When the Marquis de Lafayette first crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a mission to help out the American colonists with their revolt against their British rulers, his reasoning was simple: Why not?
Lafayette’s motto, in French, ‘cur non’, must have been on the minds of the French history buffs who worked together to build a replica of Lafayette’s ship, l’Hermione, and sail it to the new world, where it will make port in Greenport next Monday, July 6.
The frigate left Aix, France on April 18 and first made landfall in American in Yorktown, Virginia last month. The original Hermione had taken part in the decisive naval blockade of Yorktown, not far from Colonial Williamsburg, in 1781. That battle lead to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his army.
The ship has been making its way up the Eastern Seaboard ever since.
They’ll be in New York City next week in time to visit the most famous French gift to the young America, the Statue of Liberty, for a parade of vessels on the Fourth of July, before heading out for a visit to Greenport as part of the Tall Ships celebration.
Why Greenport, you may ask? Why not?
Hermione was involved in a famous battle off the coast of Long Island, against a ship that has been once owned by the colonists but was captured by the Britis and renamed the HMS Iris, which spent its time in the Atlantic defending the supply routes from Britain.
On June 7, 1780, after dropping Lafayette off in Boston, Hermione was met in battle by the Iris 15 miles off the southeast coast of Long Island, in what would become one of the most celebrated single ship slugging matches in naval history.
Over the course of an hour and a half, the two ships exchanged full broadside attacks twice, with Hermione unleashing 260 cannon shots. Eventually, the Iris veered away, leaving Hermione’s captain, Louis-René Latouche, with a musket wound, 10 men killed and 37 injured. The Iris claimed 7 killed and 9 wounded.
Both sides claimed victory in a famous exchange after the attack.
Captain James Hawker of the Iris said “the French frigate made sail from us, with all the speed she could make,” while Captain Latouche responded in a letter to Captain Hawker that “If you had lost fewer men and your ship was less damaged, what reason had you not to continue the action?”
East End Seaport Museum volunteers spent this spring putting together a fascinating exhibit on the history of Hermione, timed to coincide with their visit to Greenport next Monday, July 6.
Museum board member Lynn Summers, who grew up in Philadelphia, grew up hearing stories of how Lafayette regaled the Continental Congress with parties aboard Hermione during the American Revolution. She’s been in touch with the French crew that built the replica and is sailing it here.
“Lafayette was a very charismatic and enthusiastic person,” she said at the opening of the exhibit in early June. “He gave up much wealth to help fight the American Revolution. I think Greenport should adopt his family motto ‘cur non.’ It means ‘why not?’ It’s almost like the Nike motto.”
This joint French-American project has been in the works for 20 years, when a small group in France, the French Association of Hermione-La Fayette, began putting together the funding to build what they call “the largest and most authentically built Tall Ship in the last 150 years” in Rochefort, France.
Construction on the oak ship began in 1997, drawing from line drawings of the original Hermione’s sister ship, La Concorde, which was captured by the British. The plans had been stored in the British Admiralty. The final planking of the hull was completed in 2011, after which the ship’s sails were sewn and its mast was installed in time for field trials to begin in 2014.
Dr. Henry Kissinger serves as the honorary chairman of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, whose board members include many former American ambassadors to France, who have helped to bring it here.
In all, more than 3 million people in France and the United States contributed financially to the project.
In all, the boat is made up of more than 40,000 board-feet of oak, more than 7,000-board feet of conifer, more than 77,400 pounds of iron, more than 7,700 pounds of lead, more than 6,600 pounds of oakum, more than 33,000 pounds of hemp, 1,000 pulleys and 35,82 square feet of sail.
It has three masts, draws 16 feet and four inches and weighs 1,260 tons. Its overall length is 153 feet, it has 26 guns on the gun deck and 8 on the upper deck and displaces 1,166 tons of water.
Its hearty crew numbers up to 242 sailors, though just 84 crew took her across the big pond, in remembrance of the Marquis de Lafayette’s journey.
“From the first moment I heard the name of America, I loved it; from the instant I knew it struggled for freedom, I was consumed with the desire to shed my blood for her I will count the days I got the chance to serve it, everywhere and anytime, among the happiest days of my life.” — Lafayette
In January 1779, the Marquis of Lafayette, a French gentleman of just 21 years of age, came back from America where he had volunteered to serve the American cause, and tried his best to obtain the official support of France.
He convinced King Louis XVI to offer military and financial assistance to the troops of General George Washington, and on March 21, 1780, Lafayette, then a major general, boarded the Hermione to come back to fight alongside the American insurgents who were struggling for their independence.
Hermione is expected to make landfall in Greenport between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. on July 6, followed by a welcome ceremony in Mitchell Park at 10 a.m., when an interactive tent filled with historical demonstrations lead by Hermione’s crew will also open.
The ship will be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on both July 6 and 7. Gene Casey & The Lone Sharks will perform in the park from 1:30 to 3 p.m. July 6, while “Porch Groove” performs on the Second Stage at the same time.
Greenport’s Tall Ships event begins on July 3, with a captain’s reception at Brecknock Hall, followed by two days of live music and tours of five other ships in town for the holiday weekend.The Greenport Fire Department’s annual Fourth of July carnival will also be held on July 4 & 5. The full schedule for the four-day sequence of events is online here.