Sail into History by Karen A. Chase
Karen A. Chase is a regular contributor to Shelf Pleasure, sharing journeys near and far in the pursuit of stories and novels in her monthly feature, Will Travel for Words. This month she takes us along as she tours a working replica of a ship from the American Revolution.
Over 15 miles of rope. Over 4000 trees. More than 80 men and women. 32 cannons. Almost 20 years of labor and thousands of volunteers hours. And one Marquis de Lafayette.
These are the facts about L’Hermione. It is a full-scale, working replica of the tall ship that carried Lafayette from France to the colonies to help fight in the American Revolution. This new Hermione (pronounced her-me-own) sailed from France and arrived in Yorktown this June 5th after over a month at sea.
I toured the ship in Yorktown, and for this history nerd, it was jaw-dropping. I’ve written about sailing during the revolutionary war, studied a few battles, and sailed on a small boat or two. None of that prepared me for the scale of things. Cannons bigger around than me. Anchors larger than a pick-up truck. More rope (rigging) than the length of Manhattan.
My research had clearly not let me have the experience of being on a concord class frigate. Before climbing to her upper decks, I could not smell the tar that protects the rigging. It stuck in my nostrils even after I returned to the docks. I did not hear the wind calling for revolution through a flag that could nearly cover the roof of my home. Holding a history book, I never heard the creak and groan of the wood hull–as if the ship were a living being moving with me. Or did I move with her?
No biography could enable me to speak to Lafayette to find out just how long the days can feel, and how dark the nights truly are. But this weekend, I did. Between reenactors and the crew who sailed across the ocean blue, I have a sense of what it felt like to be a human who had not seen land for several weeks. At times boring, when the seas and skies never end. At times awe inspiring, when the sky fills with stars, or a whale breaches along the bow.
All this is precisely why I travel for historical research. Movies, primary sources, books and online resources give me facts, but they cannot let me feel the experience of a time and place. I have to insert myself.
After I do, I am able to insert emotions, senses and thoughts into my characters as they might have experienced that history. Only then, like Lafayette in support of the Declaration of Independence, will my readers and I will travel not for mere words, but for something far, far more meaningful.
The L’Hermione is currently sailing up the east coast of the United States due to arrive in New York for July 4th. Tours are free and donations are welcome. To find her locations visit Hermione2015.com.
To see details of the ship and pictures of the crew, I’ve posted a gallery of images at Hermione Up Close.
Karen A. Chase is the author of Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log, winner of seven Independent Book Publishing Awards for travel and design. She is currently working on an historical novel set during the American Revolution. Find Karen on Facebook, or on Twitter.
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