Reply To: The replica frigate l’Hermione building at Rochefort

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Frank Scott

I am slightly perplexed by Michael Leek’s posting.
Modern sail training takes many forms, and while it is true that Britain has not operated any square rigged sail training vessels for professional seafarers since the jackass-barquentine St George was laid up in 1921, it is very much involved in sail training. Over the years since 1971 Britain has operated quite a number of civilian square riggers in the sail training role, ranging from brigs and brigantines to barques (from 80 to 500 gross tonnes), some with wooden masts and spars, and very traditional rigging, while others are more modern. Although none of these appear to meet with his approval, I am glad to say that all of them take women, and two were specially designed to ensure that this experience could be extended to those of mixed physical ability. Indeed one of these, the barque STS Lord Nelson, recently completed a highly successful circumnavigation via Cape Horn. The vessel that kicked off the square rig revival in the UK, the brig TS Royalist, retired at the end of 2014, after 43 years of service, having taken some 35,000 Sea Cadets to sea (both male & female), many of whom took up careers in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Service. She has been replaced by a new brig.
As a young cadet in 1968 I trained in the full-rigger SSS Sørlandet, and thus experienced at first-hand the rigorous Norwegian schoolship regime, where cadets were known by number not name. Glad though I am to have had that formative professional experience, I would never disparage the excellent work that is done by the much more numerous fleet of civilian sail training ships around the world, whether square rigged or fore & aft.
I would like to quote what Flottillenadmiral Horst-Helmut Wind wrote to me back in 1991, bearing in mind that he was the Chief Officer of the four-masted barque Passat for her last commercial voyages as a cargo-carrying training ship:
‘I did serve in commercial deep-water sail, but as a former Captain of Gorch Fock I am very much aware that sail training cannot justify itself through mere sentiment. It does provide an excellent platform for basic seamanship training, but in both the naval and civilian worlds its main value in this modern machine age lies in its unique ability to foster the somewhat old-fashioned character virtues of courage, comradeship, and endurance – irrespective of race, creed, colour, or gender. We have been fortunate to see a real renaissance in sail training, and continued success demands the highest professional standards, modern outlook, and attention to detail.’
As to replicas, it must be acknowledged that all of them have to compromise to some extent in how ‘true’ they are to the original. At the very least electricity is required for lighting (both internal and navigation), and the galley and food storage areas have to meet modern hygiene standards, as must the heads and bathrooms. L’Hermione certainly looks great, and must be fun to sail, but the absence of a battery of full weight cannons, and the addition of propellers will have an obvious impact on how she handles compared to the original. I am sure that there will be other issues.
As for other well known recent replicas of comparable size, their actual sailing record is patchy. The Australian replica of Cook’s Endeavour is highly regarded, both for her authenticity, and for the amount of sailing that she did in her first ten years. However, even with her there are significant compromises, and she does little sailing nowadays. The Götheborg III only made one long voyage, from Sweden to China & back (2005-7), and since then has been restricted to a very short Baltic season of barely two months, hopping between festivals and barely sailing. While the Batavia did make it out to Australia for the 2000 Olympics, she only did so by going as deck cargo, and is now a static attraction, having done only brief day sailing trials in benign weather, and no sea passages.
In many ways, I find reconstructed – or resurrected – vessels much more interesting than any of the so-called replicas. I have particular affection for three medium-sized iron barques, all built in Britain: the James Craig (ex Clan Macleod) (Sunderland, 1874), now of Sydney, Australia; the Elissa (Aberdeen, 1877), now of Galveston Texas; and the Star of India (ex Euterpe) (Ramsey, Isle of Man, 1863), now of San Diego, California. However, even they have had to make modifications to allow them to operate in the twenty-first century.
On that note it is worth observing that the Sørlandet that I first knew back in 1968 would very much fail to meet modern safety and living standards. Indeed, with the exception of radar and a very weak engine, in 1968 very little had changed onboard since she had entered service in 1927. Since then things have moved on apace, and even by 1980, when I went back as 3/O, she had ‘gained’ liferafts, safety harnesses, back-wires, proper fire pumps, bunk beds, modern heads and bathrooms, along with an engine that could do more than enable her to manoeuvre in harbour in a flat calm. In the subsequent decades a whole mass of further modifications and additions have been required.
Sentiment at sea can be a dangerous thing, as was show by the tragic loss of the two seafarers when the 1960 Bounty replica sank in October 2012. US NTSB, Marine Accident Brief 14-03: Sinking of Tall Ship Bounty (Washington, 2014) covers this in depressing detail.