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France: The Hermione: The Replica of Lafayette's Famous Frigate Sets Sail - Mary Winston Nicklin

The project all started in 1992, when a group of passionate enthusiasts dreamt up the idea. Not only would the new Hermione revive the savoir faire of specialist artisans, but she could also shine the spotlight on Rochefort’s extraordinary maritime heritage. Construction got underway in 1997, thanks to line drawings created by the British Admiralty when the Hermione’s sister ship, La Concorde, was captured in 1783.

The original Hermione was wrecked off the coast of Brittany in 1793, after a short but illustrious career. Over the course of 17 years, thousands of people have contributed financial donations to keep the project afloat and the total cost is estimated at €30 million.

“We’ve almost finished recruiting all the volunteer crew members for the inaugural voyage,” explained Maryse Vital, the Director of the Association Hermione Lafayette, when I visited the shipyard again last May. I’d returned to Rochefort to witness progress on the Hermione, and it appeared that the project had defied the odds and was  nearing completion. Indeed, a ‘tall ship’ of this size has never been recreated in France before.

Painted in its original blue and gold colours, the Hermione soared 177 feet above her mooring. A lion figurehead, carved by sculptor Andrew Peters, adorned the prow. At the stern, a large French flag fluttered in the breeze. The 19 linen sails, encompassing over 1,000 square metres, had been hand-stitched by sailmaker Anne Renault. Scores of visitors walked through the museum, gaping at live demos of sail-making and carpentry. Costumed guides cracked jokes, and I even caught a concert.

Stepping aboard the Hermione, I was impressed by the number of workers swarming the decks – attending to the winches, coiling the 26 kilometres of hemp lines, and assembling the beds and hammocks where the volunteer crew would sleep after their turns on duty. In Lafayette’s cabin, the walls were painted grey with white trim, and the parquet floors were as fine as would be found in a nobleman’s Parisian hôtel particulier.

In just a matter of days, the 26 cannons would be arriving with much fanfare and celebration. They’d been cast by La Route des Tonneaux et Canons at Ruelle-sur- Touvre, some 130km distant, the same foundry which had supplied the original cannons.

Yorktown is excitedly anticipating the day – June 5, to be precise – when the Hermione will arrive in port.
“The odyssey of the Hermione in the American Revolutionary War was remarkable,” says Nicole Yancey, the Virginia liaison for the National Historical Trail called the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route. “Light, fast, and highly manoeuvrable, the Hermione was part of the constant surveillance and protection of the coast. In September 1781, she joined Admiral de Grasse and Admiral Barras’ fleets anchored at Lynnhaven, Virginia Beach, and from there she was on patrol along the James and York Rivers, bringing supplies to the troops stationed on the Virginia Peninsula.”

Of the new Hermione’s prestigious transatlantic voyage, Yancey says, “It will reaffirm the historic friendship between France and the United States.”
With this marvellous maritime adventure, the spirit of Lafayette lives on in the 21st century.

Read more: The Hermione: The Replica of Lafayette's Famous Frigate Sets Sail - France Today

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