In 1789, the Marquis de Lafayette sailed from Rochefort, France headed for Boston, where he would change the course of world history. La Fayette brought with him the news that the French Empire was entering the American Revolution in defense of the rebel colonists and committed troops and ships to fight the British. This military commitment was a deciding factor in the war and to this day the efforts of La Fayette and the French are still honored in the U.S. What most people forget about are the ships, the very instruments of war that made this victory possible. Well, almost everyone has forgotten, in Rochefort this history is still very much alive.
“Rochefort needs the Hermione,” the enthusiastic tourism official told me as we walked across the town’s square on a mostly sunny late spring day. The rain had been intermittent for days and I was looking forward to some cloudless skies for a change. We were walking with great determination to the old docks, le Vieux Port and the ancient heart of the city. Rochefort is as closely tied to the sea as Poseidon; the city has centuries of shipbuilding and maritime trade experience and indeed the sea is part of the lifeblood of Rochefort. But shipbuilding isn’t what it used to be, and I was told that a certain pallor hung over the city like a shroud until the Hermione project. This remarkable, perhaps unparalleled and possibly insane idea has not just satisfied everyone’s historical interests; it has lifted the spirits of an entire city.
“We’re filling the ballast now, let’s go see,” the chipper head of the Hermione Project said as we climbed on board the colorful frigate ship. I didn’t realize ships of the 18th and 19th centuries were so elaborately decorated, but since everyone associated with the Hermione is just a wee bit obsessed with authenticity, I didn’t doubt the accuracy of the sunshine yellow paint gleaming in the rare moment of sunshine.
In 1997 (Yes, 15 years ago), the Hermione-La Fayette Association began an ambitious, what some called crazy project. Their idea was to reconstruct the Hermione frigate, the ship that allowed La Fayette to join the American colonists in their struggle for independence. It was also on that voyage when the good Marquis informed General Washington that France would indeed support their efforts. This project probably could have been done faster, except for the fact that organizers have been steadfast in their desire to only use period tools and instruments to rebuild the ship. A combination of funding issues and relearning old methods of shipbuilding turned what was an 11-month project in 1779 into a 15-year one in the 20th-21st centuries.
But that’s ok. This project isn’t about speed; it’s about reconstructing an important part of Rochefort’s maritime history not to brag, but to help build the future. The founders of this project want to bring Rochefort’s important heritage back to life for a new generation, they want to exemplify France’s naval past and what I think is most interesting, they want to create a testimony to Franco-American fraternity. The goals are lofty but guess what, they’ve almost accomplished every one.
While rebuilding the ship they’ve also been resurrecting the old infrastructure around town including the massive Corderie where ropes were made by hand and the old dry docks, which date back to the 17th century. These efforts, in conjunction with the Hermione, truly have rallied the entire community around a joint project and has reinstated pride and interest where once there was neither.
As I toured the ship I was immediately struck by how small it seemed. Movies always portray the great ships of the 18th and 19th centuries as huge behemoths with hundreds of rows of cannons. In actuality, the frigates La Fayette used were much smaller. The Hermione was just 210 feet long, smaller than a football field, and boasted 26 cannons shooting 12-pound cannonballs. Clearly “Master and Commander” took some liberties with details. Although the ship was smaller than I expected, it was no less impressive.
Walking across the deck of the ship and down into the holds, I felt transported back to the 18th century. Every detail, and I mean even the smallest, has been seen to in this massive, 20 million Euro project. They have sail makers, blacksmiths, rope makers and every other kind of highly trained and extremely hard to find crafts-person imaginable working to make the Hermione seaworthy. I visited during an especially exciting period, the date for the first float out was less than two months away and a lot of work still had to be done. In the cargo holds I watched as three men stuffed the belly of the ship with thousands of pounds of ballast in order to make the ship buoyant enough to sail. Since no cargo would be making the trip, well not much, these iron bars were a necessity.
I climbed back up to the main deck, looked out across the aft and looked off into the distance. Someone, perhaps not too different from me, stood on a boat that looked exactly the same, in the same dry dock more than 200 years ago and he too wondered what adventures this mighty ship would have. It was an amazing sensation and proved to me instantly that the Hermione project wasn’t insanity; it is instead a project ahead of its time.
So what’s next? Well, after fifteen years the project is incredibly almost to an end; sort of. The hope of the project’s leaders is to finish the construction and conduct sea trials in 2013. Then in 2014 or 2015, the goal is to sail the mighty Hermione across the Atlantic once again and recreate the stops La Fayette made in the New World. This includes (hopefully) the Caribbean, Newport News, Annapolis, New York, Boston and Quebec; to start with at least. As they visit each location they will invite people onboard to see what life was really like onboard ships in the 18th century and, more importantly, to see what helped turn the tide in the American Revolution. Already more than a quarter million people visit the Hermione in France every year, and it’s not even done yet. Imagine what an incredible learning opportunity seeing the finished vessel in action will be like for kids of all ages.
I am incredibly impressed by this project, not just for the logistical nightmare it must be, but for the spirit that drives everyone towards its completion. Something this massive could only be done by people who are passionate, probably compulsive, about sharing a remarkable period of history with the world. This project has already made residents of Rochefort proud of their city once again, educated French students everywhere about their rich naval heritage, and helped rebuild the sometimes-strained ties between France and the United States.
So the next time my fellow Americans want to rename a French Fry the Freedom Fry, put it down and thank the people of France, and especially Rochefort, who made that freedom to be obnoxious possible in the first place.