01 Mar 2024
by John Barnes

The unusual story of Switzerland’s deep-sea fleet

For a land-locked country, Switzerland’s maritime industry has a surprisingly colourful history.

Thanks to the presence in the city of Winterthur of the company Sulzer, a leading designer and manufacturer of slow speed marine diesel up to 1997, which is now owned by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, operating as the engine design company WinGD, Switzerland enjoys a rich maritime history.

Although it is a land-locked country whose traditional ship-owning activities were largely limited to crafts operating on its lakes and rivers, since 1941 it has been home to the country’s oldest ocean-going fleet which continues to operate today as Suisse-Atlantique.

Founding of Suisse-Atlantique

In 1877, the company André & Fils was established in the Swiss town of Nyon. In February 1939, the company took over the management of the Panamanian-registered cargo ship St-Cergue, formerly the British merchant ship Felldene.

Swiss maritime law did not yet exist. However, two years later, on 10th July 1941, Georges Alfred André, CEO and President of André & Cie, was able to set up Suisse-Atlantique which continued to manage the St-Cergue, named after the village from which the André family originated.

Felldene was a typical tramp steamer of the period. Built in 1937 by William Gray & Co. Ltd. of West Hartlepool for Dene Shipping Management, it had a deadweight of 7,600 tonnes (dwt) and was powered by a triple expansion steam engine for a service speed of about nine knots. Cargo was handled by 12 four-tonne derricks.

The 1939 purchase was made by Swiss citizens Eric Demaurex and Georges Pasche for their Panamanian company Demaurex & Pasche SA, was on behalf of the grain trading company André & Cie of Lausanne, which also took over the management.

Switzerland becomes a seafaring nation

In April 1941, Switzerland’s Federal Council decided the country was to become a seafaring nation. The first four ships purchased by the war transport directorate (Kriegstransportamt) and private shipping companies were named Calanda, Maloja, St Gotthard and Generoso.

During the war, 14 seagoing vessels, including the St-Cergue, sailed under the Swiss flag keeping the country supplied with fuel, animal feed, grain, oil, coffee and sugar.

On 5th May 1940, the St-Cergue arrived in Rotterdam just two days before the German invasion of the Benelux states and France, and at the end of January 1941 the ship was sold with the permission of the German authorities to Suisse-Atlantique, though still under the Panamanian flag.

It was allowed to sail to New York where it was entered into the Swiss registry as number 5 in July 1941. During the war St-Cergue rescued many survivors from ships sunk by U boats. It was sold in 1951 and went for breaking in 1962.

After the war

Post war, the company operated as many as 18 multi-purpose ships in its fleet including a number of newbuilds. The first of these was the motor ship General Guisan, completed in 1948 by William Gray & Co. Ltd. It possessed a dwt of 8,920 tonnes and was powered by a 2,750 hp diesel engine.

Subsequent newbuildings included the 10,825 dwt Romandie of 1952. Constructed by the Burntisland Shipbuilding Co in Fife, Scotland. This was the company’s first vessel powered by a Sulzer heavy fuel diesel engine.

Between 1956 and 1962, the company had 10 ships built in the Yugoslavian shipyards of Rijeka and Split, and in 1962, it was operating 11 ships, mainly general cargo vessels but also including its first two dry bulk carriers, the 12,500 gross ton Bregaglia and Bariloche, and also a second St-Cergue, built in 1952 and of 4,941 gross tons. All were motor ships apart from the latter which was steam powered.

From the beginning, Suisse-Atlantique had been headquartered in Lausanne but in 2002 moved to Renens. Then in 2003 came a further change as for the first time it took over the management of two container ships, The Sils and Lausanne.

Current operation

Today the company operates a fleet of 15 vessels, the most recent addition being the 43,389 tons deadweight (tdw) geared bulk carrier Bariloche.

With its shipping background and the supervision of vessel construction over the years, Suisse-Atlantique is able to offer a wealth of experience to owners for activities such as assessing shipyards, evaluating designs, documentation and plan approval, and handling negotiations during construction right through to delivery.

Suisse-Atlantique has the largest fleet under the Swiss flag while other deep sea Swiss shipping companies include:

ABC Maritime AG - founded in 1982 and which has owned or managed more than 180 wet, dry and offshore vessels.

Massoel Gestion SA - operating since 1982, and specialising in dry-bulk cargoes, operates its own fleet of eight Swiss-flagged vessels trading worldwide.

Main image: Swiss industrial engineering and manufacturing firm Sulzer, founded in 1775, in Winterthur; credit: Shutterstock