In an old French river port, a replica of the frigate Hermione comes together
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 seafaring Frenchmen to honor a founding father of Franco-American friendship.
For a decade now, historians, architects, carpenters, boat builders, craftsmen, and blacksmiths have lovingly -- if slowly -- sought to re-create the Hermione, the 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 had already made his reputation, fighting for the cause of American liberty alongside General George Washington against the British. The mission this time was to bring word that King Louis XVI would send a half-dozen ships and 5,000 infantry soldiers to help the rebels.
The lean warship, known for its speed, 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.
It took six months and more than a thousand workers to build. Today, with an average of a dozen workers on site, it will take at least four more years to complete the replica, which the organizers promise to sail on Lafayette's route, perhaps with a joint French and American crew.
Until then, its curved oak frame sits impatiently in a cavernous 18th-century cobblestone dry dock.
A three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that will eventually have 400,000 pieces, it is Rochefort's top tourist attraction and the focus of an ambitious trans-Atlantic fund-raising campaign.
"Every little piece of wood is like a sculpture!" exclaimed Craig Roberts Stapleton, the American ambassador to France, donning a hard hat and descending into the cargo hold recently. He delivered remarks, in French, about his pride in the Hermione, which already flies the flags of 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. the 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, Pa., which is planning an entire year of festivities, has even arranged with Hermes 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, academic conferences, and a flood of publications. The mayors of 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 250 miles southwest of Paris, near the Bordeaux wine country, that 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 in 1992.
Benedict Donnelly, a public relations executive and recreational sailor whose American father had been a liaison officer for General George S. Patton during D-day, was named president of the organization they created: the Association Hermione La Fayette.
One challenge to the builders was that the French had no blueprints of the boat. The project's marine historian tracked down British-drawn plans for one of the three sister frigates of the Hermione in Greenwich, England. The plans were drawn after the British captured the frigate, the Concorde, in a battle in 1783.
Another dilemma has been the financing. The $22 million needed to build the boat has come from local and regional French governments, the European Union, private and corporate sponsors, and ticket and gift shop sales.
In the fall, the Association Hermione La Fayette will try to raise an additional $5.5 million in the United States to equip the boat with modern navigational equipment and to pay for the trip across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, for a few euros, visitors can get up close to the construction. They can watch workers massage the planks with oils and fill in crevices with black tar. They can learn how the crew took turns sleeping in narrow hammocks, how fresh meat was reserved for officers and ill crew members, and how the gunpowder and barrels of water and wine were stored.
At nearby sites, carpenters do a show-and-tell, in which they build accessories such as chicken coops and rowboats and carve pulleys out of elm; blacksmiths hand-forge bolts, hooks, and pins that will be used on the boat.
The process itself has created a new tourist industry.
"Hermione has brought life to Rochefort, and there's no reason why we have to finish it tomorrow morning," said Jean-Francois Fountaine, the head of a catamaran-building company and a world-class ocean racer. "But when the Hermione sails, we'll build another!"