The reconstruction of the Hermione

The Hermione, that was the name of the frigate which Gilbert du Motier, Marques of La Fayette boarded in Rochefort on the 21st March 1780 to disembark in Boston at the end of 38 days crossing the Atlantic to rejoin General Washington to whom he announced the arrival of French reinforcements.

So, in fact these frigates like the Hermione are not very big boats. The Hermione measures about 50m long in the hull, 65m overall, that is to say with the rigging, 11.5m in the beam, and … it’s not very big. On this ship there were 300 people living, 300 men because it was necessary to have a lot of men of course, on the one hand for all the handling and the sailing, and equally, especially perhaps, for the handling of the cannons, since let’s not forget that it was after all a warship, so it was necessary to have at least 9 men to operate each cannon.

Not a big thing along side large warships perhaps, but the work needed to build a reconstruction of the Hermione is enormous, as they are well and truly busily reconstructing the Hermione in Rochefort. Maryse Vital general manager of the organization Hermione La Fayette introduces us to this big project:

I would say that the reconstruction of the Hermione is very much linked to Rochefort. Rochefort is a place that was created in the 17th century, first of all as an arsenal and the later the town was created behind for building warships there. Louis XIV looked for a place on the French coast to house his arsenal, so Rochefort was chosen and they built here over nearly 250 years nearly 550 ships. The Hermione was one of these boats so it is true that we could not have done this building elsewhere but at Rochefort; there was really no interest.

So, it is a frigate, so a boat for its time quite… medium size, we could say. There were making many bigger ones, but already for us, it is already a long drawn out project and a very big adventure. So what you have to see a bit is that Rochefort during the 1980s, even during the 1970s, started to restore its naval heritage, starting of course with the architectural heritage and right away with the Royal Armament. And then over the course of time a part was missing in this group: it was a ship to explain the town. So you see that is how the project was born.

In fact, the Hermione was a newly built ship which had seen service on the French coastline for several months and then, well, the King of France was forced to choose it at random. Today, we put the emphasis on this ship, but it was that, at Rochefort it was available and was a brand new boat. So the King had to think that it was what was needed.

So in fact it is true that they could have chosen other boats, better known about which we have more documentation. But no, no one asked that question at all, they said “let’s go and search the archives for the boat on which we have most information”. No they really chose the Hermione because the ship is linked to the history of La Fayette. La Fayette used this boat to cross the Atlantic on his second journey to the United States in 1780 and to take part in the American War of Independence. So it is true that there was a symbol associated with this ship, Franco-American friendship. Fine… we often recall the phrase “La Fayette – here we come!” Well for us, we would rather they said “Here we come again!”, if you like with the Hermione.

We were given a deadline however when we started this work 5 years ago now on the 4th July 1997… the Fourth of July because it is American Independence Day. We were given 10 years. So normally our target date is 2007, you see. So that is quite a way off but quite soon too. So there is… we still have a lot of work to do.

The works set up in the shipyard as in other times is big and open to the public. It is really interesting to visit it.

So already, we are open every day except the twenty fifth of December and the first of January. So you see that we have very very wide opening hours. At the moment we are open from 9am till 7pm. Generally there are several guided tours per day. Summer is more or less continuous guided tours. Then people can come also for unescorted visits. There are different walkways organized in the works making it possible to see the boat at different stages of construction. There are little workshops at the same time, a blacksmith and a joinery which operate all Sunday, the whole weekend so that the public can find out about the trades and at the same time they can talk with the people who work on them.

I would say that the techniques… well they are well known there are various ways into understanding the construction of boats of this type. The people at last we have them, not quite ships’ carpenters however, there are ships’ carpenters in the team but there are also some carpenters who are generally used to working on buildings, on castles, on churches, that kind of thing. So for them in the end, that’s close enough for this work. It is always work of following on, so the creative work follows what’s already there. So they were already used to large sections of oak, and large section so wood, that is not always the case for ships’ carpenters who today make rather small pieces. So in the end, the men we find well… I think that if… we would welcome at the moment increasing a little the number of carpenters, it’s true that’s not very easy however to have very good carpenters but they’re found. On the technical level the problem which perhaps has been the most complicated, is rather the search for the wood because in fact we are looking for curved wood, that is bent wood, and today the French forest are rather operated for straight wood for making timber frames for houses or castles or other things, and branches which are going to go across , we have rather a tendency to cut it to encourage the others which are going to grow quite straight. So it is true that the curved oak is of course a rarity not easily found, first of all to find it and also to use it, because when you are going to cut a tree with twisted branches every other branch is going to be broken by falling, so it is necessary to prepare by cutting the branches so we made an appeal for trades somewhat forgotten such a coppicers, people who climb into the tree to cut the interesting branches since often it is the twisted branches which interest us before cutting the tree itself. So you see a bit of the technical problem which till now is the most complicated.

Do you know what became of the original Hermione?

Yes, we know what became of the original Hermione. In fact the boat sank following a navigation error on the Plateau de Four which is off the coast at Le Croisic [1], so not far from here in not very deep water, very swept by currents, by the winds;what is left is nothing much of the hull or almost nothing. On the other hand there are still a few metal parts of which an anchor, which perhaps we are going to fetch one of there days but it is however a piece which is 1.5 tons, 4.25m high; so it is not only necessary to get it out, we must right away treat it so that we avoid seeing it disappear over time.

Did the Hermione take part in naval battles?

Yes, yes, absolutely. So the ship went off in 1780 and stayed practically 2 years on the American coast and took part in the American War of Independence. So not like the vessels which were flag ships of a naval battle. When we talk of a naval battle, it is really with vessels, but boats much heavier than frigates. The frigates were much lighter boats, much quicker, more agile, which rather served for transporting signals, transporting the living, going along the coast to watch what was happening to control the English pirates, there you are. So, the Hermione took part in several battles however with boats of a similar strength. What’s more we have the whole tale of this journey to the United States since we still have the log book of the commander who was called La Touche Treville who left an hour by hour, day by day, account of the various battles and the various adventures off the American coast. So that’s how we know for example that at any given time she fought against a shop of a size about the same and that several shots went through the ship from one place to another. We know exactly how many were wounded, how many died during the battle. That’s really interesting. In fact that gives us an idea of the life on board these boats which was very, very hard.

This wonderful project has a high price without doubt. To take it to its conclusion you have to find a lot of money. How?

Well it’s not so much how we found it but how are finding it… because, unhappily, we don’t have the funds to the end of the construction, that would simplify the task a lot. In fact, what is necessary for our work is continuing to find money. So I would say that the project started essentially thanks to the contributions from the town, the Department of Charente Maritime, so the town of Rochefort, the region Poitou Charente, similarly Europe by means of the Federal funds helped us at the start of the project. But today in the annual budget, it is about 50% of the budget which is earned thanks to the visitors, thanks to the ticket box since this work can be visited and I would say that above all it is a tourist attraction as we have chosen to make discovering the construction of this boat, so we practically thought more about the visitors than about the works at the start; of course today it is necessary to coordinate the two, that’s not always easy for reasons of safety, and so on. So the visitors, we show them the works so that they can discover the wood, the work, the ships of the time, the history of Rochefort, but today they contribute a lot to the finance of the boat in construction. And then there is another part of the financing thanks to the sponsors, many fewer of them, but we hope to develop that side thanks to the members who number around 4000, thanks to related merchandising; there again there are opportunities for development.

And then afterwards “Launch the tub” [2], sorry “the frigate”.

I will say that after that day, the Hermione will leave as planned to make a voyage to Boston, in the steps of La Fayette, Rochefort-Boston, on the same route, there and back, and then after that, I think that the ship will only move a little, because it must be seen that we have not reconstructed this boat so that it will be a passenger ship. We will not be able to have training courses on board as some have done for example on boats in France like the Belem [3] of the Recouvrance. We have chosen to make a boat as authentic as possible to the old one and not to modify completely the internal arrangements of the ship in order to transform it into a passenger ship. On the other hand what we have anticipated after this voyage or perhaps these inaugural voyages would be that she will come back to Rochefort to be a public attraction once again, this time more of the inside so that we can talk a bit less of the construction and a bit more of the way of life on board, that is, personally I would say the third life of the Hermione, after the first life that we are living now which is the life of the construction, which is the most interesting to my taste and the second which is the life during the voyage.

[1] Le Croisic is a town on the west coast of France, in the south of Brittany to the north of the estuary of the River Loire. It is in the department of Loire-Atlantique. Rochefort is just to the south of La Rochelle.

[2] Vogue la galere – this is a popular expression rather like ‘Good luck come what may’, although it literally means ‘Let the galley ship be in fashion’. The French word galere is literally galley ship but is often used colloquially for things which are rather unpleasant or rather badly organized. So here, a more literal English translation may be – Launch the tub.

[3] Belem and Recouvrance are tall ships based in France.

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