Bermuda's French Warship
by Walt Stearns, Nov. 1997
Of the comprehensive collection of marine vessels that met their fates on Bermuda's treacherous reef system, very few were warships. This may be because most warship skippers are a highly skilled and cautious lot. But, when a warship comes to a disastrous end and it's not the result of a sea battle, one must ask, what went wrong? For the French frigate, L'Herminie, it could just have been a case of bad Karma.
Launched in 1824, L'Herminie was not completed until some four years later. For a naval warship of her day, she was a monster, measuring a whopping 300 feet long and carrying 60 cannons. She didn't see active duty, however, until 1837 when she was ordered to Mexican waters to enforce France's claims during the revolution. But, upon arrival in Havana, Cuba, August 3, 1837, 133 members of her crew came down with yellow fever.
Figuring L'Herminie's crew would be useless in battle, France's high command decided it would be best to recall her to Brest, France. Under the command of Commodore Bazoche, L'Herminie left Havana for home on December 3, 1837. During her Atlantic crossing she encountered increasingly heavy seas. Commodore Bazoche decided to take shelter in Bermuda. By the time land was visible, however, the big ship had inadvertently wandered well inside a treacherous stretch of the Bermuda's northwestern facing barrier reef. Shortly after, L'Herminie was hard aground on the reef.
Before the ship started to break up, a flotilla of local boats from Ely's Harbour came to her assistance. Given the sea conditions, it is amazing that all 495 members of L'Herminie's crew were safely evacuated from the doomed ship. The following day, several of the ship's stores were successfully salvaged. The crew returned home at the end of the month aboard the Hercules, Jean and Osage.
Today L'Herminie rests in 35 feet of water four miles west of Ireland Island. Since her wooden hull has been down for 160 years, little remains of her other than 58 of her original 60 cannons. (Two were salvaged by famed Bermuda treasure hunter Teddy Tucker, the model for Peter Benchley's Romar Trease character in the novel The Deep.) The wreckage is scattered across two large tracts of white sand in the middle of the reef. Two cannons lay atop one another forming a cross. Surrounding the wreckage are the very coral heads that ripped the hull to pieces.
Along with the cannons, divers can also see one of L'Herminie's two massive anchors propped up against a large coral head, as well as several of her square shaped, iron holding tanks, now half eaten by the sea. They once held the ship's supply of drinking water. Buried in the sand are some of the ship's timbers and cannon balls, as well as a collection of small artifacts such as broken glass, bottles and pottery. Although most of what was deemed valuable was supposedly salvaged, it has been said that divers can find the odd coin or ship's utensil buried in the sand.
Some of the coral heads surrounding the wreckage are 30 feet tall. Visibility at this site is often good to excellent, sometimes reaching nearly 100 feet. The norm is between 50 to 70 feet. The prime season for diving L'Herminie is from early May through October.