French town rebuilds frigate of U.S. revolutionary war hero
By Elaine Sciolino Published: July 31, 2007
ROCHEFORT, France: Piece by piece, a graceful structure of whimsy and magic is taking shape in this old river port, fulfilling the dream of a group of sea-faring Frenchmen to pay tribute to a founding father of French-American friendship.
For a decade now, historians, carpenters, boat builders, craftsmen and blacksmiths have lovingly - if slowly - sought to recreate the Hermione, the 44-meter, or 145-foot, 32-gun, three-masted frigate that in 1780 carried a young French nobleman known as the Marquis de Lafayette on a 38-day voyage to Boston.
Lafayette already had made his reputation two years before, fighting for the cause of American liberty alongside General George Washington against the British. The mission this time was to inform the general that King Louis XVI would send half a dozen ships and 5,000 infantry soldiers to help the rebels.
The lean warship known for its speed later moved on to take part in the final battles of Chesapeake Bay and the decisive fall of Yorktown in 1781. Two years later, it met an inglorious demise, crashing on a sandbar and sinking off the coast of Brittany.
Back then, it had taken six months and more than a thousand workers to build the original. Today, with only an average of a dozen workers on the site, it will take at least four more years to complete the replica. When the new Hermione is finished, the organizers promise to sail it across the Atlantic on Lafayette's route, perhaps with a joint French and American naval crew.
Until then, its curved oak frame sits impatiently in a cavernous 18th century cobblestone dry dock under a roof of metal and ivory-colored tarp. A three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that will eventually have 400,000 pieces, it is both Rochefort's top tourist attraction and the focus of an ambitious fund-raising campaign that bridges the Atlantic.
"This boat is fantastic!" exclaimed Craig Stapleton, the American ambassador to France and an unabashed Hermione booster, donning a hard hat and descending into its cargo hold last Friday. "Every little piece of wood is like sculpture."
He even delivered remarks - in respectable French - about his pride in the Hermione, which already flies the flags of both France and the United States.
Now is a good time to gin up support for the Hermione. Sept. 6 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (a k a Marquis de Lafayette).
The event will be celebrated in the United States, where schools, bridges, streets, squares, cities and towns have been named after the revolutionary war hero. Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, which is planning an entire year of Lafayette celebrations, has even arranged with Hermès to produce a Lafayette commemorative silk scarf that will be sold exclusively in the United States for $325.
The French will follow with their own celebrations in December, including a dinner-debate hosted by France's defense minister, meetings of French and American businessmen on how to foster more bilateral trade, academic conferences and a flood of publications on his life. The mayors of the 30 American cities and towns named after Lafayette and members of Congress have been invited.
But it is in Rochefort, a town of 27,000 people 400 kilometers, or 250 miles, southwest of Paris, that the Lafayette fever - and the stakes - run highest.
The depressed river port was once the thriving center of France's naval shipbuilding industry, but never recovered economically from the closing of the navy arsenal in the 1920s.
Determined to revive the town, a handful of local figures and sailing enthusiasts came up with the Hermione II idea over a wine-filled dinner on the site one night in 1992.
Benedict Donnelly, a public relations executive and recreational sailor whose American father had been a liaison officer for General George Patton during D-Day, was named president of the organization they created: the Association Hermione-La Fayette.
"I woke up the next day and said, 'What folly!' " Donnelly said. "But the Hermione had been a beautiful boat, a work of art, really, and we all love Lafayette. We had no choice but to move ahead."
Initially, the organizers predicted it would be seaworthy by 2007. Now 2011 is projected as the most optimistic launch date.
One challenge was that the French had no blueprints of the boat. The project's marine historian eventually tracked down precise British-drawn plans for one of the three sister frigates of the Hermione in a naval library in Greenwich, England. The plans were drawn after the British captured the frigate, the Concorde, in a battle in 1783.