Last night’s celebratory send off for the €25 million (£18m)Hermione seeks to retrace the 213ft frigate’s transatlantic journey in 1780, when its namesake under Marquis de Lafayette’s command helped to lay the foundation of French-American relations.
Lafayette persuaded French King Louis XVI to provide military and financial support to George Washington’s troops. Lafayette set sail on 21 March, 1780, arrived 38 days later in Boston, and played an important role in the revolutionaries’ defeat of Britain.
French president Francois Hollande took a short trip on the ship ahead of its official departure yesterday.
The ship is the fruit of nearly two decades of fundraising and toil. Using captains’ logs and manuscripts from the era, maritime experts and historians ensured that workers used the same construction materials and methods as those used to build the original.
Sail-makers sewed eyelets by hand on the 2,600 square yards of linen sails. Engineers replicated the pulley system. The vessel even was built in the same shipyard, in Rochefort in south-west France.
“It has been a very long project,” said Miles Young, president of the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America. “You don’t create an 18th century warship very easily these days... It took enormous efforts to find enough oak trees naturally shaped so they could create the helm.”
Volunteer crew members will sail the frigate across the Atlantic.
“Authority and respect for the hierarchy is what guarantees our safety on board and ensures the boat runs smoothly,” said crewman Nicolas Masse. “Given that more than 70 per cent of the ship’s crew is made up of amateurs, never questioning the line of command is something you have to learn.”
A rigger, Woody Wiest, praised the international camaraderie aboard.
“When you put people side by side aboard a ship, they’re puking together, they’re cleaning the toilets together, they’re really bonding,” he said. “It makes for a very close and open relationship between people and it lasts forever.”
The relationship born of Lafayette’s journey has also been lasting. Even in times of modern diplomatic tensions, American presidents routinely refer to France as “our oldest ally”.
“If it hadn’t been for that French intervention at that time,” Young said, “the War of Independence probably wouldn’t have been won.”
Firing its cannons, the ship left the La Rochelle port earlier this week for a test run, escorted by sailboats and watched by thousands of cheering supporters on shore.