The Hermione, a replica of the Revolutionary War-era French warship, may not date back to the 1700s, but you can't tell by looking at it.
The ship, whose 1779 original carried the Marquis de Lafayette, was greeted Friday morning by The Pride of Baltimore II, the city’s own historic ship reproduction. After exchanging welcome gun blasts and a few cheers at the Francis Scott Key Bridge, the two made their way to the Inner Harbor for a ceremony and the weekend’s festivities.
Built in Rochefort, France, The Hermione took 17 years to construct, weighs 1,260 tons and measures 185 feet high. The tallship was replicated from design plans of its sister ship, La Concorde, which were seized by the British in 1783 and preserved.
The only changes? The addition of mechanical engines, electronic equipment and winches for the anchors and, luckily for the 80-person crew, toilets and showers.
The Inner Harbor is the fifth stop for The Hermione — that’s pronounced “air-me-own,” not “er-my-knee,” like the “Harry Potter” character of the same name — on her tour of historic East Coast ports.
Lafayette, the French military leader who came to America on the original ship, L’Hermione, is known for delivering the good news to George Washington that France would send men and arms to aid efforts to defeat the British and achieve independence. He ultimately spent much of the war by Washington’s side.
If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Lafayette made quite an impression on Baltimore. Lafayette Avenue, Lafayette Square and Fayette Street are all named after the Marquis, and a statue of Lafayette on horseback is on display at Mount Vernon Place.
And it wasn’t just Baltimore that loved Lafayette. Diane Shaw, director of special collections and archivist at Lafayette College, said he is “America’s greatest friend.”
“He so strongly believed in what America stood for,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anybody else in history who looms as large, someone who did so much for America and who was such a supporter.”
A welcome ceremony followed The Hermione’s arrival on Friday, attended by officials from the French Naval Attache and U.S. Navy, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and the deputy mayor, among others.
“Both France and the U.S. have gone through difficult times, but both of us are also still leading voices around the world for liberty and freedom,” Cardin said, following the welcome ceremony. “A lot of that is thanks to Lafayette and the impact he had on both countries. He brought over a passion for liberty and a power through the protection of values.”
The crew sang sea shanties and dressed in period clothing, and others celebrated their arrival with a fife-and-drum band.
Crewmember Erwan Ciboulle, 20, of Marennes, France, said that when he first heard about The Hermione, he told his mother that he hoped to join the crew when she crossed the Atlantic. His mother brushed off the notion — “They’ll all be professionals,” Ciboulle recalled her saying.
A year ago, though, Ciboulle read that the Hermione was looking for 150 volunteer crewmembers, and he signed up. “It was my dream,” the physics and chemistry student said.
The only crewmember in permanent period clothing is Adam Hodges-LeClaire, also the sole American traveling with the Hermione.
Hodges-LeClaire, a University of Saint Andrews history student, specializes in late 18th century clothing and saw this as a perfect opportunity to “live history.”
“I have a whole sea bag full of 1780s maritime men’s clothes,” he said. “I’m really sucking the most out of the experience, going deeper into history in a practical way.”
The ship is massive, dwarfing Baltimore’s Pride II and even making the U.S.S. Constellation look short. It’s almost a “David and Goliath situation,” said Laura Rodini, marketing director for The Pride of Baltimore II.
“We didn’t let the size scare us,” she said. “We’d be remiss if we were docked on Clinton Street and the French fleet was invading town. We knew we had to get out and show them who we are.”
Sail Baltimore, the nonprofit responsible for organizing the Baltimore leg of Hermione’s visit, made sure it would include free educational tours, a perk unique to the Baltimore stop, said board member Elizabeth Weglein. The organization emphasizes connecting ships with heritage and history.
It’s history that attracted North Carolina residents Cass and Shirley Moore.
“I’m aware of the history of this ship, of Lafayette coming to aid Washington,” Shirley, 85, said. “It’s amazing to see it in person and really witness that history in front of you.”
Plus, her son Cass, 64, added: “Seeing a working tallship up close and personal is pretty spectacular.”
Friday afternoon, the line to tour the ship wrapped around the pier and along the harbor, as visitors waited for their chance to witness what Philip Niedermair, Maryland chairman for Friends of Hermione, called “the ship of liberty.”
“This ship is a symbol of the friendship between two great nations,” Niedermair said. “It is a symbol of what the Marquis de Lafayette stood for ... the belief and commitment to liberty as a cause.”