In March 1780, “la frégate L'Hermione” set out from Rochefort bound for Boston. Its speed and agility suited it ideally to the task of carrying Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, back to America. He was charged with giving George Washington the nation-saving news that France would soon be sending an infusion of arms, ships and men.
Many people had waited a long time for this moment. The French spent 17 years and $28 million replicating the Hermione down to the last detail, from its gilded-lion figurehead to the fleur-de-lis painted on its stern. When the original Hermione was built in 1779, it was the pride of a newly re-energized French Navy: a 216-foot, 32-gun barracuda that could take a real bite out of the arrogant English, who not only ruled the waves but concocted an in-your-face anthem about it—“Rule, Britannia!”—in 1740.
With a sleek, copper-bottomed hull, the Hermione could out-sail almost any ship it couldn’t out-shoot. Even the English recognized the Hermione’s excellence when they captured its sister ship, the Concorde. They promptly reverse-engineered their prize, drawing detailed schematics to help recreate the vessel for their own fleet. (Smithsonian)
“She sails like a bird!” This is what Lafayette wrote of his voyage on L'Hermione. The recreated ship will arrive for an American visit this Summer and I am damned excited about it. She will make port calls from Yorktown, Virginia to Castine, Maine with stops at Mount Vernon and Alexandria in June. I will be there. Yes, in a bow to modern maritime requirements, she has two 400 horsepower engine pods, but I will be there to gaze at the linen sails, the tarred hemp standing rigging, the manila lines and the voluptuous oak hull.
I worked in a waterfront office in Alexandria for several years. Each year several tall ships would dock a short walk from my office. I would spend as much time as I could at the dock. These ships fascinate me and fill me with awe and wonder. I visited them wherever I could from Hamburg, Germany to San Francisco. I was aboard the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan in Mystic Seaport as a child. At that time the whaler was “dry-docked” on rocks next to the wharf. I remember laying in one of the small uncomfortable bunks and dreaming about “Two Years Before the Mast” and “Moby Dick.” Happily, she too has been restored and sails once again.
I can hardly wait to see “la frégate L'Hermione” on the Potomac. I only hope that the winds are favorable and the captain bold enough to sail up the river.