He took the thin threads in his hand, then twisted and twined the beige hemp fibers with his fingers, again and again, until they resembled a string. In the 17th century, this was the first step in making fat and sturdy rope at this Corderie or rope making factory in Rochefort, France, where the ancient process is demonstrated for visitors. Some 40 men did nothing but twist and twine hemp all day to make the rope used in ship rigging and rope that could carry a ship’s anchors to the bottom of the sea. One of those ships was the Hermione, a French warship that ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence.
The mighty ship has been reborn and is now en route to the U.S., duplicating that voyage of 235 years ago. Craftsmen, artisans and technicians have worked for more than 15 years on a reconstruction of the Hermione. Completed in 2012, the replica Hermione looks every inch like an authentic tall ship. Throughout June and early July it will stop at 12 different ports on the U.S. east coast (See schedule below), before returning to its home port in Rochefort in August where it will be open to visitors.
I had been invited to Rochefort, a pleasant town on the Charentes River 22 kilometers from the France’s mid-Atlantic coast, for ceremonies celebrating the Hermione’s departure in April. Another journalist and I were even scheduled to go on board and have lunch with the crew on departure day. But, at the last minute, French President Francois Hollande decided to board the vessel and bid the crew farewell on this epic journey. We were bumped. Our dedicated guide tried to convince the ship’s staff that we were as important as Hollande — to no avail.
Mark Jensen, 57, is one of three lucky Americans who were chosen to be among the crew of 80. I spoke to him on the phone. ”It’s a dream come true for me….It’s very exciting. We are remaking history,” he said. Jensen, who has been working on ships since the age of 12, now has a sailboat in New York City which he charters. “I am looking forward to bringing back to life the story and friendship between Washington and Lafayette, their deep desire for the freedom of individuals,” he said.
While it was disappointing not to board the ship, it was thrilling to see the magnificent three-masted frigate, the French flag fluttering from its stern, anchored off shore the tiny island of Aix the evening before its departure. Trying for a closer view, all sizes and types of smaller craft surrounded the proud and regal vessel as if paying honor to royalty. On shore a TV crew set up amidst lots of admirers with cameras. Dismal skies did not dampen the excitement.
The original Hermione was equipped with dozens of cannons and could cross the Atlantic in two months. A small group of French enthusiasts spent two decades planning and fundraising for its replica. Construction started in the dry dock at Rochefort in 1997 and dragged on for 15 years due to costs. Money had to be raised while construction was underway. The end product: an almost perfect replica with complicated rigging, multiple sails, impressive paintwork on the hull and numerous other genuine details.
Of course, it’s not an exact replica. “I would say that we have achieved an unprecedented level of authenticity, but we still had to conform to modern health and safety legislation and there are fixed requirements for vessels wanting permission to sail across the Atlantic,” the ship’s captain, Yann Cariou, told a reporter for the newspaper, Connexion. For example, the cannons are
lightweight and non-functional. The rigging is made of traditional hemp, but the sails are synthetic which makes them stronger and easier to handle. Steel has replaced rope for the anchor cable.
On that legendary voyage in 1780, the Hermione had a crew of between 200 and 240. It took 70 sailors just to raise the anchor. Lafayette was content. “She sails like a bird,” he said.
Fifty-six members of the current crew of 80 are volunteers, with one third being women. All had to achieve fitness levels required to climb the rigging and manage the sails in all weather conditions.
A visit to Rochefort’s Royal Rope Factory (Corderie Royale) is a perfect introduction to the world of ancient warships. After demonstrating hemp twisting, guide Olivier sets a machine in motion that takes the twisted twines and makes a fatter cord. Young members of the audience get a chance to help out with the braiding machine. Nearby his colleague Nicolas shows off his knot tying skills. There are some 3,854 different types of knots, he says. He has mastered 100.
Jean-Baptiste Colbert, prime minister and adviser to King Louis XIV, chose Rochefort in 1666 as the ideal place to build a shipyard and establish and maintain a navy. The arsenal, which includes the Corderie, grew through the centuries with the addition of other workshops, warehouses, forges and more. Before it was closed in 1927, some 550 warships were constructed at the arsenal. The Corderie, 374 meters in length and the longest factory in Europe, was purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of rope needed for the rigging of sailing vessels. Its length enabled it to produce rigging for the length of the frigate’s anchor cable. Because it was constructed during the same time as the Palace of Versailles, it is called “Versailles of the Sea.”
You can track the Hermione’s progress with a series of videos and webinars at Facebook.com/hermione.voyage and at the official site, hermione2015.com
France’s mid-Atlantic region which includes Rochefort offers numerous other attractions and a wealth of outdoor activities. Bicycle around its offshore islands or through “Green Venice” (Marais Poitevin). Taste and learn about Cognac. Explore other towns such as La Rochelle and Poitiers. Enjoy miles of beaches.
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See below for Hermione’s schedule of US visits.
Yorktown, Va., June 5 – 7
Mount Vernon, Va., June 9
Alexandria, Va., June 10, 11
Annapolis, Md., June 15 – 17
Baltimore, Md., June 19 – 20
Fort Mifflin, Pa., June 25
Philadelphia, Pa., June 26 – 28
New York City, July 2 – 4
Greenport, NY, July 6, 7
Newport, RI, July 8, 9
Boston, Mass., July 11, 12
Castine, Ma., July 14, 15
The ship will be back in Rochefort on August 16.