Harbor tour in Cherbourg

These people lined up on the pier at Pont Tournant are waiting to board a boat called the Adèle, to take them on a one-hour tour of the harbor in Cherbourg, France.

It is also possible to embark on the Quai de France, near the Cité de la Mer.

Sign on the quay near Cité de la Mer

This sign offers “Guided cruises in Cherbourg harbor” and says: “Embark on board the Adèle for an hour and navigate in sheltered waters in the largest artificial harbor in the world (1500 hectares).”

This was correct when it was printed, but since then an even larger artificial harbor was opened in Qatar, so the one in Cherbourg is now only the second largest in the world — but still the largest in Europe, and a great place for a one-hour boat tour.

On the Cherbourg harbor tour

You’ll never guess who first floated the idea of building a sea-wall across the bay at Cherbourg, to make it into an artificial harbor.

Well, actually, if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you have probably already guessed that it was Vauban, which is correct.

On the harbor tour, looking back

Vauban’s proposal was to build a straight sea-wall or dike directly across the bay, with only one gap in the middle for ships to go in or out. On both sides of the gap, he wanted to build small forts equipped with cannons, to deter possible invaders. In 1686 he wrote a detailed plan for the harbor and the landward defenses of Cherbourg — top secret at the time, but later published as a 102-page book.

Work on the landward side was begun in 1688 by three thousand men aided by eight hundred horses and oxen, but this work was stopped a year later by the war minister, Louvois, on the grounds that fortifying Cherbourg would only make the city harder to re-conquer after it was occupied by the enemy.

On the Adèle, looking at the dike around the artificial harbor

Construction of the harbor dikes did not even begin until 1783, ninety-seven years after Vauban’s original proposal. By then, the plans had been expanded to include longer semi-circular dikes with two entrances and several forts, so as to create a much larger harbor than Vauban had envisioned.

One of the harbor forts, as seen from the Adèle

Of course, neither Vauban nor his successors in the 18th and early 19th centuries could have foreseen that there would someday be huge steamships crossing the Atlantic in a week or less, and that the steamship companies would find the artificial harbor at Cherbourg ideal for their purposes.

Ships coming from Bremerhaven or Southampton — like the RMS Titanic in 1912, or the SS George Washington in 1928, or the SS Bremen and the SS Europa in 1931 — could steam into the outer harbor, drop anchor, take on hundreds of passengers from the waiting tenders and be off again in less than two hours, thus saving substantial amounts of time and money on the highly competitive North Atlantic route. Cherbourg’s geographical position was also ideal for these companies, since it is at the end of a peninsula sticking up into the Manche aka the English Channel.

Cherbourg as a transatlantic port

This overview of the inner and outer harbors is now on display at the Cité de la Mer. The six red dots at the top of the photo show the locations of the forts along the dikes of the outer harbor.

From 1924 to 1933 the harbor authorities went to considerable expense to dredge and modernize the inner harbor, so that ocean-going ships could be moored directly at the quay by the new railway station. Passengers found this more convenient than riding out to the ships on tenders, but the steamship companies preferred the old way, since maneuvering up to the quay was annoyingly time-consuming. A ship like the Queen Mary, for instance, had to be pulled and shoved for hours (or so it seemed) by six tugboats before it was finally snuggled up against the dock.

My photos and text in this post are from 2021.

See more posts on Cherbourg, France.
See more posts on Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707).
See also: Harbor tours in Kiel and Toulon.

And don’t forget the island of If off the coast of Marseille.

11 thoughts on “Harbor tour in Cherbourg”

  1. It was really hot – if a bench had been in the sun, it was too hot to sit on it. It was like in France in June/July of 2019 – I was there then with my granddaughter.

    Yes I understand your point, but I think the moneyed passengers would rather walk on the ship. And it is easier to load the luggage as in those days they had steamer trunks.

    My older two girls and I went to NYC for Armed Forces Day – the aircraft carrier was going to be on display and we were meeting my husband. As the carrier rounded the corner of the cruise ship dock (which wasn’t just a dock, it was a whole building), the overhang of the carrier deck took off part of the dock structure.

    1. Yes, for the passengers it is surely better to have the ship docked right on the quay. But for the shipping companies, a few hours saved on a transatlantic run could make a huge difference in those days. In the early 1930s, the North German Lloyd offered weekly service between New York and Bremerhaven, via Cherbourg. After getting the transit time down to five-and-a-half days, they could do this with only two ships instead of three.

  2. I don’t know about the Queen Mary, but most cruise ships that I’ve been on don’t take long to get to the pier and usually the tugs don’t have to help. They just stand by in case. Except for if there is a big storm or something o the sort. The formalities take much longer. I was amused to see that in a Caribbean port they handle the lines by hand – men pull on the big ropes and put them on bollards. In Ft. Lauderdale they do it with a pickup truck.

    I took a harbor tour in San Pedro (the port for Los Angelos) a couple of years ago and it was quite interesting although LA was in the throes of a heat wave – it was well over 100 deg F.

    1. I’ve never been on a cruise ship, and what I wrote about the Queen Mary is just my impression from the exhibits in the Cité de la Mer and from their website. Their point was that in the heyday of transatlantic shipping, the companies didn’t even want to enter the inner harbor, just anchor in the outer harbor, load a maximum number of passengers in a minimum amount of time, and get out again.
      100° F would be nearly 38° C — much too hot for me. The last time I was in that kind of heat was in Wuppertal in 2019, and I’m really glad we don’t have that kind of heat wave every year (yet). https://operasandcycling.com/the-long-table-in-wuppertal/

  3. Interesting blog, thank you! Especially the information about Vauban was nice, it seems that he plays a significant role in almost all big fortification projects of the second half of the 17th century…

    1. Yes, Vauban was Louis XIV’s Commissioner General of Fortifications. In this capacity, he traveled all around the borders of France, inspecting the fortifications and designing improvements.

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