History in the Making: Who knew? The best part of a visit to the Paris boat show was not found in the City of Light but in the bustling town of Rochefort, located just upriver from the Bay of Biscay. That’s where we came across Hermione, a 50-meter, 34-gun French frigate that’s been painstakingly under construction for nearly two decades now. As is fitting in a tale with roots in the 1600s, there’s a lot of history behind this story.
Beaten down by years of coastal blockades and still smarting from the rump kicking the Brits dished out in the Seven Years War, 18th-century France concluded that its future lay in mastery of the seas. And so, with the king’s blessing, the navy ministers embarked on an ambitious shipbuilding spree. In Rochefort, where naval ships were built in three massive dry docks erected a century earlier, builders drew up plans for four nimble new frigates: Concorde, Courageuse, Hermione, and Fée. Hermione got the green light in October 1778, and work started that December. Five months later, the ship was launched, and by the middle of May she was ready for battle, sailing with a crew of 300.
| |With a crew of 74 under the command of Captain Yann Cariou, Hermione will begin sea trials in the fall, a test of her performance under sail and also her agility under power using two electric-drive pods. Log on to http://www.hermione.com to watch as the project unfolds.|
Soon afterward she was dispatched to deliver Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette—who would become a valued general under the command of General George Washington—to Boston on a secret mission. Hermione stayed in the New World to pester the Brits and was in Newport, Rhode Island, to welcome the French fleet that carried 6,000 troops under the command of Count Rochambeau to join the revolution.
We all know how that turned out, so let’s just skip ahead to 1977, when the new mayor of Rochefort, Jean-Louis Frot, decided it was time to reinvigorate his town’s waterfront. The first order of business was to rebuild the dry docks, and it was then that a group of civic-minded Frenchmen decided they’d build a ship.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Association Hermione-La Fayette was formed, and on July 4, 1997, the ship’s oak keel was laid. She was launched this past summer, thanks to the work of skilled tradesmen and thousands of volunteers who fashioned her oak frame and planking and her Oregon pine decks. When we visited in December, her bowsprit and foremast were stepped and work was progressing on her other two spars. A local foundry buzzed with workers, and in tents nearby sat 19 linen sails and miles of tarred hemp and manila rope. Hermione will join the Swedish replica Gotheborg as the only two Tall Ships to have natural-fiber standing and running rigging.
Come the spring of 2015, Hermione will set off across the Atlantic, bound for visits to Yorktown, Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Newport (for the Fourth of July), Boston (on Bastille Day, July 14), and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, all ports or the scenes of battles involving the original warship.
It’s going to be a hell of a visit. Can’t wait.