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'Freedom Frigate' Replica Tours US Ports

  • Deborah Block

A replica of the French warship that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington with news of French aid in 1780 is in New York as part of Independence Day celebrations.

On Saturday, the Hermione replica will join hundreds of sail and motor boats passing the Statue of Liberty for an Independence Day parade. The ship will be touring the Eastern Seaboard until mid-July.

The ship played a key role in the American colonists’ bid for freedom from England, historians say.

On July 4, 1776, 13 American colonies at war with Britain formed a new nation. As the war unfolded in later years, the Americans might have lost their revolution if not for the news of French help from the Hermione.

The French aristocrat Lafayette had volunteered to fight with the Continental Army and became friends with Washington.

Lafayette went back to France and persuaded King Louis XVI to provide men and ships to help the Americans. He returned on the Hermione with news that French reinforcements were on their way.

An impressive recreation

The 65-meter-long frigate is the kind of warship seen in old paintings – made of oak, with huge billowing sails, cannons bristling from the deck, and complex rope rigging reaching a mast about 50 meters high

Almost 80 people make up the predominately French crew of the replica. Their average age is 27. Some are professional sailors but most are volunteers, including 32-year-old Aurore Le Vilain.

During the Hermione’s recent stopover in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington, Le Vilain said she had to get over her fear of heights to climb the rigging to adjust the sails.

When the ship is at sea, "it’s like a pendulum," she said. "You’re going from one side to another and you still have to keep working."

Another crew member, Alice Bru, 34, had never sailed and found the trip a challenge.

"We have more than 200 ropes and each has a different use," she said. "And it’s physically difficult because everything is heavy."

Replica’s construction

Although the original Hermione was constructed in 11 months in the port town of Rochefort, France, it took 17 years for the replica to be built in the same port.

Rochefort resident Alain Lambert flew to Virginia to tour the Hermione on American soil and said it had been “exciting” to watch the changes, over the years, as the ship took shape in his hometown.

Dressed as an American revolutionary soldier while touring the vessel, Alexandria resident Kon Gojnycz was impressed that the shipbuilders used many 18th-century techniques.

“The [cannons] were actually recast at the same factory that made guns for the Hermione and the French navy back in the 1770s,” he said.

The replica is as authentic as possible, said Bruno Gravellier, the ship’s superintendent, who, at 68, is the oldest sailor on board.

But there are a few concessions to the 21st century, he said, including a kitchen, engines for safety and a power generator.

One area is noticeably different from the original.

“In the place where we have showers and toilets, they had hundreds of live sheep,” he said of the original ship. “It must have smelled quite different.”

Dreams of friendship

What hasn’t changed are the cramped quarters where the crew sleeps in hammocks, said 22-year-old history student Adam Hodges-LeClair, one of the few Americans on the crew.

“You have some moments when people are very close,” he said. “Potentially, you need your space. At the same time, it’s nice to have support whenever you’re doing a maneuver.”

Miles Young, the head of the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, hopes the replica will help forge more French-American friendships.

“This is one of the symbolic journeys of freedom in history,” he said. “It celebrates the birth of the United States as a free and independent nation.”

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