A life-size replica of the Hermione, the French navy frigate made famous when it carried General Lafayette to Boston to help fight in the American War of Independence, embarks on its maiden voyage Sunday, more than 200 years after the original one.
Thousands of spectators lined the port of Rochefort on France’s west coast, where both the original and the replica were built, to watch the reproduced vessel set off on several weeks of sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean.
The moment has been a long time coming – a group of restoration enthusiasts first embarked on the arduous task of recreating the three-masted vessel, using only eighteenth-century shipbuilding techniques, back in 1997.
They were forced to wait a little longer for the new Hermione to take to the seas after the launch, originally planned for Saturday, was delayed due to a build-up of sediment at the port.
But at 4:45 a.m. local time (2:45 GMT) on Sunday morning, the 65-meter (210 feet) ship was finally able to leave its dry dock and be towed to port, from where it was scheduled to begin its maiden voyage late Sunday afternoon.
"It is an important step to sail Hermione at sea, which no one has ever done," said Benedict Donnelly, president of the Hermione-Lafayette Association – the organisation behind the replica’s construction.
Since its foundation 17 years ago, the group has attracted artisan craftsmen from France, Britain, Germany, Spain and Sweden and now comprises some 8,000 members.
"There is real pride in the collective force behind this project. There have been tense moments, but we remained united," Donnelly said.
The project cost 25 million euros ($32 million), financed by more than four million visitors to the shipyard as well as through crowd-funding initiatives for specific parts of the ship.
‘Nobody has navigated a ship like this for two centuries’
Once the sea trials are over, the ship will set sail for the United States in April 2015, following the route from Rochefort to Boston made by French General Gilbert du Motier – the Marquis de Lafayette – aboard the original Hermione in 1780 to bolster American revolutionaries in their fight against British troops.
Yann Cariou, the ex-naval officer who will captain the frigate for its voyage to Boston, said the next weeks of testing would give the 72-strong crew a chance to "get their sea legs".
"Above all there will be emotion. It's still the Hermione and nobody has navigated a ship like this for two centuries," Cariou said.
It took Lafayette 38 days to cross the Atlantic in 1780, a voyage that confirmed his renown as a military mastermind and a hero of the American Revolution.
The Hermione then fought in several battles against the Royal Navy in the Americas before returning home to Rochefort in 1997.
Her service came to an end in 1793 when she ran aground off French coast and subsequently wrecked by heavy seas.