BREST (AFP).- A replica of the French frigate that transported General Lafayette to America in 1780 to rally US rebels battling for independence arrived back in France on Monday after a four-month Atlantic voyage.
The Hermione and its 80-strong crew made a majestic entrance into the port of Brest in northwestern France, accompanied by a fleet of tall ships and a modern navy frigate, and met by a cheering crowd on the quay.
"Earlier, I had a tear in my eye -- it's very emotional to see her back in good condition," said one of the onlookers, Michel, who had worked as a volunteer during the ship's construction.
It took almost two decades and $32 million (25 million euros) to build the exact replica of the 1,200-tonne, three-masted ship, using only 18th century shipbuilding techniques.
The Hermione finally set sail in April, waved off by President Francois Hollande, retracing Lafayette's 3,700-mile (6,000-kilometre) journey across the Atlantic and calling at more than a dozen stops along the eastern coast of the United States and Canada.
It took part in July 4 celebrations in New York, where it led a flotilla through New York Harbour past a symbol of the two nations' enduring friendship -- the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the US from France in 1884.
A crate of Cognac was also transported onboard -- as on Lafayette's original ship -- and auctioned off for charity at Mount Vernon, once home to the first US president, George Washington.
Earlier, the ship was guest of honour for a three-day celebration in Yorktown, Virginia where the original participated in the decisive 1781 victory over the British by Washington's American and French forces.
Speaking to AFP at Yorktown in June, the ship's captain, Yann Cariou, said: "She's a great ship. She behaves perfectly all the time. She responded well to gusts of wind -- as did the crew."
Hundreds of craftspeople
Lafayette, who was born in 1757 to a noble family in south-central France, joined the American Revolution at the age of 19, inspired by the cause.
Beside the French troops who joined the American rebels in the month-long battle at Yorktown, French ships helped blockade the port, leading to the British surrender.
Back in 1778, the original Hermione took a mere six months to build. The new replica took 17 years to construct, bringing together hundreds of craftspeople from around the world.
The project was the brainchild of a group of history and sailing enthusiasts who financed it through donations from more than four million visitors to the shipyard in Rochefort in southwestern France where the Hermione was built, as well as through crowd-funding initiatives for specific parts of the ship.
The Hermione will stay in port in Brest until next Monday, where it will be open for visitors to meet the crew, learn about sailing and see an exhibition on its history.
It will then head back down the French coast, stopping in at Bordeaux before docking at its home in Rochefort, but it will return to Brest next year for the town's international maritime festival.
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