Connexion learned of the plan when we visited the ship in Nice to find out more about life on board the Hermione, which is one of the world’s largest wooden sailing ships – 66m long in total, with a main mast topping off at 47m above the sea, 2.2km2 of sails and 25km of ropes.
This month sees her visit Bordeaux from June 10-13 and then Rochefort from June 17, around 8.30 after which visits will be possible in port for the rest of the year.
The original Hermione, also built in Rochefort, is best known for taking French soldier and aristocrat Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette to Boston, USA to help George Washington in the American War of Independence. In 2015 the replica ship recreated his voyage, its first major trip and this year’s cruise around Spain and North Africa to the Riviera and Corsica was its first long journey since then.
Apart from a few professional sailors, the crew – known as gabiers – are all volunteers. This year they included people from across the globe in a partnership with the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. The crew all received several days' training in Rochefort before taking part. Due to personal commitments gabiers typically only joined for part of the voyage.
One gabier, Corentin Macé, said he left a job as a tourism official in the Jura to join the crew. “I come from Nantes, which is a port town, and so the sea is something which for me goes back to my childhood," he said. "It’s very unusual though to sail on an 18th century ship! It’s exceptional in terms of all the manoeuvres that have to be done, for example each time we have to hoist a sail, as well as our life below deck.
“The atmosphere on board is all about sharing and helping each other out.”
He said they are grouped into [three] teams called tiers, which receive training from the professionals and also help train new members who join them.
“We do everything together in little groups, whether its manoeuvres with the sails, or giving a hand in the kitchen or taking the helm, or cleaning. It’s physical work, but it depends on the task, for example when we manoeuvre the sails it’s the person on the deck who has to weigh down on the rope [called on ships as un bout, pronounced boute] to support it, who needs the most physical strength.
“Everyone has to climb in the rigging – for example when we need to furl the sails [gather them in against the yardarms] though if you don’t feel like it one day you can say.”
He said differences with modern sailing ships include the fact there is there are far more sails and a much greater surface of sail.
However while the Hermione is a faithful replica there are some modern adaptations. “We have two electric motors which allow us to sail in the case of a mer d’huile [dead calm] and above all for manoeuvering in the port – because sometimes the ports are narrow and there are lots of little pleasure boats on either side.”
Fellow crew member Sébastien Dupont, a business studies student from Bordeaux, said: “For the French crew members there was a recruitment campaign at the start of 2017. We had to send CVs and a letter saying why we wanted to take part, and the captain picked us. Then we’re trained and we can sail as and when, depending on availability.
“It comes down mostly to motivation; some of us had no experience of sailing. I wanted to do it because of the adventure, the teamwork and the freedom – it’s an incredible experience. Sailing the world’s biggest replica ship isn’t something you do every day.”
He said there were 80 people on the ship – compared to more than 200 in the 18th century – with one tiers on deck at any one time and the rest sleeping below. “We work in relays. I work from 8.00 to noon and then 20.00 to midnight. We eat on the pont-batterie [gun deck below the main deck, where cannons are arrayed] near the kitchen and we sleep in hammocks and bunks in an area called the faux-pont. We have toilets and showers and wash basins – not 18th century conditions…. In fact it’s very modern, we have radars on board, a lifeboat, lifejackets… It’s safety first.”
He added: “Back in the day the food was hard biscuits, but ours is very varied – we just had a great apple crumble – and everything is homemade. We’re happy to go and eat when the bell rings.”
The ship also has on-board electricity and a watermaker to make seawater drinkable.
Mr Dupont said since the Atlantic crossing in 2015 the Hermione had made a short trip up the coast to Brittany but no other long voyage until this year.
“Next year we might make another little trip, and for 2020 there’s a big project being planned, though it’s not yet confirmed. It’s called the La Pérouse project [after an 18th century French naval officer] and it’s a world tour. We’d all like it to happen.”
A spokeswoman for the Hermione confirmed that they would like to tour the world, though she said no definite date has been set. She said it is possible the ship will undertake another less-ambitious trip first, such as to the Antilles. “It’s partly a question of the budget, because touring the world is very expensive,” she said.
Marie-Aude Barbieux from Belgium, a physiotherapist, said the challenge of sailing on the Hermione had taught her a lot about herself. “I’ve never done anything like it – climbing up the rigging, learning all the sailor’s techniques… the knots and the names of all the manoeuvres, all the technical vocabulary related to an 18th century ship… for example, the caillebotis [floor made from wooden slats] which we’re standing on, the haubans [sections of rigging that hold the masts up] the cargues and amures [types of rope attached to the sails] and our name gabiers, who were the sailors who used to climb up on the masts. In the old days they were the strongest, best sailors, those who were capable of working up there.”
She added: “The high point for me so far was at Port-Vendres [on the Spanish border], where we got a wonderful welcome for three days. There was a lot of people because they were really looking forward to our visit there.”
Also visiting the ship in Nice was Geneviève de la Pomélie from Neuilly-sur-Seine, president of the Cercle des Amis de La Fayette.
She said: “Our association promotes the memory and the values of my ancestor: liberty first of all, and fraternity towards the whole world.
“He first heard of what was happening in America at a dinner in Metz when he was 19 and since he, as he said, idolised liberty, hop! – he was off, first on his boat the Victoire, to liberate the rebels.
"He came back and then left again as a passenger on the Hermione to announce that Louis XVI was sending them men, among them Rochambeau and de Grasse, and money – six million francs. Washington said the War of Independence was won thanks to de Grasse and La Fayette [who Washington made a general] which is why there are always two ships in the US navy named after them.”
America’s regard for the Frenchman, who signed himself Lafayette after the French Revolution, does not end there: there are around 15 US villages, towns and cities called Lafayette (plus a Fayetteville) as well as a county, a mountain, a river, a horse race, a college, three New York theatres, and streets and public places including Lafayette Square opposite the White House. He is one of just eight honorary American citizens.
La Fayette went on to be a key figure in the French Revolution and one of the main drafters of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen – nicknamed ‘the hero of the two worlds’ – and again in the 1830 revolution which established a constitutional monarchy.
When the Americans joined the First World War one of their army chiefs went to his tomb in Paris and declared ‘La Fayette, we are here’.
- The Association Hermione – La Fayette regularly recruits and trains new volunteer gabiers who they may call on for future trips. For more information visit www.hermione.com
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