncompetitive compared to foreign companies. The Saint-Nazaire shipyards must reinvent themselves by becoming more competitive, but also more efficient in terms of construction time. In 1955, after a reorganization, the Chantiers de l’Atlantique, resulting from the merger of the Loire workshops and shipyards and the Penhoët shipyards, could now supervise the construction of liners, but also cargo ships and tankers. One of the major achievements of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique is the construction of the famous liner France, which took more than 60 months to build and was inaugurated in 1960 by General de Gaulle. At that time, the demand for oil tankers was rising sharply, unlike liners, for which orders were dwindling. At the same time, international competition is becoming increasingly severe, particularly with Japan wishing to establish itself as a global manufacturer. In 1964, the Chantiers de l’Atlantique had to restructure, which led to the closure of the Saint-Nazaire foundry and the dismissal of 250 employees. At the same time, major investments were made to create a more modern shipyard to allow the simultaneous construction of several ships. The closing of the Suez Canal in 1970 made it necessary to build giant tankers and the docks of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique could accommodate tankers capable of carrying one million tons. The four largest tankers in the world ordered by Shell will be built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire. In June 1974, Chantiers de l’Atlantique opened its capital to the stock market and in 1976, it merged with the French multinational Alsthom to become Alsthom-Atlantique.

The evolution of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire

The 1980s marked the great return of cruise ships to the Chantiers de l’Atlantique. As early as 1980, two liners were built for Holland, but it was in 1985, with the order for the Sovereign of the Seas for Royal Caribbean International, an American-Norwegian shipping company, that Chantiers de l’Atlantique took a turn. A real technological challenge for the Chantiers de l’Atlantique, they will build this giant of the seas in a record time: 29 months! In 1991, a spectacular order for 5 LNG carriers for the Malaysian group Petronas confirmed the reputation of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire. In the 2000s, despite increased competition, Chantiers de l’Atlantique was awarded the construction of the Queen Mary 2, the largest cruise ship in the world at the time, which allowed Chantiers de l’Atlantique to record multiple orders from the largest international shipowners, such as the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC). This period also corresponds to the transfer of the LNG carrier activity to China. In 2006, following the takeover of Aslthom-Atlantique by the Norwegian group Aker, Chantiers de l’Atlantique became Aker Yards S.A., before being absorbed once again in November 2008 by the South Korean group STX. Aker Yards S.A. then became STX Europe, which itself owns STX France. That same month, the French government also became a shareholder in STX France with a 33.34% stake. In 2013, STX separated from STX Europe, and consequently from Chantiers de l’Atlantique, but also from the Lorient shipyards in which they are shareholders. At the end of 2017, Emmanuel Macron, president of the French republic, announced the provisional nationalization of Chantiers de l’Atlantique, which to this day remains in effect.

Photo of a cabin with terrace of the cruise ship Harmony of the Seas

The most famous transatlantic liners built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique

Transatlantic liners are boats designed to regularly cross the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and America. Appeared at the end of the 19th century, this type of boat has known a strong demand during the 20th century, following the multiplication of exchanges between the two continents. The most famous transatlantic liners built by the Saint-Nazaire shipyards are the following:

  • Impératrice Eugénie (1864 ): 108 meters long, it is the first transatlantic liner built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique. Equipped with sails and paddlewheels powered by steam engines, this liner will undergo several modifications during its existence: a third mast and a propeller are added in 1873 and it mainly makes crossings between Le Havre and New York. On January 28, 1895, the Empress Eugenie, henceforth known as the “America liner” ran aground on the Colombian coast.
  • The Normandie (1932 ): with its 313 meters, the Normandie could accommodate up to 1971 passengers and remained at the time, the largest liner in the world. On its maiden voyage, the Normandie broke the Atlantic crossing record. Stopped in the port of New-York during the Second World War, the Normandie, requisitioned by the Americans, was renamed “USS Lafayette” and transformed into a fast troop transport. In 1942, following a fire, the Normandie capsized and after the Second World War, France refused to recover this ship that had become a wreck. A symbol of France in the 1930s, the Normandie remains the most beautiful and luxurious liner ever built.
  • The France (1960 ): the liner France, renamed Norway in 1979 then Blue Lady in 2006, is the most famous of the French transatlantic liners. At 316 meters long, the France remained the longest liner in the world throughout its 42 years of operation, until the launch of the Queen Mary 2 in 2004. Symbol of the prestige of France, it was also nicknamed “the little brother of the Normandie”. In 1974, during the oil crisis, France was shut down by decision of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, President of the French Republic. In 1979, the liner was sold to a Norwegian shipowner and renamed “Norway”. Sold in 2006 to a scrap dealer, its dismantling ended in 2009.
  • The Queen Mary 2 (2003 ): the Queen Mary 2 is a British liner commissioned in 2004. The Queen Mary 2 is 345 meters long and 41 meters wide and can accommodate nearly 3000 passengers. 1310 cabins, 5 swimming pools, 20 restaurants, a ballroom, a theater, a casino, a discotheque…the Queen Mary 2 remains to this day the largest transatlantic liner in the world.
Guided tours of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique are offered every week

The most famous cruise ships built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique

Cruise ships are specialized passenger ships, whose purpose is not, like liners, to carry passengers from one port to another, but to make tourist trips at sea. Generally, cruise ships make several stops allowing tourists to discover different destinations. The most famous cruise ships built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique of Saint-Nazaire are :

  • Majesty of the Seas (1992): this cruise ship, built at the request of Royal Caribbean International, is still in service. 286 meters long, the Majesty of the Seas can accommodate up to 2744 passengers.
  • Norwegian Epic (2010 ): With its 329 meters long, the Norwegian Epic is the largest cruise ship to have docked at the passenger terminal in New York. It has a capacity of 4200 passengers and 2109 cabins.
  • Harmony of the Seas (2013 ): since 2016, the cruise ship Harmony of the Seas is the largest cruise ship in the world with its 362 meters in length and can accommodate up to 6360 passengers, as well as 2100 crew members.
  • Symphony of the Seas (2018): built by Atlantic Shipyards between October 2015 and March 2018, the Symphony of the Seas is the second largest ship in the world in terms of tonnage. This 361 meter long ship can accommodate up to 6680 passengers and 2394 crew members.
  • Wonder of the Seas (2019): launched on June 14, 2022, the Wonder of the Seas is 362 meters long and can accommodate 6988 passengers and 2394 crew members. Equipped with a royal suite of 142 square meters, its home port is based in Shanghai.

A guided tour of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire is offered to those who wish to discover this extraordinary site: shipbuilding, propulsion of tomorrow’s ships, offshore wind power… Schedules, as well as all the necessary information to prepare your visit are available on the website www.saint-nazaire-tourisme.com.

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