Building the Hermione in Rochefort – history in the making
The Hermione is the famous ship that took the Marquis de La Fayette to America in 1780 to fight in the War of Independence against the British. Today in Rochefort in the Charente-Maritime there is a chance for visitors to share a little of that well-known 18th century episode with a visit to see a near-perfect replica of the 210-feet long three-masted oak ship.
The project began back in July 1997, when the Hermione-La Fayette association embarked on an ambitious challenge – to recreate in detail the vessel that has forever linked the French and France with American independence. Their choice of location to build the Hermione was obvious; in the naval town of Rochefort, on the banks of the River Charente close to where it flows into the sea, and where work on the first Hermione began in 1778.
The new Hermione is based on exact line drawings that were originally taken from her sister ship, La Concorde, after its capture and which are stored in the British Admiralty. The build has certainly not been easy or quick and the scheduled finishing date of 2008 was pushed back several years (the original build took 11 months but they did have lots of manpower…).
However, the association’s logistical headaches proved a bonus for visitors; giving more and more people – more than four million – the chance to walk around and see this complex project at firsthand. The construction, which is now almost at an end, is taking place next to the Corderie Royale, the now restored centrepiece of what was the town’s Arsenal (and which is itself well worth a visit – it’s where they used to make ropes).
The new Hermione – also known as the ‘La frégate de la liberté’ or ‘freedom frigate’ – is an incredible achievement, especially as funds have come via donations. The ship and her armaments contain a total of 400,000 different bits of wood and metal, and there are more than 1,000 pulleys alone to build and fit. To provide the wood around 4,000 oaks have been felled in forests around France, the trees chosen for their natural curves. The gun carriages for the iron cannon barrels were cast in a foundry in Angoulême and transported by barge down the River Charente. On top of all this the modern builders have had to contend with safety rules over seaworthiness that didn’t really constrain their forbears.
Fifteen years after the project was started, the Hermione was launched in 2012, 65,000 people gathering in Rochefort to see her float in the water – the River Charente – for the first time. The following year the masts were erected, towering above the Arsenal. Next came the crows nest, followed by the rigging, the latter requiring about 25 kilometres of hemp ropes.
The final stage of construction was completed in spring 2014 – the installation of the 19 different sails, all 2137 square metres of them and made from traditional flax. Although virtually identical to the original, the Hermione does have one or two modern touches including an engine on board for safety reasons as well as a power generator for the comfort of the crew.
Still, sailing in the Hermione will still be tough for Commandant Yann Cariou and his 69 crew members – only 15 are professional sailors; the rest are volunteers trained up to sail and who will work in shifts. All have to be fit enough to climb the rigging in all weather and be prepared to live life as it was on an 18th century boat – sleeping in hammocks in often cramped conditions.
In April and May 2014 the sails were put up and the frigate was made ready for the sea trials which will precede the final exciting phase of the project – retracing Lafayette’s voyage by taking the ship to North America.
The next exciting stage is the sea trials which start in September 2014 and run for two months – see what’s on for the events around the first sea trial on September 7. All being well the Hermione will be ready to set sail from the River Charente for the New World in April 2015. The trans-Atlantic voyage to Yorktown, Virginia, on the east coast of America is expected to take about four weeks. She will then make her way up the Eastern seaboard, stopping at Washington, Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and Halifax (Nova Scotia).
Once the voyage is over, Hermione will return to Rochefort but will also spend a lot of time at sea, undertaking many more voyages.
Visit the Hermione
Until 5 September 2014: daily from 10am – 7pm.
November 11 – December 31, 2014: 10am – 12.30pm & 2pm – 6pm.
You can visit the frigate on your own or take a guided tour. There are also nocturnal lantern visits.
For more information: www.hermione.com
Main photograph courtesy of www.hermione2015.com