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At the beginning of the XIXth century, Saint Nazaire was a tiny community of 600 sailors, fishermen and farmers. The village was built on a rocky promontory, huddled around its little church. The difficult sailing through the estuary and up-river to Nantes provided lucrative piloting jobs for sailors weary of long sea voyages.
Only a native could find his way through the channels running between the shifting sandbanks. By 1830, twenty-four pilots were working for six companies. They would sail out in their cutters at any time ot the day or night to meet ships and guide them up the estuary. Piloting is still a going concern. Some thirty specially qualified Loire river pilots help captains steer and manoeuvre all ships over 75 metres in length.
However, piloting could not overcome all the problems of access to the port of Nantes. The harbour traffic in Nantes started to decline steadily towards 1830 as ships became bigger. The idea of building an outer port near the mouth of the river had often come up since the XVIIth century, but by the 1830s, the need had become urgent. The planners of the day looked towards Saint-Nazaire - and so did the strategists, as can be seen in this plan for a fortified town which was never built.