YORKTOWN, Va. — Like an apparition, the 17-story ship glided through the cool morning mist, its towering skeleton of masts and two sternward flags — one French and one a 13-starred American — all that were visible from shore.
Forty-eight days after the start of its voyage, and 237 years since its story began, the French tall ship Hermione maneuvered into the York River on Friday morning, and as its gilded-lion figurehead came into full view, hundreds of people on the beach waved and cheered.
The much-anticipated vessel — which took 17 years and nearly $30 million to build — fired its unarmed cannons as it neared shore. A flurry of red, white and blue fireworks exploded in the air as the ship touched the dock. Even reenactors dressed in period clothing broke character and snapped photos, unwilling to miss the moment.
“Welcome to America!” one woman bellowed, as six crew members balanced on the ends of crossbeams that extended from the ship’s three Oregon pine masts.
The original Hermione (pronounced “err-me-own,” unlike the Harry Potter character) carried the Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic Ocean more than two centuries ago with a message that would change this nation’s destiny: France was sending critically needed soldiers and ships to support the American Revolution.
The replica is among the most authentic in the world, and its voyage is a source of immense national pride in France, where President François Hollande personally bid it bon voyage in April. A small horde of French media covered Friday’s festivities.
“Look at her,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said, grinning, as he and his entourage briskly walked past the official George Washington reenactor on their way to the gangplank.
The French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, was also among the dignitaries who attended the welcome, which was held in Yorktown because both the original ship and its most famous passenger were involved in the operation there that led to British Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s momentous surrender in 1781.
The tall ship is expected to draw huge crowds in coming weeks as it travels to Alexandria, Annapolis and Baltimore, then up the East Coast.
It is a marvel of intentionally unmodern engineering, which is why the vessel took so long to build; its makers used 18th century techniques to construct it.
Hoping to boost tourism in the once-thriving shipbuilding coastal town of Rochefort, France — where the original was manufactured in just four months — the project’s leaders began construction in 1997.
They scoured France for 3,000 mature oaks that had just the right bend to fit the ship’s hull.
Its 26 cast-iron cannons were fashioned by the same company that made the originals in the 1700s. Its 19 linen sails, adorned with 4,250 handmade eyelets, are large enough to cover five NBA courts. Its quarter gallery, a section on the stern, required
3,000 hours of labor to complete — about three times longer than it took the ship to cross an ocean.
“At every point, people have said this was mad,” recalled Miles Young, president of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America. “That it was crazy.”
The modern features were few and mostly mandatory for safety purposes: fuel tanks, generators and a pair of engines; metal bolts instead of wooden dowels; electric winches to hoist the 3,300-pound anchors rather than the arms of
60 crew members.
“What you have,” said Young, chairman and CEO of public relations giant Ogilvy & Mather, “is a tall ship that’s pretty honest to the core.”
Even commands made on board are done so using 18th century terminology.
The Hermione’s evolution has generated intense interest in its homeland, where 4.5 million people visited the ship during construction. At the 2012 launch of its hull, which included a jet flyover, a woman wearing a white dress dangled in a harness above deck as she tossed flower petals into the wind. Hollande described the 216-foot craft as a “masterpiece.”
Its voyage to the United States has been repeatedly called a reminder of France’s integral and supportive role in American history.
“I am honored to join in commemorating the journey of the Hermione,” President Obama wrote in April, “and in celebrating the enduring bonds of friendship and solidarity that bind our nations together.”
But like many extended long-distance relationships, the bond between France and the United States is an imperfect one.
In 2003, France opposed the U.S. plan to invade Iraq so, in a form of schoolyard payback, congressional lawmakers changed the name of their cafeteria French fries to “freedom fries.”
Years before that, “Simpsons” character Groundskeeper Willie referred to the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” a phrase that became so popular it was later included in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations.
France’s help in the Revolutionary War was, in fact, critical. Two decades later, its leaders sold the United States the Louisiana Territory for four cents an acre in one of the sweetest real estate bargains in history. And in the 1880s, the French gave the United States the Statue of Liberty, one of the country’s most significant symbols of freedom.
America, for its part, deployed 73,000 troops onto Normandy’s beaches in 1944.
And yet, a perplexing tension has existed from the start.
Many of the French who volunteered to help in the War of Independence came from prestigious families who brought with them a sense of entitlement that annoyed the American patriots.
Lafayette was also of noble birth, but he displayed a sincere passion for the American cause. He had grown up in a rural area of France and lost both of his parents early, which left him without the polish and sophistication valued by French aristocracy.
“He was very frank and open and honest,” said Laura Auricchio, author of “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered.” “All of these things were a detriment at Versailles, but when he got to America, people thought he was amazing.”
So amazing that, after the war, he took a “13-month triumphal tour of every state in the Union” (as Auricchio put it) during the 1820s. Dubbed “The Nation’s Guest,” he was welcomed with parades and the ringing of bells almost everywhere he traveled.
Today, 181 years after his death, at least two universities, 80 schools and dozens of towns are still named for him, and in Washington, where nearly every patch of grass honors an important historical figure, the Frenchman’s square claims the most prestigious plot in town: directly in front of the White House.
The ship’s sun-baked crew of adventure-seekers understood the greater significance of their journey. Manon Muret, dressed in a ruffled white shirt and shin-length maroon trousers, is from Rochefort. Now 22, she built a miniature model of the ship at age 3. While at sea, she hasn’t missed Facebook or computers or even her cellphone.
“It’s not important,” she said, “when we are here.”
Loic Baillard, 29, relished the crew’s mid-Atlantic swim and the sunset dance parties, but their arrival in Virginia, where his generation’s ancestors died for an American rebellion, gave the trip a deeper meaning for him.
“Until now,” he said, “we were just on a ship, sailing.”
And while he had long looked forward to reaching Yorktown because of the achievement’s larger importance, America’s coast offered something else almost as meaningful, though perhaps a bit less grand: the chance to drink a cold beer.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date for Lafayette’s tour of the United States.