One of the strongest images I have of my schooldays’ history was of a dashing young Frenchmen named Marquis de La Fayette. I was forever peeking ahead to see what pictures were coming up and never paid much attention to the text in between. Here was a painting of two men on feisty horses, one was the easily recognizable George Washington and the other was a gallant young man, buttons glowing on his beautiful suite and a red plume swishing out of his tri-corner hat. All that stuck in my head about this young soldier was that he was French and that somehow we couldn’t have won the war without him.
And then soon after we moved to Bourdeilles there started to be headlines in the local paper about a ship being built, a very special ship. Rising from the ancient boatworks of Rochefort was the Hermione. Since 1997, craftsman have been building an exact replica of the ship the carried the 21 year old La Fayette from Rochefort, France to Boston in 1780. La Fayette brought more than one man’s dash and daring—he was bringing news that King Louis XVI was ready to commit 5,500 men and five frigates to aid in the fight against the British.
So off we went for an overnight adventure to see if we could place ourselves back in time and a feeling of the height of the sailing days.
And what a success it was. Before one even sees the boat there is the acrid smell of tar and coils and coils of various sized ropes all about. One can hear the clang of the anvil before turning the corner and seeing the smithy at work on large thick hooks for some unknown purpose. The smell of tar is now mingled with the smell of coal cinders. Smells that evoke another time. Along the way there are oiled linen canvases stretched out on the floor and one can see the endless miles of hand stitching in the stiff fabric. As much as possible this replica boat has been made of materials that would have been used in the 11 months of construction in 1778. It is being carved and hammered into life with a smaller crew, 17 years of work, and an odd mix of modern tools and technology with nearly-forgotten hand craftsmanship and muscle power.
One looks in awe at all of this effort and thinks back to the times when these ships, the product of vast natural resources and man hours, would sail for weeks across the ocean with urgent purpose. And that, once engaged in battle, all of this could be blown to bits in a matter of hours, even minutes. The image of a sinking ship takes on a different perspective when one can experience its bulk, materials, the human sweat that made it, and the life that was aboard it.
It turns out that there are varying ideas about how important the charismatic La Fayette was to winning the American war for independence. But the Hermione and her young Major General Marquis de La Fayette did carry the historic news that a monarchy had decided to side with a rebellious group of colonies that was attempting to form a nation where democracy would rule. The Hermione did contribute to the American fleet victories in the Chesapeake Bay and Yorktown.
There are years of work yet to be done. The Hermione is scheduled to make the voyage from Rochefort to Boston in 2015. This time she will have 70 privileged passengers in her hold instead of 400 war-ready sailors.
70 or 400, cramped or privileged you might as well take me out and shoot me as put me on that ocean going vessel, but Tom would sign on anytime.