A replica of the ship that carried the Marquis de Lafayette to America in 1780 to support the revolutionaries in their war against the British needs to raise €6.5million to undertake essential repairs.
L’Hermione took 17 years to build between 1997 and 2014 but a new effort is now required after wood-destroying fungi infected 40m³ of its structure, around 7% of the total surface area of the ship.
‘Save a symbol of France and of freedoms’
€3.5million has already been spent on identifying the problem and initial repairs, thanks to funding from the state, a bank loan and the ship’s home department and region, Charente-Maritime and Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
The Hermione-La Fayette association is now calling for an international campaign of donations to save this “symbol of France and of freedoms”.
L’Hermione sailed for just six years after a year of sea trials ended in 2015.
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Badly rotted wooden planks
The three-masted ship was built using 18th-century techniques, with the rhythm of work dictated in part by fundraising efforts.
The damage was discovered by carpenters during routine maintenance work in La Rochelle in 2021.
Experts were called in and confirmed the worst fears of the carpenters and the volunteers who worked on the ship – it was so badly rotted that the frigate was dangerous to sail.
Emergency repairs, using sheets of copper to strengthen the wooden planks, were needed for L’Hermione to make its way slowly to the Basque port of Bayonne, where a dry dock was available for it.
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Several potential reasons for fungus attack
Association spokesperson Marion Adnot said: “No one knows why the fungi has attacked and spread as it has.
“We carried out a full audit in 2022 and the conclusion of the experts is that it is impossible to say. It was probably the result of many factors.”
Possible reasons put forward include parts of the ship having a double hull, making inspection difficult; the use of tongue and groove joints for the hull; the long construction time; the time spent in fresh water at Rochefort, its home port; and time spent at anchor during summer port visits in hot and humid conditions.
“We do not think there was a step in the treatment of the wood which the old builders did which we did not know about,” said Ms Adnot.
“The one thing we can be thankful for is that the damage was found when it was, and not during a storm on high seas.”
Public visits will help fund repairs
Workers in Bayonne are ready to begin repairs – the dry dock is open to the public as part of the fundraising effort – and it is hoped the ship will return to the ocean in 2024.
The association, which has 3,000 members, is also hoping more people will join.
Prices for a year’s subscription range from €30 to €100 for adults and €15 for under-18s.
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Played part in American and French Revolutions
The original Hermione needed a major refit, including work on her hull, in 1789, after 10 years at sea in the French navy.
This included taking part in two vicious battles against the British off the coast of America, where France was supporting the Revolution, and a trip around Africa to India.
After the work, she sailed under the tricolour flag of revolutionary France, mainly in and around the Loire, where she protected merchant convoys.
She sank in 1793 at Croisic, just north of the mouth of the Loire, after an inexperienced crew drove her on to well-known rocks. The crew were able to get off safely.
You can support the project by donating, joining the association, or visiting the ship. All information can be found at fregate-hermione.com
Visits cost €12, or €18 for a guided tour (€10 and €15 for locals). Under-16s can visit for free, or for €8 with a guide.
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