Europe

Replica 18th Century French frigate sails for US

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Media captionDevotees see in the Hermione project the opportunity to celebrate tall ships, history and Franco-US friendship

Visitors to the south-western French port of La Rochelle this week have been treated to the greatest of spectacles in the seafaring life: a spanking 18th Century frigate, fitted out and ready for adventure.

This is the Hermione, faithful replica of the original French ship of that name, and the fruit of 20 years' devotion, ingenuity and sheer hard graft.

The three-master has successfully passed sea trials in the Bay of Biscay and is now to embark on its maiden voyage: a transatlantic crossing to where its namesake once roved with the Americans.

Manning the ship is a crew of 18 professional sailors and 54 young volunteers, some of whom have never been at sea before. They have six weeks of wind and volatile weather ahead of them, before their next sighting of land.

Best French Friend

Image caption Many of the replica vessel's 54 volunteers had never before been out at sea
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The volunteers have quickly mastered various new skills including knot tying and developing a head for heights
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Supplies of cognac have been loaded onto the vessel using strictly traditional methods

Symbolically that will be at Yorktown at the opening of Chesapeake Bay - the scene in 1781 of England's final surrender to George Washington at the end of the American Revolution.

Yorktown was the result of an American-French alliance that - for all the subsequent travails in the relationship - still counts for much in the two nations' historical memory.

And the Hermione has its own important part in the story.

For it was the Hermione that in 1780 carried to Boston a young French aristocrat - Gilbert du Motier the Marquis de Lafayette - who more than 200 years later still wears the mantle of America's BFF: Best French Friend. Ever.

Tall ships, history, and Franco-US friendship: devotees saw in the Hermione project a chance to celebrate all three.

"The sad truth is that even though France is a great maritime nation, we have rather neglected our naval memory," says historian Laurence Chatel de Brancion, who has written a biography of Lafayette.

"There was no French equivalent of the Victory (Nelson's flagship) which did us so much damage at Trafalgar! We needed to have our own historic ship which people can visit in order to learn about our naval past."

Impressed

The Hermione was chosen partly because of the Lafayette connection (which certainly helped in getting funds from US donors), but also because the frigate represented a highpoint in French shipbuilding.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Over the years hundreds of thousands of people have visited the renovated shipyard at Rochefort to see the work in progress
Image copyright AP
Image caption The frigate represents a highpoint in French shipbuilding
Image caption The replica Hermione is identical, with a few concessions to modernity, to the ship that Lafayette would have known

Completed in 1779 at the port of Rochefort, the Hermione (the French pronounce it Air-mee-on) was the pride of the French navy. She was small (216ft [65m] and 34 guns) but she was sleek and very fast.

The English, who had been fighting the French for the previous century and would continue doing so till 1815, were certainly impressed.

In 1783 they captured the Hermione's sister ship, the Concorde. Before putting her back to war under the Union Jack, they conducted a thorough study - to work out how she sailed so briskly.

Those plans were kept at naval headquarters in Greenwich - and two centuries later formed the basis for the Hermione recreation!

A gem

After several years of initial fund-raising by the Hermione-Lafayette Association, building of the replica got under way in 1997.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The three-master can sail swiftly
Image copyright AP
Image caption Some crew members wear 18th Century sailor's outfits

Over the years hundreds of thousands of people visited the renovated shipyard at Rochefort to see the work in progress. In the end it took 17 years and €26m ($30m) in public and private money.

On the dockside at La Rochelle - beneath a blistering early spring sun - she certainly looks a gem. A long line of visitors is being ushered around the top deck for a viewing, but all around crew members are frantically completing preparations for Saturday's departure.

Some are high in the rigging - others are practising knot-tying, unloading stores and adding last touches of paint.

Back in 1780 the original Hermione was chosen for Lafayette's mission because of its speed.

It was the nobleman's second trip to the fledgling United States. He had already met George Washington and been utterly seduced by him.

Real material help

In fact Benjamin Franklin (the rebellious colonies' point man in Paris) had expressly urged Washington to flatter the Frenchman, keep him alive and then send him back to court in Versailles where his advocacy could help procure the vital French alliance.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption It is hoped that the new Hermione will play a role in reviving some of France's neglected maritime traditions

It all went perfectly to plan and on this second trip Lafayette was conveying to Washington the promise of real material help: soldiers and ships.

Today Lafayette is remembered in dozens of place names across the United States (such as La Fayette Alabama and Fayetteville North Carolina).

Some of these towns were named after Lafayette's barnstorming tour of the United States in 1824-5, where he was celebrated as the last surviving general of the war of independence.

But in France he had mixed fortunes. In the revolution he managed to irritate the royalists by being too liberal and the revolutionaries by being too conservative.

For Chatel de Brancion, Lafayette was "strong on courage, hopeless at politics". But he was certainly a survivor, and served successive French governments until his death in 1834.

The rebuilt Hermione is identical in all but certain modern particularities to the ship that Lafayette would have known.

Today's rules require an engine and lifeboats. And hygiene standards are no doubt considerably higher than 240 years ago.

But below decks they have managed to cram in sleeping space for 70 (hammocks of course) plus kitchens, showers, storage areas, captain's cabin, sail-room, engine room and other facilities.

Among the volunteers in red T-shirts is one young man who would not have been out of place next to the marquis.

This is Adam Hodges-Leclair, an American student and clothing specialist, who has made and wears his own 18th Century sailor's outfit.

"The experience allows me to see how the clothes work in practice. It is a lot more visceral than just reading about them in books!" he says.

The Hermione sets sail on Saturday night after festivities attended by President Hollande. Once in the United States it will travel up the eastern seaboard and attend 4 July celebrations in New York.

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