A historical flagship of the French shipping industry since 1864

It was in 1864 in Le Havre that the towing company, Les Abeilles, was founded by François-Xavier Lapersonne and his associates including Antoine Wolter. The first tug, L’ABEILLE 1, was launched in 1865. The following ones were built in France with enough power to leave ports and assist ships on the high seas. Visionaries, Les Abeilles opened the way to a modern and daring towing service!

The name Les Abeilles is believed to come from an analogy between the ballet of bees in front of their hive and that of port tugs “ready to sting”.

Until the dawn of the First World War, taking advantage of the growing activity of the port of Le Havre, the fleet reached up to 9 tugs; some of them having a power of 1000 HorsePower (HP), exceptional for the time.

The company and its men also experienced the risks of the job, when in 1892, during a towing operation of the NORMANDIE in the port of Le Havre, the ABEILLE n°9 sank, killing 6 sailors.

At that time, the recruitment of the sailors of Les Abeilles was mainly done by word of mouth. In 2020, prudence dictated that two people from the same family should not be embarked on the same ship at the same time. This custom, which has lasted for centuries, certainly dates from the trauma left by the NORMANDIE tragedy.

Appearance of the “salvage stations”

Under the direction of Charles Damaye, the activities of the Company were extended with the objective of meeting the needs for protection of ships and human lives. Just after the war, the French government decided to create the first assistance and salvage stations on the national coastline. 

The Union Française Maritime, in charge of operating the ships allocated to post-war France, signed an agreement with the State in exchange for help in acquiring new ships. Tugs were stationed in ports considered strategic. They provided a permanent on-call service for the safety of the port and the adjoining navigation zone. This was the beginning of the concept of “salvage station” which still exists today. (The home ports).

At the same time, Les Abeilles created the first dedicated department to salvage and towing activities on the high seas with the Société de Remorquage et de Transport par Chalands et Allèges de mer.

In 1916, Les Abeilles carried out a successful mission to rescue the crew of the GALEKA, an English hospital ship hit by a mine, with 50 people on board.

At the end of the First World War, the company had 13 tugs and 2 salvage steamers.  Its port towing activities extended from Nantes to Saint Malo, passing through Brest, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lorient and as far as Casablanca in Morocco. By the end of the 1920s, the company was also operating in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Buoyed by its success, Les Abeilles set up the first deep-sea tugboat in 1927 standing by in a salvage station. It was based in Brest and operated, at first, without a government mandate. The Union Française Maritime was then a direct competitor of the company Les Abeilles. Competition between towing companies was very strong at the time, and each company fought to preserve its financial interests and the profitability of its vessels. This created difficulties in maintaining the “salvage station” in the long term, as it did not receive any government aid.

In January 1933, a fire broke out on the liner ATLANTIQUE in the middle of the English Channel. No less than 5 tugs of different nationalities fought to recover the wreck, even breaking the towing line of their adversaries. It took the intervention of the French Navy to bring order and the wreck back to the port of Cherbourg.

Remorquage du Paquebot Atlantique janvier 1933
L'Atlantique en feu

At that time, assistance to ships in difficulty was a matter for adventurers. They were able to brave the worst storms with their modestly sized tugs, whose bridge control was sometimes exposed to the weather. It was the time of the heroes that writers and films have made into legend. The most famous of them was certainly Louis Malbert, commander of the IROISE, whose role is played by Jean GABIN in Jean Grémillion’s film “Remorques” produced in 1941.

L'Iroise du commandant Malbert

At the dawn of the Second World War, the Abeilles serve the french State

In 1934, the company had 23 tugs. Its dedicated department created in Saint Nazaire – SNRS – became the Union des Remorqueurs de l’Océan (URO) which was entrusted with the assistance and salvage service on the French coast. 

During the period 1939-1945, the company’s tugs were requisitioned by the State. They served the French ports during the occupation. The crews carried out numerous salvage missions for torpedoed ships or ships in difficulty.  In this context, tensions arose within the company. On the one hand, the captains who wished to remain in France and on the other, those who wished to go to England. As early as 1940, 8 of them went to the English coast to reach 14 tugs in 1945. The rest of the fleet was scattered or sunk.

In December 1944, thanks to the joint action of 4 Abeilles based in Cherbourg, 3000 soldiers on the liner LEOPOLDVILLE were rescued when their ship was torpedoed off Cherbourg. The incident resulted in 764 casualties. 

In 1947, the OCEAN LIBERTY, a Liberty Ship loaded with ammonium nitrate, exploded in the harbor of Brest causing considerable damage and leaving 26 dead and hundreds injured. Two sailors from Les Abeilles sacrificed their lives to try to avoid this tragedy: Yves Bignon and François Quéré.

Yves Bignon - François Quere

At the end of the world conflict, there were only 14 ABEILLES ships left to carry out the numerous jobs: refloating and wreck removal in the various French ports. Their crews were mobilized in all the ports of France to refloat or clear the access channels to the ports. This period was the starting point for the development of the company’s unique know-how.

If Les Abeilles is able to engage in salvage operations today, it is thanks to these “clearing workers” who worked on the reconstruction of the country after the war. 

From the 1950s to the 1970s, economic difficulties returned and Abeilles International was born.

With the death of Charles Damaye, the management of the company was entrusted to one of his nephews: Mr. Legrand. The head office of the company was then located in Le Havre – quai Lamandé – and the activities were of two types: port towing and sea rescue, based in Brest. At the end of the port clearance works, the salvage activity decreased and the company was no longer able to make the rescue station profitable. The company decided to diversify into deep-sea towing, an activity that consists of convoying packages, barges or platforms over long distances. 

To ensure these new missions, the company decided to renew its fleet, helped by technical progress which allowed it to innovate. From then on, the first tugs equipped with nozzles and diesel-electrics appeared. For example, the ABEILLE 25 was equipped with a 1500 HP engine and 17T of Bollard Pull (BP), the ABEILLE 26 was equipped with a 3000 HP engine and 32T of BP.

On August 30, 1954, loss of the ABEILLE n°4 during the towing operation of the liner ATLANTIC in Le Havre. This accident caused 7 victims.

Renflouement de l'Abeille n°4

In 1967, thanks to the investments made, the company had 35 vessels and was still carrying out numerous salvage operations. 

However, this period marked the end of Les Abeilles as a family business when André Blohorn, founder of Progemar (Société Provençale de Gestion Maritime), took control. In 1967, this company absorbed several port towing companies, including Les Abeilles.

The head office was set up in Paris, the port stations became autonomous, their fleet was renewed and a department was created: International Towage Company (ITC) dedicated to deep-sea towing. This was the birth of Abeilles International.

In order to carry out deep-sea towing missions, the company decided to purchase two new and identical vessels: the ABEILLES NORMANDIE and PROVENCE. With a power of 10,000 horsepower and 130 tons of traction, they were the first two twin tugs of a long series.

The Amoco Cadiz tragedy: a historical turning point

The sinking of the AMOCO CADIZ, in 1978, in Portsall in the North Finistère region of France, caused a tragedy whose echoes still reverberate today. The French government – a pioneer in this field – was pushed into a corner by the scale of the tragedy. It then decided to charter ships to protect the coastline; this choice naturally fell on the company Les Abeilles International, which had just acquired two new tugs. These would be the first Intervention, Assistance and Salvage Tugs (RIAS) or Emergency Towing Vessels.

The hulls will change but the RIAS will remain, until today, available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The general framework of their mission, established in 1978, is still valid today: the protection of the coastline in the service of the State’s action at sea.

The appearance of the RIAS is not the only consequence of the AMOCO CADIZ tragedy, a series of measures have accompanied it. The Maritime Prefect acquired the power of “formal notice” allowing him to impose on the shipowners to take all necessary measures. The traffic separation schemes (RAIL) (see the “home ports” tab of this site) were pushed back. Regulations were created, which led to the European “Erika 1, 2 and 3” regulations.

In addition, the creation of these salvage stations in Brest, Cherbourg and Toulon is a rare device throughout the world. It allowed the French State to free itself from the problems of competition between tugs as they were observed before the war, and from the endless negotiations of assistance contracts.

In December 1944, thanks to the joint action of 4 Abeilles based in Cherbourg, 3000 soldiers on the liner LEOPOLDVILLE were rescued when their ship was torpedoed off Cherbourg. The incident resulted in 764 casualties. 

In 1947, the OCEAN LIBERTY, a Liberty Ship loaded with ammonium nitrate, exploded in the harbor of Brest causing considerable damage and leaving 26 dead and hundreds injured. Two sailors from Les Abeilles sacrificed their lives to try to avoid this tragedy: Yves Bignon and François Quéré.

Les Abeilles International was then part of the Progemar group which included Les Abeilles du Havre, Nantes and Marseille, the Société Dunkerquoise de Remorquage et de Sauvetage, the Société Boulonnaise, the Société Calaisienne, the Société de la Réunion and the Société d’Océanie. Its activities are varied and the group’s salvage branch is recording very good results. This was due, among other things, to the increase in assistance operations at the Brest and Cherbourg stations.

1980s and 1990s: a period of adjustment

The 1980s were marked by a decrease in traffic in French ports and a profound metamorphosis in the fitting out of all vessels throughout the world. Globalization was making its way into maritime trade at a rapid pace. This led to a massive reduction of the Abeilles’ port fleet and a social plan to eliminate jobs. Initially armed with 15 crew members, the RIAS will see their crew reduced to 12. A number that is still current. Despite these difficulties, Les Abeilles International continued its activities.

It is also the end of the attachment to the Progemar group and, after several successive changes of owners, Les Abeilles International became property of the G7 cab group. The company is officially called Les Abeilles, its historical name. The deep-sea towing activity, Les Abeilles International continues from the head office in Le Havre, quai Lamandée.

In March 1980, the tanker TANIO broke in two in the Channel. The front part sank, taking with it 8 sailors and several tens of thousands of cubic meters of heavy fuel oil. The wreck continued to leak regularly. The ABEILLE LANGUEDOC conducted an epic salvage operation of the stern section, up to the port of Le Havre and in very difficult sea conditions.
Look at video 

At the beginning of the 1990s, Les Abeilles had a virtual monopoly on port towing in France. The company was then bought by a shipowner – the Bourbon Group – whose offshore activities were expanding rapidly.

In December 1999, the famous sinking of the tanker ERIKA took place south of Penmarc’h. There too, the ship broke in two. The front part sank quickly while the ABEILLE FLANDRE was trying to tow the rear part in very bad weather conditions. This tragedy resulted in the spillage of 30,000 tons of heavy fuel oil into the sea.

@Mylène Le Joncour
@Mylène Le Joncour

The 2000s: fleet renewal and a new start

At this time, the port industry was doing better due to the increase in traffic in French ports. The Bourbon Group was carrying out a large-scale investment policy. In Toulon, the assistance station was entrusted in the 1980s to a competitor company: SEAWARD, which was bought out in 1996 by the Bourbon group. Since 2001, Abeilles International has been a partner of the French Navy on the 3 French rescue stations: Cherbourg, Brest and Toulon.

The Abeilles fleet is being renewed while onboard electronics are also being developed at high speed. Made possible by the support of the Bourbon Group, the replacement of the ABEILLES FLANDRE and LANGUEDOC by the ABEILLES BOURBON and LIBERTE took place in 2005. Built in the same yard as their predecessors, these new bees were designed by the same architect.

In 2006, France, with the financial support of Europe, created a “rescue station” in La Rochelle where the ABEILLE LANGUEDOC was based. The adventure was short but intense with two major operations: the refloating of the ROKIA DELMAS in 2006 and the ARTEMIS in 2008. The ABEILLE LANGUEDOC was transferred, in 2011, to Boulogne sur mer, a new rescue station created by the French State following the disengagement of the English State in the protection of this part of the Channel.

The JASON, the Company’s Assistance and Decontamination Support Ship (BSAD) is added to the fleet in 2009 and a new history begins for the ABEILLE FLANDRE which takes the RIAS station in Toulon.

This period is also the opportunity to work again with the company SMIT Salvage, a major world player in wreck recovery. This technical and human collaboration allows Les Abeilles International to be present, even on very large-scale operations such as the grounding of the container ship ROKIA DELMAS

@Marine nationale

In October 2018, the ro-ro vessel ULYSSE collided with the container ship CSL VIRGINIA north of Cap Corse. This accident generated an oil pollution that spread over the entire French Riviera. The Abeilles intervened with the ABEILLE FLANDRE and the JASON. Two other BSAD tugs chartered by the French Navy were also involved and Italy also sent 3 tugs to recover the oil slick.

Le 14 octobre 2018, le Jason récupère les déchets d'hydrocarbure du barrage flottant du bâtiment Italien Bonassola, à l'aide de sa tête d'écrémage.
©Marine Nationale
© Marine Nationale

At the beginning of 2007, the Bourbon Group sold the port towing activity of Les Abeilles to Boluda Corporacion Maritima, a historic player in Spanish port towing; the salvage and assistance branch was retained and named “Les Abeilles”. 

2020, the digital era : Econocom takes the lead

In October 2020, the Econocom group, chaired by Jean-Louis Bouchard, became the sole shareholder of Les Abeilles. It had been the partner for the past three years for the financing of its five tugs. For the first time in the history of Les Abeilles, the presidency is no longer held by a man but by a woman: Samira Draoua, Managing Director of TMF France within the Econocom group.

Les Abeilles SAS became a company of the Econocom group, whose trade name is: Les Abeilles International. The company is thus reverting to its original name, as part of the Econocom group’s voluntary approach to developing the company’s know-how, based on its history.

Portrait equipage Abeille

With the Econocom group, Europe’s leading digital company, Les Abeilles International now has the capacity to engage in a process of digitizing its processes and digital innovation in all of its areas of expertise. The company thus intends to strengthen its contribution to coastal protection in the service of the State at sea, by preparing for the challenges of the digitization of the ships of tomorrow.

The meeting of the know-how of Les Abeilles International and the digital performance of the Econocom group offers very encouraging development prospects. Backed by its sole shareholder, a new digital page in the history of Les Abeilles International is opening today.

Rescue doesn’t wait. On December 28, 2020, Les Abeilles International, supported by their new shareholder, refloated the buoy tender ILES SANGUINAIRE II in Ajaccio Bay. The ship was brought back safely to Toulon.

Opération Sanguinaire II
© Francis Jacquot
@Les Abeilles

In memory of our sailors

Thus, like the worker bees, Les Abeilles have always responded when necessary, from the liberation of the port access channels after the war to the ERIKA tragedy, including that of the AMOCO CADIZ. In the worst weather conditions, risky rescues with improbable outcomes were undertaken by sailors ready for anything. Some of them never came back, they will remain in our memories. These men and their ships are definitely linked to the maritime history of the Abeilles and of France.

The information compiled on this page is drawn from sources in the bibliography

Despite the care taken in this work, this page may contain errors and omissions. 

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