Adam Hodges-Leclaire was standing the midnight to
4 a.m. watch on the deck of the replica of the Marquis de Lafayette’s frigate Hermione on its first Atlantic crossing in spring. The wind was blowing, and rain pelted the ship, putting his 18th-century wardrobe to the test.
“We got soaked,” he says. “My woolen overcoat kept me warm, if not dry. But it smelled strongly of lanolin, like wet wool.” His crewmates, more firmly rooted in the world of 21st-century technical clothing, were amused. “They started making sheep noises: baaaa, baaaa,” he says.
But a little squall and some good-natured teasing couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the young sailor from Lincoln. Hodges-Leclaire is the only American tapped to crew aboard the Hermione for both the commemorative Atlantic crossing and her port calls along the Eastern Seaboard, including stops in New York for the holiday and Boston next week. He is also the only one of the 80-member crew who dresses in historically accurate clothing — even when no one is looking.
The voyage is an extension of his passion for the 18th century that began in 1999, when his family joined the Lincoln Minute Men historic reenactors. Six-year-old Adam learned to play the fife and has had one foot in the nation’s early years ever since.
“By high school, when most kids want to blend into the woodwork, Adam would wear whatever uniform he was going to wear on Patriots Day to get the other kids interested,” says his mother, Ruth Hodges. “Some of the other kids probably thought, Oh, that’s weird, and others were probably interested. He’s very passionate.”
Now 22, Hodges-Leclaire, a history major at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, took the year off to pursue his adventure. As a prospective museum educator, he specializes in 18th-century grooming, textiles, and social beliefs. On a trip to France, he learned that shipwrights in Rochefort were nearing completion of a replica of Hermione to celebrate Lafayette’s voyage to Boston in 1780. Then 22 himself, Lafayette was delivering the news that France was sending ships and troops to support the American struggle for independence.
Constructed in the same Charente River shipyard that had turned out the original in only six months, the Hermione replica took 17 years, largely because the builders were fastidious about using period materials and techniques to construct the 210-foot, three-masted ship. For a historian in training, the chance to travel aboard such a vessel was one Hodges-Leclaire could not pass up.
Although he had no sailing experience, Hodges-Leclaire applied for one of the coveted crew positions on the sea trials the Hermione made last fall. Fearing that his e-mail application wasn’t getting serious consideration, he showed up at the shipyard in 18th-century dress. “I figured, why not go whole hog?” he recalls, noting that he had meticulously researched the textiles and hand-sewn all his own garments.
Bruno Gravellier, former French Navy commander and superintendent of the Hermione, was impressed by Hodges-Leclaire’s ardor, and a little bemused by the young American’s eccentricity. Gravellier liked pointing him out to visitors who thronged the Hermione in the days before she set sail.
From the outset, Hodges-Leclaire’s personality made him an asset. Once aboard, he quickly mastered climbing the rigging to stow or untie the sails — and the considerable art of sleeping in a hammock without falling out. In his journal, he also tracked his progress in becoming more fluent in French.
Sea trials over, he returned to the United States to await word on whether he had made the cut for the Atlantic crossing and voyage up the coast from Yorktown, Va., to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Ever hopeful, he participated in an apprenticeship in historic clothing at Fort Ticonderoga in New York and worked with his fashion designer mother to construct a wardrobe of work clothes (even down to linen underbreeches). He also commissioned shoes from a Rhode Island cordwainer in the reenactment community and had a tattoo of an 18th-century gravestone image hand-inked on his forearm. “It allows you to bring up attitudes toward death,” Hodges-Leclaire explains. “This is all about provocation, to start a conversation.”
That willingness to be, as he describes it, “so anal about the details” did not go unnoticed. “They realized how much I had invested,” he says, explaining how he was finally selected for the multinational crew, many of whom were more interested in sailing than in history. Although 18th-century dress isn’t the norm aboard the Hermione, the organizers recognized that Hodges-Leclaire would help bring the period alive when the ship called at American ports.
The Hermione left Fouras, a seaside town in southwestern France, on April 18, reaching Yorktown on June 5. Her final stop will be Lunenburg, Nova Scotia on July 18 before returning to France.
Reached by phone in June at Alexandria, Va., Hodges-Leclaire was jubilant that things were going as if scripted. During his down time from his twice daily midnight-to-4 watch, Hodges-Leclaire had prepared three programs for the American port calls. One discusses the period clothing of French sailors, while another recounts life aboard ship then and now. He is also giving a presentation on 18th-century French marines and how they served, which allows him to don a replica uniform. “It’s fun and new and much sharper than my sailor’s clothing,” he says, noting that his own wardrobe suffered a lot of wear on the crossing.
But if the clothes took a beating, Hodges-Leclaire himself wore well with his crewmates. As Loïc Balliard, the crew member in charge of the ship’s blog, explains it, “In the Hermione family, Adam is the American cousin, a bit crazy, who brings some authenticity and reminds us that the Hermione is not just a sailing ship but a major historical event.”
The Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America has planned events all along the route. François Bardonnet, the proprietor of Antiques Period in Boston, helped coordinate the local program. The Boston Athenaeum kicked off the celebration in mid-June with the exhibition “Lafayette: An American Icon,” which runs through Sept. 27. The Hermione will dock at Rowes Wharf and be open for tours. Traditional French maritime crafts will be demonstrated on the Greenway across from Rowes Wharf.
“The role of Lafayette in the American Revolution is less and less well known,’’ Bardonnet says. “Most Americans are not aware that French aid was fundamental to victory.” In 1781, American and French troops forced Cornwallis to surrender the British armies at Yorktown, bringing the American Revolution to a successful conclusion.
Bardonnet is convinced that having Hodges-Leclaire aboard the Hermione makes the history more vivid. “It makes it all the more interesting and personal,” Bardonnet says. “I didn’t imagine someone like him could exist.”
As for the picaresque sailor-scholar and walking anachronism himself, Hodges-Leclaire is also eagerly anticipating the sail into Boston. “Whenever French people talk about the Hermione,” he says, “they talk about Boston. I can’t wait. This is what I have been dreaming about since I got on the ship.”
For details of activities, go to www.hermione2015.com/voyage2015/boston-visit.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org