June 1, 2015
Jean-Louis Frot, Former Mayor of Rochefort Credit :Courtesy of http://www.lanouvellerepublique.fr
Benedict Donnelly President, Association Hermione-La Fayette Credits :Courtesy of Association Hermione-La Fayette
Erik Orsenna, a distinguished writer and member of the Academie Français Credits :Courtesy of Association Hermione-La Fayette
Bernard Grasset,Former Mayor of Rochefort Credits :Courtesy of http://www.sudouest.fr
Hervé Blanché, Mayor of Rochefort. Credits Courtesy of http://www.charentelibre.fr
Maryse Vital, CEO, Association Hermione-La Fayette. Credits Courtesy of http://www.lanouvellerepublique.fr
On the eve of the Hermione’s arrival in Yorktown, Virginia on June 5, a short history of the critical role played by the Association Hermione-La Fayette—the founding organization behind the Hermione, the ship’s owner and the group responsible for the crew and for bringing her safely to the U.S. and back—is worth recalling for all the American followers of the Frigate of Freedom.
It Begins In Rochefort With Rope
The impulse behind the formation of this Association had its origins in a drive to leverage the city’s traditions and, thereby, the economy of Rochefort. Located on the Charente River, 12 miles upstream from the Atlantic, from the late 17th century until the mid-19th century Rochefort thrived as few ports as a critical base for the French Navy in the age of sail. Each vessel depended on miles and miles of cords, rigging, lines, twines, and cables of all kinds to tie, knot, thread, hang, rise and lower a ship’s numerous sails.
Rochefort was home to the world’s most impressive rope factory in this age of sail. Like Rochefort itself, the Corderie Royale de Rochefort—or the Royal Rope Factory—was constructed in the 1680’s, at the direction of King Louis XIV France, by his chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert.
The new town soon became France’s seafaring launching pad, whose thousands of craftsmen could build scores of battleships and frigates in record time. It was all carried out to challenge the naval supremacy of France’s arch maritime rival: Great Britain and her Royal Navy. Indeed, one writer has likened 17th- and 18th-century Rochefort to the 20th century Kennedy Space Center, in terms of assessing the former’s national security importance to the French realm and its imperial ambitions.
But as new technologies transformed sea-based commerce globally, Rochefort’s fortunes sunk into steady decline, leading eventually to a final closure of its shipyards in 1926. And, by the 1980s, the town was, frankly, economically depressed.
So to go forward, Rochefort, paradoxically, reached back to its earliest roots.
How A Knot Led To A ‘Cur Non’
Fast forward some sixty years later, Jean-Louis Frot, the then Mayor of Rochefort and a true visionary, kicked off an ambitious campaign to restore the city’s historic ship-building district and transform the Corderie Royale into a world-class museum.
Yet, a central element in this ambitious campaign was missing, a ship.
Not just any ship, but a vessel destined to reflect the glory of Rochefort and its role in world history. One frigate stood out from all the other ships ever built here: the Hermione. It was she who carried La Fayette to Boston in 1780 with news that France would support the American rebels in their fight for independence.
Begun in 1992, the Association Hermione-La Fayette was and remains in charge of the entire project. Frot was joined by Erik Orsenna, a distinguished writer and member of the Academie Française, and Benedict Donnelly, a Frenchman with an American father and who appreciates Lafayette’s legacy and the nautical importance of building an authentic, tall-ship replica of the original. Donnelly has been a driving force behind the project, through difficult at times, and good times, for twenty-five years.
Donnelly, who has served as the Association’s President since 1994, is proud of the fact that artisan craftsmen from France, Britain, Germany, Spain and Sweden have participated in her construction. Pointing to the fact that the Association now comprises some 8,000 members and counting, Donnelly observed: “There is real pride in the collective force behind this project. There have been tense moments, but we remained united.”
Indeed, it was daring challenge, mammoth in scope and collective in spirit. Mayor Frot and the city of Rochefort supported the project enthusiastically from its inception; so too did its next Mayor, Bernard Grasset, as well as Hervé Blanché, its current Mayor.
Joining Frot, Donnelly and Orsenna in this bold gamble, the Association secured not only the backing of the City of Rochefort, the Charente-Maritime department (in which Rochefort is located), and the Poitou-Charentes regional governmental authorities, but also Ségolène Royal, today French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy and former president of the Poitou-Charentes Regional Council.
What Is The Role of the Association Hermione-La Fayette?
As both Hermione’s owner and project manager, the Association has overseen every aspect of her reconstruction. It has dealt with multiple companies involved, expert nautical historians, and a host of artisans, woodworkers, sail makers, and Hermione’s crew, just to name a few of the actors participating in this complex undertaking.
In a phrase, the Hermione became a such a large public attraction, it soon resembled the “if you build it, they will come” phenomenon—one vividly depicted in the 1989 release of Field of Dreams movie—and one brilliantly executed á la Rochefort!
Maryse Vital, CEO of the Association, said: “With 250,000 visitors a year, the Hermione is the third most visited site in Charente-Maritime and fourth in the Poitou-Charentes Region.”
Of her immense contribution to the Association Hermione-La Fayette over the years, Benedict Donnelly paid tribute to Maryse Vital in Sud Ouest, a leading newspaper in the region, noting, “ She is the soul of our project”
As such the Association quickly evolved into a sophisticated, efficiently run business.
With more than 4.5 million French and tourists visiting since the keel was first laid, the overall budget is estimated at 25 million Euros over 17 years. Revenue from these ticket sales accounted for more than 60% of total funds raised, according to the Association. The balance of funds has been sourced from civic, department, regional and national government entities.
On the construction aspect alone, a score of more than 50 regional businesses became important contributors to the Association’s efforts, notably: Alexandre Genoud Bateaux Bois, Arkway, Asselin, Inc., Atelier Blu, Atelier Fer de Terre, Ateliers mécaniques des Pertuis, Atelier voilerie Anne Renault, Cardinaud, Chantier nautique du Vieux Port, Chantier naval des Minimes, Chaussat – restauration de meubles anciens, Chaudronnerie Générale Surgérienne (CGS), Centre de Recherche pour l’Architecture et l’Industrie Nautiques (CRAIN), Drugeon Jean-Michel, Erco, Imagibois, Joyet Pierre & Fils, Métalnéo, Ndc Foundry, Atelier Frederic Nobili, Pochon Pro, Safem, Soromap, Les forges de l’Arsenal, Voilerie Incidences, Voilerie Klein et Yacht Concept.
It should be further noted that Asselin Inc. served as the main builder of the hull from 1997 up to 2014. Thanks to the personal involvement of its CEO François Asselin— and who the Association considers its true partner—it was his team that rebuilt the Hermione based on plans of an 18th century frigate. She is, by all accounts, remarkably seaworthy.
Also notable is the fact that the Association reached out successfully to six professional high schools and several apprentice centers in the Poitou-Charentes region. This resulted in not only on-the-job training at the Rochefort dry-dock, where the Hermione was being built, but also off-site work including the creation of historic replicas such as the ship’s desks, trunks and cupboards made by an impressive list of regional school apprentices.
The Association is likewise responsible for the Hermione’s Captain Yann Cariou and his crew. The crew consists of 15 professional sailors and 155 volunteers (one-third are women!). Out of the qualified volunteers, each was handpicked from the 900 requests the Association received. All were all chosen on the basis of their stamina; their average age is 27. Most of her crew do not come from a maritime background and had never set foot on such a ship as the Hermione. They had to learn by heart all the old sailing terms, the key maneuvering expressions, get to know the ship’s 280 points of running-rigging, the procedures for setting sail, and many other demanding tasks.
Who’s Who at the Association Hermione–La Fayette?
The Association’s boasts a distinguished Board of Directors, and are arrayed in several complementary working Committees.
Representing Civic and Regional bodies within the Association’s Regional Officials Committee are Vice President Hervé Blanché, Mayor of Rochefort; Vice President Marie-Laure Tissandier, Representative of the Poitou-Charentes Council; and Vice President Stéphane Villain, Representative of the General Council of Poitou-Charentes.
Serving on the Founding Members Committee are: Founding President Erik Orsenna; Henri Bourdereau, retired Captain; and Bruno Coussy, architect. As noted previously, Benedict Donnelly is President and Director of Communications and leads this Committee and the Association. Also serving on this Committee are Vice President Jean-François Fountaine, founder of Fountaine Pajot and now Mayor of La Rochelle; Jean-Louis Frot; and Vice President Françoise Jouanneau, former elected member of Rochefort and a hugely enthusiastic and vigorous advocate and personal champion of the project throughout.
On the Committee of Experts (Collège des Membres Agréés), there are Alain Bourdeaux, a lawyer; Paul Le Bihan, an executive with Autonomy Capital; Emmanuel de Fontainieu, is Secretary of the Association and Director of International Center of the Sea and the Corderie Royale and the author of Editions de Monza’s wonderful book on the project; Jacques Delpech, a retired banker, is Assistant Treasurer; and in the Treasury group there are: Olivier Pagezy, a financial director; Paul Le Bihan, Bank CEO, in charge of navigation and maritime issues; Claude François, a business director; Francis Latreille, a professional photographer; Sabine Renault-Sablonière, the group’s Communications Director and a descendant of Lafayette; Pierre Gras, a retired executive; Bruno Gravellier former US cultural attaché at the U.S. consulate in Bordeaux, now Superintendent on board the ship; Dominique Chatenet, retired chief policeman; Guy Gautreau, retired college Headmaster; and Evelyne Guérard, a retired business executive.
And since Ms. Royal became Minister, she has brought her support to the project by creating the National Hermione-La Fayette/Hermione 2015 Committee, co-chaired with Jean-Yves le Drian, French minister of Defense. The aim of the committee is to gather French and American institutions to help the project.
Isabelle Georget, is Chief of Marketing and Public Relations for the Association and has been the main day-to-day liaison with the team of the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, Inc.
Last, but not least, the Association’s Rochefort team includes eight employees—
including Mme. Lecossois and M. Godderidge—who conduct the daily management of the Association, of which 4 full-time people are in charge of coordination, administrative and financial follow-up, management of the memberships, communication, press relations, public relations, relations with the partners, and management of the gift shop.
A Project Animated by the ‘Cur Non’ Spirit of Lafayette
As the Association Hermione-La Fayette states on its website:
“So that freedom lives,
men will always have to stand up and fight against indifference or resignation.”
As the Association describes its earliest motivations to undertake this complex project—rebuilding Rochefort, rebuilding its most famous ship the Hermione— its Founders write: “La Fayette was one of them, and remains a symbol to this day. Rebuilding the Hermione – the frigate he took to go to America – is a way of paying an authentic homage to La Fayette and keep the memory of a great adventure of solidarity between people.”
The Association continues its amazing account of its formation and vision as stated on its website: “Rebuilding the Hermione means reconstituting of an element of our maritime heritage. It’s the opening of a big construction site contributing to the economy and culture of a whole region.
“Rochefort, a new town of the 17th century, was born thanks to Colbert’s decision to develop a new Royal arsenal on the banks of the Charente in order to construct, arm, supply and repair a war fleet able to resist enemies’ assaults.
“The rebuilding of an 18th century ship is integrated in the development of a new identity, with a view to providing France with a testimony of its naval past as well as with a symbol of Franco-American fraternity through a ship whose name is related to that of a man, La Fayette, a symbol of the support brought by the French to the insurgents in America.”
For more information about the Association Hermione-La Fayette, please visit:
To follow the stages of Hermione’s voyage, please visit: Click here