SHE was 17 years in the building, but the frigate Hermione – a replica of the ship that took General Lafayette to America in 1780 – has finally taken to sea and has left Rochefort on the river Charente for sea trials.
After two months of sea trials between Brest and Bordeaux she will head for Quai Richelieu in Bordeaux between October 9 and 13 and then returns to Rochefort towards November 11. In spring 2015 she will set off in the second half of April for the US, with arrival due in Yorktown, Virginia, at the beginning of June.
Below is the article we published on Hermione in July 2014 as part of our Big Picture feature. Buy a pdf copy of the issue for €1, by clicking this link for Back Issues
17 years of work sees Hermione set for sea
WORKERS are this month putting the finishing touches to a full-size wooden replica of the 18th century French frigate Hermione that will next year cross the Atlantic in a copy of the voyage that made France the US’s oldest ally.
The Hermione, 65m long with a hull up to half a metre thick of solid oak, was built in 1779 and was one of the fastest naval vessels of her kind.
She became famous for carrying the Marquis de Lafayette to the US in 1780 to join George Washington’s fight to escape British rule and for playing a vital role in the British surrender.
And, as America celebrates Independence Day on July 4, the new Hermione was nearing the end of 17 years’ work with final tests in the former Arsenal Maritime dock in Rochefort, Charente-Maritime. Captain Yann Cariou, 53, knows he has a task on his hands to get the crew ready – they are young volunteers with a core of professionals – spending “long hours learning the boat” in the dock before they can go to sea.
“Every manoeuvre is very complicated on such a large and fast vessel, especially with three masts and 2,500m2 of sail – they need plenty of people!
“It will take an hour and a half to complete a virement à bord [tack] with just 10 minutes for the tack itself. Wind coming nose-on is the most difficult manoeuvre and we need about 130 men on it – everyone is called in.
“However, we have half the crew of the original and they have a third of the old sailors’ skills!”
Next April the 150-strong crew set off across the Atlantic and six weeks later will make landfall at Yorktown, Virginia - in plenty of time for the 2015 Independence Day celebrations.
Replica is a hand-made work of art
SAILMAKER Anne Renault worked on the 23,600sq.ft [2,200m2] of flax cloth making up Hermione’s 19 working sails. Woven by a flax weaver in northern France and then cut to shape, she had to reinforce them at each corner with several layers of cloth and then create 250 eyelets for the rigging in each sail.
Each eyelet was made with hand-made hemp rope – miles and miles of it – and Anne was the only sailmaker.
While the original Hermione took just a year to build, the replica – with every piece hand-crafted from original materials – has taken hundreds of thousands of man hours over 17 years.
Work started in 1993 when author Erik Orsenna and Franco-American civil servant Benedict Donnelly thought up the project using exact plans drawn by the British Admiralty after capturing Hermione’s sister ship, La Concorde.
Forests all over France supplied the oak for the hull and by 2000 the superstructure and deck were taking shape. In 2012 it took to the water for the first time at Rochefort with 65,000 spectators and last year the three masts were fitted and then the 28km of hand-made rope rigging.
With the sails fitted to the three masts and the 68m main mast towering above them, teams of naval recruits have been testing the rigging and practising their skills – knowing that even for the old-time mariners it took nearly three hours to get the vessel rigged to change course.
Photo: Asso Hermione La Fayette