The France was a huge five-masted barque built in 1911 in Bordeaux by Chantiers et Ateliers de la Girionde for Messers Prentout and Leblond. A smaller vessel of the same name, built in 1890 in Glasgow by D & W Henderson and Son, resulted in the later French ship often being referred to as France II or La France to distinguish her from the original France.
Chief designer Gustave Leverne planned a substantial steel hulled vessel with a length of 146.5 m, a beam of 16.96 m and a draft of 8.5 m. There was one other ship of the era which just surpassed the France in hull length, overall size and sail area; the German built Preussen. However the French vessel held the record for the greatest cargo capacity at 5,633 gross tonnage and hence the claim to being the world's largest merchant sailing ship.
The France’s design also featured water ballast tanks, unusual for that time, and she was equipped with two Schneider diesel engines of 950 hp each, which were removed in 1919. Some would comment that she had a ‘depressed’ appearance; with masts which were relatively short in relation to her length she had a cumbersome persona, especially when compared to other smaller, more elegant windjammers of the era.
With a massive steel hull, and masts, yards, and booms of steel tubing, the France's fitout was softened with timber-lined decks and interior – including a gracious lounge, seven luxury passenger cabins, a library, darkroom, and even a seawater therapy facility. Such generous amenities doubtless suited the five officers responsible for her (including a 'second captaine', unique to French sailing tradition), alongside the four mates and 40-45 able seamen taken on to keep her sails in order and the crew fed and cared for.
Initially intended for the nickel ore trade, when the France arrived in Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour on 25 June 1921, after a journey of 111 days from Newport in Wales, she was fully laden with 6,924 tonnes of coal for the local Railway Department. Lyttelton Harbour Board pilot, Captain Crawford, assisted Captain Laport to bring her into port. After unloading coal and reloading with wool, she sailed for Wellington in August, where tallow and pelts were added to her cargo. Departing for England on 5 September 1921, her return journey to London took just 95 days.
The huge vessel's sailing days ended in July 1922 when, laden with chrome ore from the French territory of New Caledonia, she grounded on a reef after becoming becalmed. There was no loss of life as she was just 60 nautical miles from Noumea. However, owing to economic pressures of low cargo returns, her owners refused to pay for tug assistance and the big ship was left to the embrace of the sea. In WWII she was used for target practice by American military aircraft.
In 2017, a luxury cruise ship designed by Polish naval architect Zygmunt Choreń, following closely on the design of the France, was built in the Brodosplit Shipyard in Croatia as the Flying Clipper. Renamed Golden Horizon, she was chartered by Tradewind Voyages for a time from 2021. However, complicated financial disputes – between owners Star Clippers Ltd of Sweden, the shipyard, and UK authorities – mean the vessel intended to mimic the largest sailing ship ever built, is instead permanently laid up in the shipyard at Split where she was built.