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Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso and her Seattle roots

Jacques Cousteau's Calypso been called one of the most famous of her kind in the world, yet almost nobody remembers that she was born in Seattle. In the photo, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau is seen with his newly-refurbished Calypso in Miami, Fla. in 1986. The ship had undergone six months of extensive overhauling in preparation for its most ambitious round-the-world expedition. (AP file photo)

In 1975, John Denver hit number two on the charts with a song about her. Earlier this year, British newspaper The Guardian said that she “launched a thousand childhood dreams.” She’s been called one of the most famous of her kind in the world, yet almost nobody remembers that she was born in Seattle. And now she’s in serious danger.

The “she” in this story is Calypso, the former World War II minesweeper made famous by French oceanographer and explorer Jacques Cousteau. Calypso is in the news this week because the famous ship is rotting away in a boatyard in France, while the Cousteau Society and the boatyard owners battle over money and a restoration project gone awry.

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Calypso began life as a “minesweeper,” a wooden vessel designed to search for and destroy floating bombs called mines. Her original name was BYMS-26 when she was launched in 1942 at Ballard Marine Railway. She served the Royal British Navy during World War II, then was sold as surplus, renamed “Calypso,” and operated as a ferry from the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. Malta is where Jacques Cousteau found the 140-foot Calypso, and purchased her with money provided by Loel Guinness, a benefactor and member of the famous brewery family.

For the next few decades, Cousteau and Calypso were inseparable. According to The New York Times, “Calypso and Mr. Cousteau turned into icons of a vibrant ecology movement, raising awareness of the wonders and fragility of the world’s oceans. Their travels brought the duo fame and made them synonymous with the romance of marine exploration, as they pursued sharks, sea sponges and shipwrecks across the globe.”

When Calypso visited Seattle in 1969 on her way to Alaska, few people — if anybody — knew that the ship had been built here. One man who saw her docked at the University of Washington in 1969 was Peyton Whitely. He’s retired now, but Whitely worked for The Seattle Times for forty years, including many years as a maritime columnist.

In 1977, inspired by his face-to-face encounter with the ship, Whitely began poking around into the Calypso’s history. There were rumors of a Seattle connection, but there were also similar stories about New England and the Great Lakes. With help from local shipyard workers and other maritime experts (and a lot of pre-Internet research), Whitely solved the mystery of the origins of Calypso for once and for all and wrote about it in the paper.

In 1996, Calypso was struck by a barge in the harbor in Singapore and sunk. She was refloated after 17 days, and eventually taken to the boatyard in France where restoration work began in 2007. Jacques Cousteau died in 1997, but his widow, Francine Cousteau, spoke of the restoration project in a fundraising video and called Calypso, “the Eiffel Tower of the oceans” and the “Mona Lisa of the seas.” But that video was made in happier times before the project ran aground, so to speak. Now, the Cousteau Society refuses to pay a $300,000 court-ordered settlement, and the French boatyard owners are threatening to auction off the ship.

Back in Seattle, the maritime facility where Calypso was built is nowadays called Pacific Fishermen Shipyard. It’s on the north side of the canal near 24th Avenue Northwest east of the Ballard locks. Doug Dixon is the general manager of Pacific Fishermen, and he says that while there are no monuments or plaques commemorating Calypso’s Seattle pedigree, he’s proud of the local connection.

“I have a model of her here if anyone wants to see her,” Dixon said. “There’s been talk through the last 10 or 15 years about putting a plaque up here or doing something like that, but nothing’s really gotten off the ground.”

In the meantime, Dixon says he loves that catchy John Denver song that celebrates Cousteau and his famous, Seattle-made ship:

Aye, Calypso the places you’ve been to…
The things that you’ve shown us, the stories you tell…
Aye Calypso, I sing to your spirit…
The men who have served you so long and so well

And since preserving historic vessels — including one-time local icons the Kalakala and the Wawona — can be nearly impossible, the song may be the only part of Calypso that truly lives on.

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