- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

LA ROCHELLE, France, — In an obscure corner of the old trawler harbor of La Rochelle, hidden from view by the building site that once was the city’s fish market and forgotten by all but a devoted few, lie the rotting remains of one of the most famous ships of the 20th century.

Heavy-duty rubber straps have been bound around the stern to stop it from breaking apart, and the front is covered by a white tarpaulin. A large sign warns the curious against coming aboard — understandably, because the handrails are splitting and the metal floors have rusted through to a thin veneer.

For the intrepid visitor who ignores the advice, there is more desolation to come. Inside, where the cries of hardy crewmen once rang out and a thousand instruments whirred, there are blackened timbers, gaping emptiness and the drip of discolored rainwater.

This is the pitiful carcass of the legendary Calypso, the former British minesweeper that for nearly half a century plied the oceans with the French undersea adventurer Jacques Cousteau, taking a starring role in his celebrated films and television programs.

Nine years after the commander’s death, the ship has fallen victim to a bitter family feud, and its chances of a new life as a museum or research center — let alone taking to the sea again — appear to be receding into the depths.

“We had an expert’s report done recently, and they said it was no longer a question of repairing the boat, but of rebuilding it,” says Marc Parnaudeau, who is in charge of the Calypso dossier at La Rochelle’s Town Hall.

“Every part would have to be replaced because the wood has completely rotted through. But it’s like the bicycle which you change every part of. In the end you have a completely new one,” he says.

The sad tale of the Calypso’s decline began in 1996 — a year before Mr. Cousteau’s death at the age of 87 — when the ship was badly damaged in a collision with a barge in Singapore.

Towed back to Marseille, the Calypso was brought two years later to La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic coast, where the plan was to make it the centerpiece of a projected maritime museum.

“The theme of the museum was going to be submarine exploration — so it would have been perfect, but then the questions over the ownership suddenly emerged,” Mr. Parnaudeau says.

Throughout its decades of service, the Calypso was the property of the Anglo-Irish millionaire Sir Loel Guinness, who leased it to Mr. Cousteau for a nominal rent. Since the commander’s death, two associations have laid claim to his legacy.

On one side, the Equipe Cousteau — French arm of the United States-based Cousteau Society — represents the interests of Mr. Cousteau’s widow, Francine. On the other, the Campagnes Oceano-graphiques Francaises (COF) is backed by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the commander’s son by his first marriage, as well as by several of his old crew members, including chief diver Albert Falco.

Francine — a former flight attendant 40 years Mr. Cousteau’s junior — says that since the collapse of the La Rochelle museum idea she has struck a deal with an American company to have the Calypso turned into a scientific education center in the Bahamas.

The COF, however, wants the ship to stay in France.

“This is a historic vessel that should have been classified as part of the French national heritage a long time ago,” Jean-Michel Cousteau says. According to Mr. Falco, Jacques Cousteau told him shortly before he died that he wanted the Calypso to return to the Mediterranean.

In November, a court in Paris appeared to settle the matter when it ruled in favor of Mrs. Cousteau.

A document showing that the Calypso was registered under the COF’s name in the 1970s was erroneous, the judge found. The COF immediately said it would appeal — earning a vicious denunciation from Mrs. Cousteau.

Meanwhile, authorities in La Rochelle are impatient to get rid of a boat seen as an embarrassing encumbrance.

“The dispute has gone on so long that we just want to be [rid] of it. It is heartbreaking, but we have to think ahead. Having the Calypso falling apart on our quay side is not good publicity. We will be happy to help pay the costs of getting her out of here,” Mr. Parnaudeau says.

Some have suggested that the Calypso should be towed out to sea and scuttled. Then it could be used as a training area for deep-sea divers. Compared to yet more legal wrangling and years of painful decay, that could prove to be the more fitting end.

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