The schooner Belle Poule (A650) was built and launched in 1932 as a brown and blue water training vessel for the French Navy prior to World War 2. Her design was inspired from fast offshore fishing boats used in the waters of Northern Europe. The two-masted schooner proved a sleek waterborne craft and has been in use for over two hundred years all over the globe. Drawing from this design inspiration, the Belle Poule was 123 feet (37.5 meters) long from stem to stern and her beam (width) was 24 feet, 3 inches (7.4 meters). Being a light 225 tons, she only drew in 12 feet (3.65 meters) of water under the keel. As a compact form, her crew was small with a single officer, the captain, and a crew of 12 to 15 men. While her primary role within the French Navy was in training naval cadets, her size limited participants to approximately 20 trainees at a time - tight quarters all around.
Under normal sea conditions the crew of the Belle Poule handles the sails from the main deck without having to go aloft. The sail plan used on the Belle Poule (as well as her sister ship, the Etoile A649) is seven sails. Two sails from the bowsprit connect to the yard on the foremast then a larger staysail is seen on the foremast. The foremast is shorter than the mainmast having a large foresail close to the deck and a gaff topsail above. The mainmast has a wooden pole gaff and holds the topsail on the top of the mast and the gaff mainsail below. The bottom of the gaff mainsail is also connected to a wooden boom the length of the sail. This four-sided design doubles the sail area over the triangular sail.
World War 2 began in September of 1939 with the German invasion of Poland (joined later in the month by the Soviet Union to complete the conquest). Germans then invaded neighboring France in the summer of 1940. The French Navy, feeling the pressure, started moving ships to foreign ports. The decision was made to send the Belle Poule and the Etoile to England. Once there, the British Admiralty took charge of the ships with France near capitulation to Germany. As members of the Free French Forces made it to England, they took charge of their vessels. The Germans had pushed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Army all the way back to the coastal town of Dunkirk and the situation looked exceedingly grim.
For eleven days in May of 1940, 215,000 British and 123,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk by both British naval ships and many privately-held vessels arriving from England. The Belle Poule and the Etoile were manned by Free Frenchmen sailors and arrived with the fleet to evacuate the cornered Allies from the shores of France to the safety of Britain. The evacuation was a stunning success for tens of thousands of souls would live to fight another day. Lost in the battle were many more as well as tanks, small arms and artillery which could not be replaced. In recognition of this service during World War 2 under the leadership of the Free French forces, the Belle Poule and the Etoile were honored with the ability to fly the French flag with the cross of Lorraine. In 1945, at the end of the war, the Belle Poule and her sister ship returned to France.
Since 1978, the tall ship Belle Poule has been sponsored by the city of Pauillac, France. Both ships continue to serve the French Navy through training of naval cadets in seamanship. The ships have sailed to many ports around the world showing the French flag. The vessel was present at OPSAIL in New York City during Fleet Week 2012.
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