History

Published on January 28th, 2019 | by Philippe Bouthet du Rivault

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Exclusive Interview with Yann Cariou, Captain of the Hermione Frigate, on October 26, 2018 about the Hermione’s Trip to America and in the Mediterranean

Thank you for inviting us to your house commander, in your office which faces the Bay of Audierne. So, for French Quarter Magazine, what can you tell us about your last trip sailing in the Mediterranean, what kind of experience did you gain from it?

So this navigation has been interesting on not only a technical level but also a human level. This trip opened up our eyes a little bit. First of all, It must be known that we left in February in the dead of winter. In France, especially in the Bay of Biscay which is deemed quite tempestuous and even dangerous at that time. Getting back to the sea after a year and a half of inactivity, that is to say, with a crew a little scattered, especially in the gabiers and with a boat that hadn’t sailed at all for all that time, that’s it. This all makes it difficult, especially with the predictably troublesome weather situations. That being said, we were always expecting winter weather. So we left Rochefort at the end of January to go to La Rochelle to finish the armament and we sailed from La Rochelle on February 20th to the Mediterranean Sea for our four month voyage. We knew that the beginning was going to be difficult because to get to the Mediterranean we had to get out of the Bay of Biscay, we call it a “romp”; this is a term that’s been invented because it’s so difficult, it’s a bit like?? and then you have to cross Cape Finistere in Galicia and then go down along the coast of Portugal knowing that the intensive low-pressure areas in the Atlantic come through there regularly and then Gibraltar before finally reaching the Mediterranean.

So, this year the situation was particular because the “storm track” which is the jet streams which circulate along the low-pressure areas in the Atlantic. This storm track usually establishes itself between Newfoundland and Scotland, this year it was between Carolina, North Carolina – South Carolina and the Maghreb.

So you were right in there…

So we ended up there… Finally we got out of the gulf in a few days: we had wind from the northeast, a little breeze from the east. It allowed us to train right away.

To amarinate, to amarinate the crew…

To further make things worse, we had to take our lickings “on the road,” because we had originally planned to start with a week of training but that never panned out. The key is to get out of the gulf which is a bit of a trap because of the westerly winds that are pushing up from the South. So we quickly gained the latitude off of Porto and that’s where the difficulties started because we saw on the weather map a deep low coming in from the other side of the Atlantic and actually the next day we ran into our first low-pressure area, with a force 8 storm with violent squalls, it was engaging to say the least, the boat heeled over, a squall that was not planned, the first squall and so on. Then we ended up off Cape St. Vincent with a force of 10, 10-meter hollows and successive low-pressure activity, meaning that every 24 hours there was another one arriving, they were very strong squalls. The sea was growing as the winds remained strong, coming in from the south, southwest and west, nothing from the northwest, it didn’t have time to rock us from the northwest since the second waves were coming in from behind. So we were in almost equal winds, the sea that was getting bigger and we started having difficulties: we started to have wounded on board, people sick of seasickness and then the tiredness set in; doing a maneuver with 30-40 knots of good wind is much more difficult than with 20! and then the forces diminished. When there are wounded, sick people suffering from seasickness, we have fewer men on the deck and those that remain are going to have to work harder.

It’s a vicious circle…

It is a vicious circle. So we actually saw, we realized that because it was the first time that we had heavy weather, more than 5 days, 6 days of heavy weather, we saw our strength decrease rapidly. So I realized that there wasn’t enough of us and that the ones we had weren’t as fit as the ones we had in 2014 and 2015. Perhaps they were a little less motivated, and we were less rigorous in the selection process.

So that was the first warning. Then we returned to the Mediterranean and there was the exceptional Mediterranean situation, since we had the BMS (special weather report) Number 200 and something and it was only March! It was two gales, two gusts of wind every 24 hours in the Mediterranean, it was unheard of, it was a record and we were in the Mediterranean. As the storm track was very low the pressure systems returned to the Mediterranean and created chaotic situations. So we had everything: we had very strong variable winds, winds that rise very quickly, which don’t correspond to weather situations because in situations like that the weather forecast is worse, of lower quality since it is an abnormal situation and by the force of things the calculators are wrong. So we were surprised we had big gales, thunderstorms, whirlwinds. We even got anchored from Creus to Rosas [Roses in Catalan on the map] we got winds of 70 knots, we had more whirlwinds, we had hail storms, we had sea tides… in short, we had everything, the ice covered deck, we had lightning strikes crashing near the boat and people felt the electric shock in their hands.

So we had horrible weather for a very long time and here’s the positive thing anyway: the ship, in 10-meter hollows, proved that it was well built, that it was good in the sea and that it had an excellent hull; the rigging: everything held up well. The sails, everything that we set up during our trail runs held up perfectly. And the boat, even in the sea from the stern up… because at one point we put it to flight to pass the Gibraltar, with the sea coming ¾ of the way up from behind us is the worst situation for a boat because it’s less supported with its sails, with hollows of 10 meters the holding isn’t as good. There, the ship still held well, but we took 45 ° angle rolls, it’s not pretty.

That’s the limit!

That is the limit, because we can capsize at 56 ° so I saw that… and I said to myself “if it ever goes up a little more than this, take the helm,” but at the same time when we take the helm it’s no longer the intended path and we take on the next depression. But it’s a sailboat, yes it’s a cape boat, it was built for the cape: when it’s in the cape it doesn’t move since it was tested off Sicié [Toulon] With 55 knots established, it felt like we were at the dock! Yes! so it’s a cape boat. It’s a discovery, it’s reassuring for me.

Yes we say that in very difficult situations…

Yes in bad weather we take the cape and that’s that. With this ship we’re very confident. In addition, our heavy weather procedures worked, we were able to test them, we improved them by setting up safety nets; that I had secured before setting sail. All the nets in the back part to contain the sailors, nets 2 meters high, safety chains. Our procedures also go for waterways, we had a lot of water inflow.

Yes when the boat is fully engaged…

Here, even when the waves are battering the sides of the boat and I have the lower 12 canons submerged in water, nearly crashing into the 6 canons above: It’s here, that the upper deck has met the water. We got tons of water in the boat. The water openings were identified: the watertight doors that weren’t watertight at the time, the generator where we eat and the forecastle. Well, we’ve determined that we could have sealed it better and we’ll reseal it all and continue to improve this part. If nothing else, the rest worked well.

So, this is our boat. Well, with some small adjustments for very heavy weather of course. And on the other hand, the crew: the weakness that it was: the fragility was beginning to show because we’d chosen the strongest ones for the departure because we knew that it was the hardest part and as the tough became fatigued we continued to be helpless because we didn’t have sufficient strength or the quality crew that we needed and we were in danger several times: we sailed in the red zone because we didn’t have the human potential and we were at the limit of being able to do certain maneuvers or to be sufficiently receptive. That’s no good; I, for the first time, on the Hermione could not wait for it to stop! I couldn’t wait to get back to port, I was even ready to get into a harbor and wait for it to pass because the crew wasn’t ready. 1 hour and 40 minutes to make a transfer isn’t possible and it was in the middle of the night, so we had that; it took an infinite amount of time to tack, we lost a lot of distance in route, that was apparent. There was a small deviation in the selection of the staff and immediately we felt the consequences. At sea it’s like that, the sanctions we have right now are multiplied by 10, the sea doesn’t play, it’s relentless. That’s how it happened to be with us… Was this our destiny? Yes, I think there’s always a certain degree of fate involved and it isn’t for anything: this thing didn’t come by chance, it revealed some of our weaknesses, it really pushed us. I made a detailed list of all the actions to be taken on the ship, all the corrections that needed to be made so that the ship was really able to cope with everything thrown at us. Especially given the experience of the crew that we had and we’ll take everything on hand into consideration and voilà…

Review the selection criteria more closer, the selection of the gabiers…

Yes, because it’s a long trip, we’ve done about 15,000 miles

Yes, it’s the same as the trip to America …

That’s about the same distance, we did the Bay of Biscay, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea

And furthermore, having weather conditions much stronger than the trip to the Atlantic. In conclusion, a boat that’s very well constructed, that’s solid and able to face very extreme weather conditions, but the need to still have a TOP notch crew.

The engineers who made this boat made it for a crew of 150 men to run. Their specifications were “make a boat as large as these dimensions, such as armament. It takes 150 men to run. Good, there were 250 in all, 200 in our downtime but when it came time to maneuver we needed 150. We’re only 70 strong, that’s half the amount… We managed to do it without too many problems so far but then we realized that it wasn’t going well. It was designed for 150 people and we were starting to be limited or in danger because there wasn’t enough of us, so we’ll have to review the quality of our crew.We can’t play around too much. Take a few extra gabiers. I’ll review the plan of action and we’ll pay specific attention on the quality of our crew.

Yes, because in any case, you don’t have the housing space for 150 people.

And no, we sure don’t. That’s been our biggest problem since the beginning. Suitably, especially with today’s standards of life and hygienic needs coupled with today’s work standards… I think that they would’ve scowled a bit. We can’t decently accommodate more than 85 people on board.

Well, at least you know what to do next.

Well, we’ll plan smaller sailing trips but especially when dealing with longer voyages. It was a preview of a grand voyage since the first leg was 17 days. 17 days for one stage, it’s not 4 or 5 days! It’s the long term voyages that must be maintained. Here we’ve been given a little taste on how to prepare for long voyages.

So, next year you won’t be planning a grand voyage: You’ll go to Normandy and Nantes, but, beyond that, are there any big projects in the works?

So, actually, we’ve had some things in the works since last summer. These plans have been further validated more recently as there’s been an enormous amount of pressure for the Hermione to finish its tour of France: it has made its way along the Atlantic coast, Brittany had been generously served as well as the New Aquitaine region, we did the Mediterranean this year and so now the Normans have began banging their fists on the table. They said; “and what about us?” It’s true that we didn’t go any further than Saint-Malo in the east of the Channel so it was a bit fair to go to visit these countries, these regions and in addition there was a strong demand for the Armada of Rouen which takes place once every 4 years.

This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed…

All the large sailing ships that want to make a name for themselves have got to be there, so we all feel a little obliged to do so. You’ve just got to be part of, and participate in this armada. In addition, the creator of this festival is Patrick Herr, (who is also the mayor/general counsel of Rouen) and this will be his last time running the event and he wanted to have the Hermione in its company at all costs. It was inevitable for the Hermione to show up there sooner or later. There’s a lot of international sailboats that don’t necessarily know about us. We’re known in France, but not necessarily in all the foreign countries in Europe. So this is a must and then we’ll take this opportunity to visit Cherbourg, or perhaps Ouistreham and then Dieppe; we’ll tour the ports of the Channel. Le Havre. . . There’s also a passage in Loire: Saint-Nazaire and Nantes. We’ve really convinced all the ports to welcome us except Lorient. Well, that’s just a small trip; it was just to meet expectations. But we can see that we’ve had a lot of trouble finding ports and convincing them to pay for us because we’re asking for port participation. We’re starting to see that this becomes difficult and that we can’t maintain this model of stopovers in France for too much longer. We went around the ports of France. It has been laborious to obtain funds and we see that this model can’t last forever.

So we always start on a big project, a big future project for Hermione. So there were several proposals since we saw that initial craze of the 2015 trip to the United States. It was such a craze that it generated great enthusiasm in France and it allowed us to have funds, to obtain funding a little more easily. Now, our financial backings have rather ground to a halt. It’s clear that when the media attention drops off for the Hermione, so does the public attention as well: Rochefort lost about 20% of its visitors.

Yes, people came mostly to see the construction site, but once it’s built, it’s a little different.

Absolutely: during construction, it’s evolutionary. One day we see this, so we added the figurehead, then we added a nice mat. There’s nothing left, the boat is finished so people come once or twice after it’s over. So now they’re looking for something else: people also want to dream, they want to touch the boat, to see it, they want that emotional attachment.

So, what a grand project? The historical links with the Hermione are either in America, or in India, and the Indian Ocean. She did a little West Indies tour and I think she escorted two convoys; after that, not very much happened. The greatest mission of the Hermione was in the American War of Independence; it was built for that. She was brand new, after that, she left there and made a glorious mission which she performed very well under the command of De Latouche. That’s it, afterwards, in India when she arrived in Ceylon the war was over because she had to reinforce Suffren’s squadron. But that doesn’t really matter; we could get back on the historical circuit. So in future projects that’s what we’ll be thinking about, maybe go to America, go back to the United States but it will be a difficult project to mount since we’ll have to find new cities and generate a lot of new buzz.
And there is also this great project of La Pérouse, Odyssée La Pérouse. Why? Because there’s a historical link: the Hermione was commissioned by Latouche and La Pérouse who commanded L’Astrée during the American War of Independence.

They fought together against the Englishman.

The Hermione and the Astrée battled together. Most notably at the Battle of Louisbourg against a squadron of five English boats and they won elsewhere too. Perugia mounted the Hudson Bay Expedition some time later. Hermione was supposed to be there but she was diverted to another mission. They have a similar past during the American War of Independence and La Pérouse was one of the commanders of the frigates there. Hermione was present in the Perugia expedition. In addition, Latouche, the first mastermind of a great trip around the world was the first commander of the Hermione. This is evidenced by a memoir he had written in 1777 about a great trip around the world. He wanted to take this mission on, but ultimately, it is his friend La Pérouse to whom the king will entrust the mission of the great trip around the world to.

He must have blamed him for a little bit?

You’ve got it! So, the boats are very close. The Astrolabe, The Boussole, visually it’s the Hermione because it’s so state-of-the-art, it’s cutting-edge, it’s all that. So we thought we could redo the trip to La Perouse. So why repeat it? Because unfortunately this trip ended halfway through its voyage, it was in Vanikoro when the two frigates Astrolabe and The Boussole were caught in a cyclone and just because they hadn’t mapped everything out yet since they were in the process of mapping it out. So they spotted an island on their way and as they were fleeing towards it during the night, in complete turmoil, their ships sank and it took almost 50 years to find the wrecks. It was Peter Dillon, an Irishman, who certified the site of the wreck by bringing back 4,000 pieces of the wrecked ships, including a sword guard from La Perouse.

So it was absolute proof.

So, our goal of the Hermione would be to make a great scientific trip to Vanikoro and resume it as it had been before, in the same scientific spirit that the trip had began and which had been written by the Academy of Sciences. Let’s not forget it wasn’t the king. It was the king who funded it but it was the Academy of Sciences that defined the details for everything that they had to do. Redo a manuscript of a great scientific trip, perhaps more ecological, a kind of state of the planet 230 years later in the footsteps of La Pérouse, see what’s changed, see what’s new, new problems that have presented themselves and then go to Vanikoro and above all, from there, resume the rest of the mission in the same spirit, resume this journey and finish it. I will say finish it finally.

Returning safely.

To destroy this curse once and for all. It has been called the curse of La Perouse. It’s still sad for a trip that has been successful and then meets its untimely demise in an unfortunate shipwreck. At a time, we were not immune to this; even today, boats are sinking despite radar, GPS etc. It’s even a feat to have been done up until then. And, remember, it was the second big world tour after Bougainville who was the first Frenchman to officially do it. So do away with this curse, finish the trip, go back to France and demand that the French state declares that the La Pérouse expedition is finally over. That’s it, Monsieur de La Perouse has returned! Retake the torch, it’s a beautiful project, it’s a very ambitious plan, it’s a trip that will last two years, with 56 stopovers and 2.6 times the turn of the earth since the we’ll do a lot of loops in the Pacific and in particular we’ll pass Cape Horn, it’s a very very beautiful trip, full of adventures. Obviously highly publicized and documented on film so that everyone can participate in the trip. Now we have the means necessary with satellites, ultra modern computers, and drones. We can share this trip practically from day to day in real time. That’s it, the goal is to make a big event. So it’s very ambitious, it takes a lot of people to have a lot of money. It is a budget of about ten million euros but the fallout. . . You do not have to wonder how much it’s going to cost, you have to wonder how much it will bring in. It will bring money with derivatives and especially it will give an international dimension to Hermione since we will tour the entire South American continent, all major countries except India for now. Although it’s not impossible to go to India. We’ll do all of South America, part of North America since we could go to Hawaii, to the Marianas, to Guam etc… We could pass by Australia and New Zealand, we could hit China, Japan, Russia, and the Philippines.

The whole world!

And then Africa because it’s a question of going to South Africa, so all the major countries except India. We’ll have international exposure particularly because the crew will be comprised of scientists and international gabiers from all the countries which we’ll pass; it’ll be a good mix of people and we’ll highlight the international side of the project.
We have a lot to gain, as does Rochefort because at that time it will become the country’s port of great departures and the port of return shipments worldwide. We mustn’t forget about all the botanists who returned to Rochefort and planted all the plants that they brought back with them…

Begonias for example…

…Michel Bégon and then the naval academy of Rochefort which was the first in Europe and maybe in the world I think. The Academy of Naval Medicine, many of whose members went on expeditions to research the health of crews, medicines used on the other side of the world, the procedures of different foreign medicines, etc. They had to interview the alchemists of the different cultures they met and tried to see the products they used, the ointments, the rare plants, the cicatrices, their operative methods, how they operated on people, and so on. And those people were coming back to Rochefort afterwards. So Rochefort is very very connected.

…There is a link with the trip, the La Pérouse project which promotes Rochefort, besides the fact that The Boussole was built and armed in Rochefort (in Bordeaux but for Rochefort). It’s a boat from Rochefort that should have returned to Rochefort so the link is there and we should really give this to Rochefort, if it was needed again, the addition of a large port and not only a museum with a Corderie Royale. Everything is there, the case is there since Rochefort kept its architecture, Rochefort was not bombed during the war; there was not too much damage, even in terms of aesthetics, this city hasn’t changed much, this city is authentic. It changed normally with the evolution of the times… etc. but it wasn’t disfigured. It’s in its original condition, it’s like a beautiful display case that we can still give a new dimension to. It’s a great historical port of discovery for the world.

The departure of Hermione for the trip to America in 2015 had already given it a little bit of this international exposure. I saw television news footage on the internet from America of course, but also from Britain and Indonesia, even from China…

From China!

Yes, Hermione’s trip to America has been in news that has circulated around the world. So there, it will give it even more media coverage all over the world; it’s a very good thing for the Hermione, for Rochefort and for France, I think.

Yes, this time it would be to take the French flag to the Pacific. The Pacific: all the great countries today give to the Pacific; the world is in the Pacific: North America, South America, China, Australia and Japan, everything is there. The Pacific Basin is huge. It is also a basin that concentrates pollution like plastics and also climate change with El Nino. We see that it’s a very important place from an economic and cultural point of view, at all levels really. So we have to be there.

Absolutely.

And it is with good reason that La Pérouse is the main focus of this trip, it is premonitory. He didn’t think that the Pacific would become so important. So yes, Hermione must make a voyage to the Pacific and make France known because we must note that at the time, the English and the French were the only ones to map the world. That is to say, that Cook, James Cook traveled the Pacific followed by Bougainville then by La Pérouse it is so that finally, it was one of the missions, to finish the cartography of the world. It was a bazaar at the time and we must not forget: there are islands that didn’t exist that are on maps, islands that are 200 miles from their position in longitude.

In latitude it was pretty good.

In latitude there are voluntary errors, there are people, especially the Spaniards who had positioned several islands with immense errors of latitude which would confuse others, they mastered the latitude, they were explorers; Bougainville says so and La Perouse too, it was deliberately badly positioned

To deceive…

These were secrets we wanted to keep.

Although the Dutch weren’t bad in that domain.

The Dutch were terrible in that area. They made up false islands, false indications to deceive others. It was commercial, there were somewhat strategic and commercial issues. So without Cook and the French there would have been little or no mapping with all the shipwrecks etc … So we must remember this very important part of France because it was expensive to arm two frigates. Our two nations finally made it possible to map the world.

I think it’s a very ambitious project but worthy of Hermione and its ancestors, so I think we can trust you to bring it to fruition and…

We hope.

Well thank you Commander for all this information that will certainly fascinate the readers of French Quarter Mag.

Bonjour French Quarter!!!


This article was translated in English by John Wilmot.


About the Author

was successively officer of Marine Merchant, officer of Marine then engineer in the automotive industry internationally. Today retired, he returns to his first passion, the sea, through the archives of the Navy in Rochefort and the frigate L'Hermione, that of the eighteenth century as that of the twenty-first century. They inspired him for lectures and writings.



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