French frigate Hermione sails to America


The replica of a French ship that fought in the American War of Independence is retracing the original voyage

In the port of Rochefort, on France’s Atlantic coast, the replica of a ship that helped the American colonies gain independence from British rule is being prepared for an epic voyage of her own.

The original L’Hermione was one of four frigates built in Rochefort in 1778-9. She was 210ft long, carried three masts and 16,000sq ft of sails and was fitted with 26 12lb cannons and six 6lb cannons. The ship, which took 100 craftsmen 11 months to build, was one of the fastest and most agile of her day.

On 21 March, 1780, L’Hermione set sail for America carrying the 22-year-old Marquis de Lafayette. The idealistic young nobleman had already fought on the side of the colonists in the American War of Independence but returned to France and persuaded Louis XVI to send reinforcements.

After a 38-day voyage, the ship landed in Boston, where Lafayette rejoined the action and l’Hermione became part of the French fleet. Both fought with distinction, particularly at Yorktown, where the British forces surrendered. L’Hermione returned to France, but was lost at sea in 1793 – still fighting the British.

Work on building a replica began in 1997 using the plans of her sister ship, La Concorde, that were found at the British Admiralty. Thousands of volunteers joined the Franco-American project, more than three million people made donations and 65,000 attended the launch in 2012.

The replica was built in the same dry dock as the original, near the Musée de la Marine and the old rope factory, the Corderie. Much of the display about the building of the ship is in a vast tent, where you can watch films, read the history and see volunteers at work. You can wander freely on the deck of l’Hermione, but the interior can only be visited on a guided tour.

Next April, she sets sail for the United States with a crew drawn from thousands of applicants. Ports of call include Yorktown, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, with exhibitions and workshops about her history in each city visited. It will be a triumphant progress.

As a prelude, a fundraising gala dinner is being held in New York on 14 October, attended by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is honorary chairman of the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette.

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