A Talk with Marc Jensen – Hermione ’s "Maritime Ambassador"
Editor’s Note: A sailor in New England waters all his life, Marc Jensen first saw L'Hermione frigate in 2001 and was hooked. With family roots in Poitou-Charentes region on France’s Atlantic coast, Marc took full advantage of his ancestor’s home, only minutes from Rochefort where the ship is berthed, to follow the Hermione frigate’s historically accurate reconstruction every summer. In early 2011, Marc became a US delegate for the project. Since then, Marc has served as Director of Maritime Operations for the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, to help realize the ship's visit to the US in 2015.
A bilingual alumnus of the Lycée Français de New York, Marc is pleased to bring French and American culture to light through this endeavor and underscore the deep historical ties that connect the two nations.
An engineer and educator by training, this project both fascinates and excites Marc by its potential to teach, enlighten, and inspire. Marc says, “Hermione’s voyage is not simply a culmination of a dream, but a beginning of new educational bridge between France and the United States.”
Here below is a conversation with Hermione’s “Maritime Ambassador” Marc Jensen, who, earlier this summer, passed tough physical requirements in order to join Hermione’s crew when it sails in May 2015 for the US.
Question: How did your love for sailing begin?
Answer: Sailing was a part of my life before I was even aware of it. My father and his brother began boating by building a sailing canoe in their Hollis, Queens basement over a winter and sailing it in the ocean south of Long Beach--a real challenge that captured them. They lived aboard boats as young men after the war to make the most of the GI Bill funding. My family was never far from the coast, marinas and the chance to get back aboard. The summer of my 9th year my father invited me to sail a 35' Crocker Ketch named Pole Star, built in 1933, from New Haven to the Cold Spring Harbor on the north shore of Long Island; it was an evening sail, and half way across Long Island Sound I began to see fireworks along every coastline. It was July 4th seen in a completely different, marvelous way; now I was hooked by the adventure. Sailboats were always an important part of my life from that point on.
My brother and I went on to purchase our first sailboat when I was a young teen--a 13' Blue Jay, which we refurbished, sailed for several years and then sold at a profit to buy the next larger boat. That was the pattern until, when I turned 18, my brother and I convinced my father to invest in a 43' Gulfstar, (a yacht named Antibes, because my father's dream was to sail her to France-unfulfilled) that we ran as a charter all through our college years. This is when I learned to live aboard and fine-tune my skills by teaching others. Antibes remained in our family for decades and served as the ship that I taught my own two children, Madeleine (now 25) and Benjamin (21), how to sail.
Q: Have you ever sailed across the ocean, in what kind of vessel, how long, and highlights?
A: At 19 I was asked to be part of a delivery crew to bring a Swan 47' yacht to New York from Bermuda. It was to be my only ocean crossing experience to date, though I've sailed the coastal ocean many times since. I have so many memories of those five days on the Atlantic, but two stand out.
On the third day out, we started crossing the Gulfstream and for 24 hours we were tossed around quite a bit. At night, when it was harder to see the waves, we did our best to keep a true course but quickly learned that the sea pattern included an occasional wave that would come up from behind us, slap the stern and then shower us with warm stream water. After the shock of the first hit, we learned to pull the hoods of our foul weather gear over our heads when we heard/felt the slap and let the water shower over us because the phosphorescence that ensued – lighting up all our faces – was a joyous, wonderful break from the work of sailing in such conditions.
The second surprise for me was when we arrived at the docks in Stamford, CT. Maria Mann, the captain for the delivery and quite the teaser, asked me to be the first to step off the boat and grab the lines. As she anticipated, I stepped off and my knees buckled almost immediately when I stood on something that was no longer moving. I can still hear her laugh and say, “See, it's easier being at sea!”
Side note: Maria is one of the people that came into my life through sailing that enriched in deeply. A few years after the Bermuda trip, I ran into her again in Edgartown, where she was now the Captain aboard Walter Cronkite's Windje. I was invited to dine aboard this beautiful ship and had the pleasure of meeting the man that had formed my understanding of world events and his family. On the sea were are all equals, with respect for what each other has achieved ashore, but an understanding that it takes more than that to be a complete person.
Q: When did you become aware of L'Hermione?
A: It was 2001. I was on vacation in France when my cousin, Jean-Pierre Tallieu, who lives 15 minutes from Rochefort took me to see her. I had followed the construction of a 35' sailboat by my Long Island neighbor, Mr. Wethey, when I was a child--I would sit for hours watching him and helping when he asked. When I saw L'Hermione, all those fond memories came back. The sounds, smells, shapes were all there, only on a scale that defied description! I returned every year since to watch her grow into the marvel she is today.
Q: When did you become involved with the project, and what is your role?
A: In the summer 2010, my daughter did an internship in a laboratory in Toulouse. She discovered that one of the lab's head researchers had family in Marennes, which is right next to La Tremblade, where her cousins were, and is only a short drive from Rochefort. A friendship between the families ensued. In March of 2011, I met Pierre Gras, who lives in Marennes, through my daughter. Pierre is retired and has been working with the Hermione Association in France since the beginning. He quickly felt my enthusiasm and understood my desire to contribute in a meaningful way. Thanks to him I became known to Isabelle Georget (Hermione Association, Rochefort, France) and through her, I was introduced to Remi Forgeas (Treasurer of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America) in the US.
My role evolved as the planned Hermione trip to the US in 2015 became progressively a stronger reality. The turning point, for me, was in the fall of 2012 when I toured the east coast with Jean-Francois Fountain, his wife Claire and the ship's commander, Yann Cariou. We were the technical team to scout out sites for the Hermione to visit. I made the initial contact with the maritime people in each potential port who were very helpful. Many of them suggested we stop in to speak with Tall Ships America in Newport, which we did. They have become a strategic partner that has helped us navigate the often-subtle negotiations with the ports.
Q: What was your experience like to qualify for Hermione’s 2015 transatlantic voyage in Rochefort, France earlier this year? Was it tough to climb to the ship’s highest mast?
A: I have always worked to maintain a certain level of physical fitness, mostly to keep up with my kids as they grew up to be able to do outdoor adventures together and now to remain active as long as possible. When the word came through that the French Association was going to be willing to take volunteers between the ages of 18 and 60 for the crossing I immediately submitted my letter of intent and CV. They were received, reviewed and accepted quite quickly as I bring to the adventure, not only my sailing skills but years of experience maintaining and repair boats, often with Rube Goldberg-type approaches to help get out of sticky situations.
The only challenge that was put before me was the need to climb the rigging and do so with convincing ease. I will admit that I trained for this. I was not sure that my grip or arm strength would be sufficient. I changed my weight lifting routine to include more upper body and I went rock climbing in a center in Brooklyn. It turns out that rock wall climbing is the way the team in France stays fit while in port of Rochefort, too.
For my “ascension,” as Hermione’s Commander Yann Cariou liked to tease me about it, I arrived early on a weekday morning and was fitted to a harness and signed my waiver. I was frankly excited to get to this...I was confident and also resigned to the idea that it was best to find out now if I did not have what it would take to do this rather than later. I was escorted aloft, by Jens Langert, who is the lead rigger aboard L'Hermione. He has decades of experience and made me feel immediately "at-home" as we climbed. He was also clever; we got about half way up to the point on the first set of ratlins where one turns to climb upside down to the outside edge of the maintop (platform) when he stopped, we had only climbed for 30 seconds and I wondered why we'd stop here. I quickly realized that he was judging my comfort level with the experience while allowing me to get use to handling the harness and the dual set of clips that kept me tethered at all times to a safety line, as well.
He instructed to let my legs do the work – much as in rock climbing! – and to let my arm relax as much as possible. Less than a minute later we were off for the first critical point--the run upside down to the maintop. The training paid off: I had no difficulty hanging from lines and navigating the turn around the edge of the maintop.
Once there we maneuvered around the rigging. Jens showed me how to furl a sail and answered all my questions. I must have been up there for over 90 minutes. A strange thing occurred after about 30 minutes...I realized that to move comfortably around the rigging it was important to only move one appendage at a time--one hand or one foot to the next point of contact but not both. This way one always has 3 points of contact with the ship to feel her move and be anticipate any need to latch on quickly.
I could have stayed up there a long time if I had had a job to do and I was happy to be connected to the ship in such a way.
Sailing is a great deal about feel: the wind in the sails, the water against the rudder and hull, and the weather against your skin. When we used to charter Antibes, my brother and I would take turns playing a trick on the families aboard – especially if there were kids aboard. While sailing and heeling over, when no one was looking, one of us would grab the shrouds of the mizzen and "walk" up the mizzen mast to the spreaders (about 20 feet high) and stand up there. Soon, someone would ask, “Hey, did anyone see Marc?”, and my brother would answer that I was likely hiding and could they find me. It was a great way for everyone to get to know every inch of the ship. I had forgotten what that felt like until I was in L'Hermione's rigging – the pulse of a ship is accentuated aloft, the forces she deals with and exerts are amplified. It's like putting your hand on the heart of a runner after the race; it's an intensely intimate moment.
Q: What do I anticipate learning from the crossing in 2015?
A: Everything! I am a learner by nature. I love speaking with people about what they do, why, how, etc. I am certainly a novice in so many areas when it comes to square rigger sailing and I can't wait to start classes!
I also anticipate learning a great deal about myself. Crossing the ocean has been a dream of mine for many decades. Will I like it as much as I expect to? Will I have what it takes to live the rhythm aboard? Will I bring something meaningful to the story? In any event, I know I will see, hear, smell, taste, and feel things that can only be had out there, for that I am very grateful!
Q: What will my biggest challenge be while aboard?
A: “The young do not know enough to be prudent and therefore they attempt the impossible -- and achieve it, generation after generation.”
-- Pearl S. Buck,
My biggest challenge will be maintaining this older model of a human body in operating condition. I will need to be mindful from the first moment about addressing the slow wearing of one's physicality from simply being "in the elements" 24/7. Sun, wind, and water all are beautiful and deleterious if not respected. I will let some prudence give way to the youthful exuberance that brought me to this project and to dream of sailing L'Hermione across the Atlantic.
American Revolution history buffs, admirers of Washington, Jefferson and Lafayette, nautical enthusiasts and followers interested in L'Hermione's 2015 voyage from Rochefort, France to the Eastern seaboard are invited to follow this blog for all the latest news and plans in 2014 and 2015.
For more information about Hermione's voyage, including all the upcoming maritime-related activities planned in the U.S in 2015, please see: www.hermione2015.com