A life-size replica of the Hermione, the French navy frigate that shipped General Lafayette to Great Britain’s 13 renegade American colonies to rally rebels fighting against British troops in the American Revolutionary War, began its maiden voyage yesterday, organizers said.
Thousands of spectators who lined the port in Rochefort on Saturday hoping to see the reproduced vessel cast off were disappointed when a buildup of sediment in its launch bay delayed departure.
Organizers let Hermione loose before dawn yesterday, after which she was to sail up the Charente River to Rochefort’s commercial port. From there, the frigate plans to head to the Atlantic Ocean island of Aix for several weeks of sea trials.
The vessel is to make a public stop in Bordeaux next month before returning to its home port a month later for final preparations.
The 65m ship is due to sail for the US in April next year, following the route from Rochefort to Boston made by French General Gilbert du Motier — the Marquis de Lafayette — in 1780 to bolster American revolutionaries in their fight against British troops.
Yesterday’s launch was a major milestone in the journey undertaken by a group of restoration enthusiasts who in 1997 embarked on the arduous task of recreating the three-masted vessel using only 18th-century shipbuilding techniques.
“It is an important step to sail Hermione at sea, which no one has ever done,” Hermione-Lafayette Association president Benedict Donnelly said.
Since its foundation 17 years ago, the association has attracted artisans and craftsmen from France, Britain, Germany, Spain and Sweden and now has about 8,000 members.
“There is real pride in the collective force behind this project. There have been tense moments, but we remained united,” Donnelly said.
The project cost about 25 million euros (US$32 million), financed by more than 4 million visitors to the shipyard — also home to Rochefort’s original arsenal — as well as through crowdfunding initiatives for specific parts of the ship.
Yann Cariou, the former French naval officer who is to captain the frigate for its voyage to Boston, said the next weeks of testing would give the 72-member crew a chance to “get their sea legs.”
“Above all there will be emotion. It’s still the Hermione and nobody has navigated a ship like this for two centuries,” Cariou said.
It took Lafayette 38 days to cross the Atlantic, a voyage that confirmed his renown as a military mastermind and a hero of the American Revolution.
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