A Czech corsair sets sail

La Grace

A replica of a 17th century brig known as La Grace which belonged to the first Czech naval captain, Augustine Heřman, set sail for the first time earlier this month from Suez, Egypt. The wooden vessel, which captures all the atmosphere and charm of the historic original, was the dream of a group of Czech sailing enthusiasts. Built in an Egyptian shipyard, the new La Grace remarkably took relatively little time to complete: just two years. Now it will spend the winter on the Red Sea before moving on to other destinations in the spring.

Josef Dvorský is captain of the new La Grace.

“Construction took only two years almost to the day which I think has to be a world record: similar projects usually take four, six or even eight years to complete. The wooden parts of the brig were built by locals, while the electronics were done by Czech experts. The planning of course took much longer: three years of searching in archives, preparing blueprints and so on. We also wanted the vessel to have a bit of home and because you’ll find no trees in the Sahara, the masts come all the way from the Czech-Moravian highlands. Famous Czech seafarer Rudy Krautschneider helped us chop those down.”

The new La Grace, says Captain Dvorský, will serve multiple purposes: on the one hand it will allow valuable training for young cadets, on the other be available for unique holiday opportunities. He said in order to pay for itself the brig needs to generate an annual revenue of around seven million crowns (the equivalent of around 370,000 US dollars).

La Grace
“Wooden vessels have a soul and have a sense of history and the new La Grace is a perfect replica down to the very smallest detail. It can be used, without the slightest change, as a sailing ship in historic films. Of course, it also has to meet all international safety standards so it is packed with the latest electronics and technology. It has not only sails but an engine too. So, it’s a bit of both: if you want to play at being a pirate, you can, but in the evening you can also retire to comfortable quarters – the best of both worlds.”

The original La Grace was bought by Augustine Heřman who emigrated from Bohemia to the Netherlands and later to America, where he operated as a merchant in New Amsterdam. In the 1640s Heřman spent several years as a privateer in the employ of the Dutch governor. The six-gun La Grace a fairly small vessel just 30 metres in length, attacked Spanish ships and successfully seized their booty, earning fame.

Augustine Heřman
“Heřman worked as a merchant who imported goods like indigo or tobacco from the Caribbean, but he was also granted the right to operate as a privateer, harassing Spanish ships. And, although in naval terms La Grace was small - only a brig - it defeated two Spanish frigates and seized their gold, transported from Central or South America. We were actually very happy to hit upon La Grace when we first decided that we wanted to build a historic vessel: we searched for a Czech ‘Columbus’ but had difficulty finding one; Bohemia is after all, a land with no sea shores, it’s a landlocked country. So Heřman, as the first Bohemian naval captain and history as a privateer was perfect.”

The new La Grace can be manned by a small crew, anywhere from four to 30 people. Captain Josef Dvorský again:

“We wanted to be able to operate with a minimum of four which means the ship’s captain, navigator, chief engineer and cook. Of course, in tough weather conditions, and tougher areas and at full sail, you need another 10 to 14 hands.”

Dan Rosecký,  Josef Dvorský  (right)
The training of cadets is one of the ways how La Grace will pay for itself:

“We have all sorts of grants ready, by which young students will be able to take part in the Sail Training programme organized each year by Sail Training International. Lots of young people are attracted to such programmes each year. But that will not be our only means of revenue: there are seven first-class cabins where regular tourists will be able to experience a holiday like no other under white sails.”

As for the launch earlier in December? Josef Dvorský said it was a success and that the view from the deck was wonderful:

“The atmosphere was great and we were very happy with the way the launch went. There were no hitches but it wasn’t easy: computer animation suggested that the launch would be very tight because the depth were La Grace went into the water was just 2.5 metres, while La Grace needs at least three. But with the use of classic technology and a Caterpillar pushing the Egyptians successfully got the vessel into deeper water. Many people connected with the project, not only myself and those there but also back in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, were thrilled.”

La Grace
The Czech team will spend the winter months on the Red Sea conducting tests and adding final touches; in the spring they will sail for Greece.

“Some final details remain, a lot of things need to be fine-tuned and we need to put up and adjust all the sails. Some of it is complicated technology. After that we will sail in the region of Egypt and remain in these parts till next April. Then we will set sail for Greece, where La Grace will be christened with the classic smashing of a bottle of champagne. In the spring and summer we will sail around the Mediterranean and when the weather begins to cool we are ready to cross the Atlantic for the Caribbean.”

Photo: Filip Koubek & Josef Dvorský jr., www.lagrace.cz