Contribute something productive you reprobate!!

The leading English language magazine. Now covering Poitou-Charentes, Dordogne, Vendée and Haute-Vienne too!

Living magazine distribution map

Sail of the century - Lafayette's frigate Hermione

Sail of the century - Lafayette's frigate Hermione

Rochefort’s newly completed replica of an 18th century frigate is preparing for sea trials before re-enacting an historic voyage which forged a link between France and the United States of America.


No-one builds ships like this anymore – or at least they didn't, until someone came up with an audacious plan to recreate one of the 550 or so warships constructed for the French navy during the 300-year Âge d'Or of Europe's largest military port. Elsewhere the idea might have been a non-starter but here it seemed to make perfect sense, not least since it would help to address the sad fact that while others had made a point of preserving some of the fighting ships from their glorious naval heritage, France had somehow let them slip from her grasp. However, what really fired everyone's imagination was the choice of vessel at the heart of the project.

On 28 April 1779 a frigate named Hermione was launched from the banks of the Charente. Aided by convict labourers, and with all necessary materials to hand, Rochefort's skilled shipbuilders had taken just six months to construct her. To put that into perspective, building an authentic full-sized replica almost 200 years later has taken 17 years. In that time almost 4 million visitors have come to gaze in awe at the heroic scale of the construction taking place beneath a giant canopy spanning the same historic dry dock as her famous ancestor. On 6 July 2012, however, the giant hull was launched into the Charente and carefully manoeuvred into her present mooring beside the dry dock, an historic event witnessed by around 65,000 spectators. Since then the huge masts have been installed and the complex rigging completed, something which required 25km of hemp ropes and more than 1,000 pulleys. Next came equally authentic linen sails, with rope reinforcements and hand-stitched eyelets to allow rope lines to pass freely without snagging.


Since then the pace of on-board activity has been building steadily, as fittings like cabins, furniture, pumps, winches, etc., are put in place, along with the ship's three traditional boats: a dinghy, a longboat and a sailing sloop. Gun carriages were built ready to receive iron cannon barrels cast at the historic foundry of Ruelle, near Angoulême, and transported down the Charente river in time-honoured style by barge. Final touches now centre on installing the vessel's few 21st century essentials – things like communications and hygiene equipment, kitchens, fire safety systems and, oh yes, engines. Not that life aboard will exactly be soft for Commandant Yann Cariou, (formerly of the historic French training ship Belem) and the 69 crew members, 15 of whom will be professional sailors, while the rest are volunteers trained to work in relay teams. Everyone has to achieve the fitness levels necessary to allow them to climb the rigging and manage the sails in all weather conditions and sea states – then sleep it off in a classic sailor's hammock. Perhaps more
trying, though, is the lack of below-decks headroom, which gets worse the lower you descend in the hull.


Soon sea trials will begin off the coast between Bordeaux and Nantes, by way of preparation for the long-awaited transatlantic voyage scheduled for spring 2015. Hermione will retrace the route sailed in 1780, visiting the sites of some of the historic actions in which her ancestor played a decisive role in the struggle for American independence: Yorktown, Washington, Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and Halifax (Nova Scotia). At each stop public events will celebrate the bonds of friendship which for over two centuries have united France and the United States.

After the epic voyage the frigate will divide her time between voyages and long periods moored in her home port of Rochefort, where she will continue to welcome visitors. But why wait? You can visit Hermione right now, and share in the sense of anticipation which surrounds her final pre-voyage preparations.


Rochefort, Hermione and Lafayette: a shared destiny

Rochefort-Hermione-La Fayette-FranceAmong the many casualties of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) was the father of one Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, better known today as the Marquis de Lafayette. Another was the international prestige (along with numerous colonies including Canada) of France itself, thanks in no small part to the supremacy of the British navy. The French monarchy responded to this affront with an aggressive campaign of shipbuilding which soon found Rochefort's dockyard operating at full capacity. Hermione, designed by Naval architect Pierre Chevillard, was one of four identical frigates which with three masts and one gun-deck were faster and more manoeuvrable than larger, more heavily-armed vessels.

For both France and Lafayette the opportunity for revenge was set in train on the 4 July 1776, when the thirteen British colonies in North America declared independence. The ensuing War of Independence plunged the American colonies into conflict with the Empire, a cause which gained the support of Louis XVI. On 10 March 1780, Lafayette, an ardent supporter of American independence, boarded the frigate Hermione to sail across the Atlantic and declare officially his nation's material support for the American insurgents. Commanding the Hermione was the young lieutenant Louis René Magdeleine Le Vassor de La Touche.

After several victorious battles against English privateers, the frigate returned to Rochefort for her hull to be sheathed in copper, which improved her speed by preventing the build-up of marine algae. In March 1780 she sailed for Boston with Lafayette aboard, this time to carry out missions off the American coast, including attacking merchant convoys, escort duties and conveying intelligence. In May 1781 members of the U.S. Congress at Philadelphia boarded her, and after decisive victories at Chesapeake and Yorktown the frigate returned to France in February 1782. Her next voyage would take her to India. On 20 September 1793, after some fourteen years of eventful service, Hermione suffered the ignominious fate of running aground on rocks and being wrecked (while under the direction of a coastal pilot) off Le Croisic, near Saint-Nazaire.

By Royal order: a purpose-built port

Rochefort-Hermione-La FayetteThe dockyard known as l'Arsenal de Rochefort was built by order of Louis XIV, after his Naval Secretary Jean-Baptiste Colbert had alerted the Sun King to the vulnerability of the Atlantic coast to sea-borne attack. The site seemed perfect, with the dual advantages of being located securely some 12 nautical miles (22kms) from the sea, with the added protection of existing fortifications on nearby promontories and offshore islands like the Île d'Aix, Île Madame and the much larger Île d'Oléron. Prior to 1664 Rochefort was also virtually undeveloped apart from the early 17th century Hôtel de Cheusses, which became the Naval Commandant's residence upon the construction of the Arsenal. Today the elegant building houses the Musée National de la Marine, an essential visit, since it reveals in detail the fascinating story of Rochefort's development, along with that of the complex network of coastal defences (including the celebrated Fort Boyard). Also on display are many of the large, beautifully made scale models which served as naval architects' prototypes for vessels subsequently constructed in the dockyard. Bringing it all to life are interactive displays and free audio guides (with an excellent English narrative), which add a human dimension to the history of the town and its illustrious naval presence. Finally, the upper floor windows will give you a privileged view of l'Hermione, now in all her fully rigged glory.

A short distance further along the banks of the Charente lies another of the dockyard's key features, in the shape of the Corderie royale, purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of ropes needed for the rigging of sailing vessels. The unique 373m-long building was begun in March 1666 to plans drawn up by François Blondel, and has been beautifully restored in recent years. Inside you'll find the Centre International de la Mer, with permanent displays of rope making skills and temporary maritime themed exhibitions, plus a maritime bookshop. Rochefort also preserves another potent symbol of her former naval importance – the Ecole de Médecine Navale, established in 1722 and now a remarkable museum, whose lovingly preserved collections and scientific libraries document a pioneering teaching academy for naval surgeons.

Find out more

Open daily until 5 Sept, 10am-7pm; 11 Nov-31 Dec, 10am-12.30pm & 2-6pm

Unreserved Site Visits: 9€; 6-15yrs 5€; Family (2 adult + 2 child) 23€

Guided Site + Hermione Visits: 16€; 6-15yrs 6€

Nocturnal Lantern Visits: 20€; 6-15yrs 7€

Association site:

US site:


Words Roger Moss

© All rights reserved. First published in Living Magazine, August 2014