Oiseau des Iles
Oiseau des Iles
1935 - 200?

The Oiseau des Iles.
The Oiseau des Iles was ordered late in December 1934 by the Compagnie Française des Phosphates of Oceania to replace the steamer City of Papeete which had failed (wrecked?) on July 8th 1934 on the island of Haraiki. The order was given to the Chantiers Dubigeon shipyard, Nantes, France for a three masted yacht equipped with an auxiliary motor, the cost estimated at over two million Francs. The ship was launched on June 17th 1935 at Chantenay and named to honour the daughter of a Mr. Touzé, the director of the Compagnie des Phosphates.

La Compagnie Française des Phosphates d'Océanie had been formed in 1907 to extract the phosphate deposits on Makatea in the Tuamotu Islands. Makatea lies about 230km north-east of Tahiti, but is not the typical low lying atoll of other nearby island groups but a substantial limestone block eight km long. The Makatea ores were 65% - 90% pure phosphate and were principally exported to New Zealand or Japan. At the time of the delivery of the Oiseau des Iles production was about 115,000 tons per year, at its busiest time over 2,000 miners were employed.

From February 1936 the yacht commenced its regular work making weekly trips moving phosphates from Makatea for the Japanese market, other sailings included trips to Fiji, Samoa and occasionally the Austral Islands (the southernmost islands in French Polynesia) and Cook Islands (1,000km west of the Austral Islands). In addition to the phosphates the cargoes were varied including foodstuffs, equipment and the movement of workers for the phosphate mines. The arrival of World War II did not immediately affect the movements of the Oiseau des Iles, but in the middle of October 1941 the boat was requisitioned by the Free French Naval Forces based in Tahiti. It was now classed as an armed auxiliary cruiser numbered P 780. The ship's armament was limited to two ex-seaplane machine guns, mounted either side of the forecastle; twelve machine-guns and various rifles and grenades. Despite its annexation by the French naval forces the ship was utilitized in providing supplies for the French island colonies in the area.

Late in January 1942 rumours about the presence of a German cruiser in the vicinity lead to the suggestion by authorities that the Oiseau des Iles should be sunk in the channel that provided access to the harbour at Papeete. This would then prevent access to the port by the Axis vessel assuming it were even in the area! Cool heads prevailed and the ship was not scuttled, instead it travelled to the other islands to seek more information on the alledged German raider. This journey took the Oiseau des Iles to the Leeward Islands, the island of Moorea, the lagoon of Raiatea and Bora-Bora. The US Navy had created an air base at Bora-Bora and a rest & recuperation center for Pacific theatre troops and a facility in support of the convoys moving westward across the Pacific to Australia and New Caledonia. The arrival of the Oiseau des Iles here was is in complete contrast to the other types of merchant and naval vessels present.

During October 1942 the ship returned to civilian use. In the middle of January 1943 it was used to transport a load of equipment from Papeete to the island of Rapa. Whilst on the outward leg an order was received to return to Papeete. On approaching the channel to Papeete the ship drew warning fire from the shore battery at Sainte-Amélie. Procedure at the time was to await the arrival of a military harbour pilot to bring the ship in to Papeete. Both warning shots fell short of the ship which proceded into port without the required pilot! Complaints were then lodged with the Governor about the reception, especially since the Oiseau des Iles was well known to the locals.

For the remainder of the war years the Oiseau des Iles continued to visit many places with a variety of cargos including several trips from Lambasa (Fuji) to Tahiti with shipments of sugar, to the Futuna Islands with dignitaries, delivering vital supplies to the Tuamotu archipelago, on this run the ship returned to Tahiti with a cargo of copra and pearl.

With the war over the ship was returned to its owners during 1947, returning to the type of work it had been doing prior to the war. Late in May 1947 the ship worked a round trip to Rarotonga (Cook Islands), on the return leg with about 160 passengers and crew on board the ship ran aground on a reef near what was thought to be the island of Maiao, but which was later properly identified as the island of Mopelia. A distance of 180 miles separates the two! The Oiseau des Iles was stuck fast and taking on water, the ship's pumps could not keep pace with the incoming water. The passengers and cargo were evacuated to the nearby island. A larger pump and cement were sent out from Papeete, but neither were able to refloat the ship. Closer inspection revealed a split in the metal plates and a number of popped rivets. A temporary repair using cork plugs in the rivet holes and the use of the pumps allowed the ship to float free. From here it set off to Tahiti then on to Auckland, New Zealand where repairs were made to the damage. During December 1947 the ship departed the repair yard.

For another decade the Oiseau des Iles goes about its business, but change comes at the end of 1957 when a replacement ship is received and a buyer for the Oiseau des Iles is found in Acapulco, Mexico. On Boxing Day 1957 the ship begins its voyage to Mexico from Papeete, visiting the Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva, the Marquesas, Clipperton Island and finally Acapulco. It is noted that the engine has become unreliable and a strong gale during this voyage tests the ship. The new owner intended the ship to become some sort of floating hotel and casino, instead, now named the Tuxtla, it does little more than transport fish and/or concrete between Mexican ports.

By 1968 very little remained of the vessel apart from the hull, but enough to allow its acquisition by the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises in Miami. During its restoration the hulk is converted into a vessel with forty cabins that can hold sixty-six passengers and twenty-eight crew members and is renamed the Flying Cloud to cruise in the Caribbean. The rebuilding of the ship changed its original design features with additional superstructure and its schooner rig was changed to a 'split rig', this providing the ship with more sails, but being smaller they are easier to handle, providing greater manouevrability.

The ship was retired in 2002 and donated to the Trinidad Museum, but was not accepted into the permanent collection. The ship remained at a scrap dealers dock in Port of Spain, Trinidad in very poor condition. However the ship had not been forgotten, organisations in the British Virgin Islands planned to bring the ship back to Peter Island, prior to a location being found to sink the ship for use as a nearby scuba diving attraction between Ginger Island & Cooper Island.

General Details

Builder: Chantiers Dubigeon, Nantes, France
Launched: 1935
Length: 48.98metres
Beam: 8.56metres
Draught 2.99metres
Weight: 660 tons gross
Engines: 375hp Sulzer engine.
Screws: ??
Service Speed: ??
Port of Registry: ??
Crew: ??
Sails: 458 square meters

Hunting the Tide (No. 157). March 2003
Moteurs Marins a Deux Temps, circa 1935.

Page added March 12th 2009

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