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Report: France

Old meets new as Hermione prepares maiden sea voyage

The Hermione docked in La Rochelle
The Hermione docked in La Rochelle Sarah Elzas

The voyage will be televised. And tweeted. And posted on Facebook… Unlike the original Hermione, which set sail to the United States from France in 1780, the reconstructed Hermione will be well documented. Besides the communications and safety additions, not much has changed in 235 years. The full replica of the frigabhte took 17 years to build from scratch using 18th century techniques and materials.


The Hermione will be powered solely by its 19 sails when it leaves the western coast of France on 18 April.

When it left the French port of Rochefort on 11 March 1780, headed to Boston, the original Hermione had over 300 people on board, including General Lafayette, who was on his second trip to America to help George Washington and the revolutionary army.

Listen to the report, on board here:

The replica, which sets sail on 18 April off the coast of La Rochelle will have 80 people on board: 54 volunteer crew managed by a team of professional sailors, including Jans Langert, the ship’s bosun.

The Swedish sailor also built the rigging, based on 18th century diagrams, and using the techniques of the time. The key to making the ship move is teamwork.

An 18th century frigate is a complex machine powered by human energy. It requires a lot of people to move around kilometres of heavy ropes and massive linen sails.

It’s about teamwork. It's no use for one person to grab onto the sail and try to lift it. Nothing will happen. But if the whole chain of 30 people along the yard do it, all at the same time and with the same cadence, little by little it gets done.”

Jens Langert, Hermione Bosun and Master rigger

A ship of volunteers

The 54 volunteers who will be the crew for the first trans-Atlantic voyage come from all walks of life. They have been trained by the professional sailors, and already spent several weeks on the ship during sea trials in the autumn of 2014.

During the voyage they will work in three shifts of four hours each, working, sleeping and eating together on board for the 27-day crossing and the weeks of travel up the coast of the United States.

Before departure, the crew works on installing the sails that were removed over the winter, stocking the ship and doing last-minute repairs and maintenance.

All wear red t-shirts identifying them as Hermione crew, except for Adam Hodges-Leclerc. A 22-year-old history student from Boston, he is dressed like an 18th century sailor, complete with woolen stockings and a waistcoat. His goal in life is to work in a living history museum.

I’m using the tools of a historian to present history visually. I can tell you about the painting that my waistcoat is based on, for instance. But if you can touch it, that's so much more visceral. I realize it’s particular, but hopefully it's a very engaging way to teach history.

Adam Hodges-Leclerc, Hermione crew member

A new kind of tourism

The entire project is about engagement. The original ship took 11 months to build. The replica took 17 years, partly because the Hermione-Lafayette had to find the right artisans and the money to pay them, but also to make the worksite available to the public.

The goal is to allow the public to visit the work site since the beginning. The worksite really attracted people, who like to see artisans at work. And we continue to welcome visitors on board at each stop.

Marine de Villartay, Hermione-Lafayette Association

Visitor fees and gift shop sales made up 60 per cent of the project’s budget, the rest coming from the region and cities, which recognised the draw of the ship.

And even in the days before it left, docked at La Rochelle, the Hermione was full of visitors, as the crew attached sails, made last-minute adjustments and got ready to set sail.

About the Hermione:

  • 65-metre oak hull
  • 19 sails made of 1,500 square metres of linen
  • Rigging includes 25 kilometres of natural fibre rope
  • 80 people on board, including 54 volunteers
  • Construction started in 1997
  • First sea tests in October 2014
  • Speed at full sail: 14 knots (25.9 km/h)
  • Cost: 25 million euros, 60 per cent from visitors
  • 4 million visitors since start of construction
  • Voyage in 1780: 38 days
  • Voyage in 2015: 27 days (expected)




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