Mediterranean galley is afloat

MORGES, Switzerland — Seven centuries after oar-powered warships first plied Lake Geneva, a mighty Mediterranean galley is afloat, minus the cannons, soldiers and slaves…
« La Liberte » (Freedom), a sleek, wooden beauty weighing 190 tons, was gently lowered into the glistening waters earlier this summer, well on the way to becoming the world’s only working galley, one with a place for day-tripping passengers and overnighters.The sleek wooden beauty, weighing 190 tons, was lowered into Lake Geneva in June, soon to become the world’s only working galley. AP
After more work to mount masts, fix sails and add other finishing touches, it is hoped the galley will set sail in June 2002, completing a project that began 10 years ago.

Jean-Pierre Hirt, a construction union official, was alarmed at the plight of the jobless in the early 1990s, when Switzerland was in recession and unemployment was at record levels of more than 5 percent. He was also fascinated by the history of the lake and its navigation.

So he decided to combine his two preoccupations by using the unemployed to reconstruct a Mediterranean galley like the old vessels that controlled use of Lake Geneva and its shoreline between the 13th and 18th centuries.

« People thought I was absolutely mad, » he says, chuckling. « Most didn’t even believe me that galleys sailed on Lake Geneva in the 13th century. »

But Hirt’s passion paid off.

In 1994, a fund-raising association was set up and a hangar-like shipyard was built on the lakeside the following year.

The maritime museum in Paris loaned detailed plans of ancient galleys — conserved at the orders of Louis XIV — which were then redesigned by a naval architect to eliminate structural weaknesses but replicate the galley’s style.

Jean-Pierre Hirt, a construction union official whose dream was to build such a formidable vessel, poses aboard « La Liberte » in the port of Morges, Switzerland. AP
« At that time the vessels lasted only a few decades. « This one is built to last centuries, » Hirt says, his eyes gleaming with pride over his bushy white beard.

Construction began in March 1996. Apart from a small team of professionals, all the labor for building, marketing and sales was provided by 600 formerly jobless people — with unemployment insurance covering their wages for their maximum six months on the project.

The scheme had disadvantages — people leaving at a moment’s notice if they found another job, and constant training and retraining.

But Hirt, who went into « active retirement » four years ago at age 60, wouldn’t have done it any other way.

« The galley took a long time to build because it wasn’t urgent, » he says. « What was urgent was to help the unemployed rebuild their confidence and give them practical skills. »

Hamid Sadozai, a 36-year-old Afghan who lived in Austria for 17 years before moving to Switzerland when he married, endorses the notion.

« I worked in the hotel trade before, but I was too badly paid, » says Sadozai, who has spent the past five months guiding galley visitors in French and German. « I want to change the direction of my life and hope that by working as a guide I’ll get the right experience and contacts. »

Michel — no family name was given — lost his livelihood because of bankruptcy.

« I did everything to survive, even working for a funeral parlor, » he says. I’ll never forget the terrible and painful faces of dead children.

« One day I came to the galley, and with time I was trained as a guide. I think I’m useful. I’m happy. »

The end results of the 81,000 hours of team effort and $1.5 million of material are awesome.

The vessel is 180 feet long and 30 feet wide — 82 feet including the oars.

The two masts will be 98 feet and 79 feet high and Hirt says 7,500 square feet of cloth will be used for the sails. Each oar — and there are 41 of them — is 39 feet long and weighs 209 pounds.

In contrast to the original galleys, where slaves were whipped, there is already a glut of would-be rowers, with 2,000 people competing for 123 places. It won’t be a fulltime job, says Hirt, because oars will be used only on special occasions. Usually La Liberte will rely on sails — with two powerful engines as backup.

Hirt says there is seating for 200 passengers — although the galley probably will carry only 90 to allow room for the sails to swing. Besides short lake trips, the vessel will be available for cruises lasting several days — with sleeping accommodation for 30 people and a fully equipped lounge under the bridge for 45.

Corporate reservations are already coming in, although none are being accepted until the fall. Firms as far afield as California, New Zealand and Australia have made inquiries about chartering the galley, Hirt says.

« It will be a crazy success, » he predicts.

La Liberte has already paid its own way thanks to sponsorship, sales of souvenirs and proceeds of guided tours — 160,000 since construction began.

Hirt’s association hopes to build a medieval port village in Morges — a lovely town between Geneva and Lausanne — in 2004 to provide additional revenue.

In all the detailed planning, there’s just one tiny snag.

« We still have to learn how to navigate La Liberte, » Hirt says with a grin. « And there’s nobody to tell us. »