ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
All across America, there are scores of towns, streets and parks named Lafayette. They recall the Marquis de Lafayette, a French general who came here in 1780 to help George Washington in the struggle for independence. Today, a replica of General Lafayette's tall ship is retracing his voyage across the Atlantic. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley took a tour just before it set sail.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We make our way in a speed boat out to the magnificent, tall ship anchored in the waters off the coast of western France. As we approach the Hermione, its towering masts and 18th-century rigging set it apart from any other boat out here. I climb a dangling rope ladder to board the ship.
I'm standing on a wooden deck that's just been swabbed. There are cannons, and the sails are so massive. There's just hundreds of ropes. I've just gone back two centuries.
It took 17 years to raise 26 million euros to build the Hermione. The vessel was constructed using 18th-century shipbuilding methods and materials. Two-thousand oak trees were harvested for its massive hull. Hundreds of ropes made of hemp and manila and waterproofed with tar lead up to the ship's three masts, which stand 47 yards tall. That's nearly half a football field. Pennsylvanian Woodrow Wiest helped rig the Hermione.
WOODROW WIEST: Standing aboard one of these ships is almost like standing inside of a very intricate clock. Everything - you can see everything that works. You can touch everything that works. You can follow all the pieces of rigging up to the sails.
BEARDSLEY: Raising and lowering the 2,200 yards of linen sails takes 50 people and two hours. Most of the 80 crew members are volunteers. New York City native Marc Jensen got involved in the project when he saw the boat being built during a vacation in France.
MARC JENSEN: Back in 2001, I fell in love with her. I just couldn't believe that they were going to try to do this.
BEARDSLEY: The Hermione was the fastest ship of its day. Jensen says its replica was built almost exactly to original plans.
JENSEN: For security purposes, there are places where they had to put stainless steel bolts to keep her from pulling apart the way the original might have. And, yes, for living quarters, you know, in Lafayette's time, they didn't have running toilets and showers. We're very fortunate and very appreciative being able to have that.
BEARDSLEY: Jumping down from the rigging, Adam Hodges-LeClaire is dressed like an 18th-century sailor, right down to his woolen socks and leather buckle shoes.
You're wearing this today, but you're not going to wear this every day are you?
ADAM HODGES-LECLAIRE: No. I wear this every day.
BEARDSLEY: Hodges-LeClaire says dressing the part gives him a real appreciation for how the Hermione's sailors lived. He says he's also inspired by the story of Lafayette.
HODGES-LECLAIRE: At the age of 19, he leaves the comfort of an aristocratic life, he crosses an ocean and fights for American rights. He was arriving on the Hermione, the newest, fastest ship in the French Navy, to tell Boston, to tell Washington, to tell America that France would send 30 ships and 5,000 troops. He's really cool.
BEARDSLEY: The Hermione is set to arrive on June 5 in Yorktown, Va., where in 1781 French and American troops won a decisive battle, captured 7,000 British soldiers and turned the tide of the war. Lafayette's ship will sail up the East Coast this summer, stopping in ports along the way. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Fouras, France.
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