Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Adam Hodges-LeClaire, and I’m a 24-year-old public historian and museum tailor, originally from eastern Massachusetts.
What interested you first in the lifestyle of a sailor?
(Apart from being traumatized by a flamboyant pirate museum in Salem MA at a very young age), my first real taste of maritime history came from visiting the shipyard of the reconstructed 1780 French frigate Hermione in Rochefort France. Several years later when the ship’s nonprofit announced they were recruiting a crew for the (now finished) ship, I was determined to join the project – despite having never sailed! But the biggest asset I had, and wanted to bring to the project, was my background as a historian, and my eagerness to immerse myself in a ‘living history’ approach to reenacting 18th century life at sea. Therefore I began archival research on what French Royal Navy sailors were wearing in the 1780s, made a full authentic wardrobe based on my research, and then wore it in my time as a volunteer aboard. That research project eventually turned into my final college thesis, and began what is now a hopefully life-long interest in Tall Ships, the social history of mariners, and what both can mean for modern audiences today.
When did you first sail?
I first set foot aboard a boat during the sea trials of l’Hermione in fall of 2014, an experience which continued into the ship’s inaugural trans-Atlantic voyage in summer of 2015 – ultimately travelling 8,426 nautical miles over the course of about seven months. Since then I’ve continued to volunteer in the shipyard as often as I can, andvisit other similar projects and museums for inspiration, but I’d still consider myself far more of an apprentice tailor and historian than a sailor. Even if I’m now familiar with safety and certain aspects of work on traditional vessels, I have a lot to learn before I could call myself an able seaman, let alone a topman!
As a historian, what intrigues you most about the history of sailors and maritime tradition?
My biggest goal towards any audience I work with is to get them to move beyond asking simply “WHY!?”, and move them towards inquiring, “…why?”; that is, to play devil’s advocate for past eras and generations of mariners. Rather, I think people find it hard to emotionally connect with history, but when taught well the topic can teach us so much about our present! For instance, sailors 250 years ago had clothing that worked incredibly well within its context, and wearing the replica maritime wardrobe I’ve made day-to-day helps me feel much more empathy for the topic, and for these men who are long since dead. But clothing is just the ‘hook’ to engage people about the topic with something tangible and colorful, and Ideally I pass broader themes and content along to visitors of all ages, forming a link between the various history projects I work with and the public support and funding they rely on.
What is something that most people don’t know about contemporary sailors and their ancestors?
I’ll use the example of natural fibers. Many people automatically assume that modern synthetic materials are inherently superior, whether in terms of raingear or a ship’s rigging - yet, so many of these materials, while incredible, have only been around for a few decades. They have strengths and disadvantages, just like their predecessors, and we shouldn’t automatically write off either (plastic melts, linen frays). Whether it’s the case of handmade leather shoes balancing on a tarred hempen footrope, hand-stitched woolen clothing enduring a driving rainstorm on watch, or myriad other examples, I’ve found that historical clothing functions incredibly well on nearly all levels – and so can traditional natural rigs and wooden boats. And the benefit of the modern day for those outside of the strict parameters of living history is that we can pick and choose, taking good ideas from the present (germ theory, feminism) with techniques and materials from the past (like, using sail power instead of fossil fuels). The more we change in practical terms, the more we are forced to change, and the more we miss out on the potential that the past can teach us something pragmatic for use in our present.
What has been your best moment at sea?
My best moment was probably a day spent in a Tall Ships race off of New York City – I was aloft for much of my watch, we had dolphins moving alongside of us for several hours, and were surrounded by other full-rigged vessels. Seeing those boats move alongside one another under full sail in glorious summer weather was certainly an unforgettable moment.
What has been your worst?
Incompetently furling the foretopgallant of l’Hermione for almost an hour at at 3:45 am with two other wayward volunteers, and losing my favorite woolen cap to the Atlantic as we tried to bring in the sail. I hope a d#$m whale is wearing it right now.
Which type of boat/ship is your favorite?
It’s somewhat silly - I have almost no experience beyond being a very small cog on a full size frigate, and then equally limited time crewing various rowboats! If I were able to spend more time aboard smaller watercraft in the future, I would probably learn a great deal more about the principles of sailing, just because the cause and effect of maneuvers is so much more visible. However, in the summer of 2016 I worked for an outdoor school in southern NH, Kroka Expeditions, and ultimately helped lead a two week trip on Lake Champlain using 19th century English pilot boats. They’re big powerful rowing craft which can hold a lot of gear, and they were an absolute pleasure to work with – so I’d say they’re my favorite!
What is your favorite port you’ve visited?
Visiting my home city of Boston on July 11-12, 2015 with l’Hermione was something I’d literally dreamed about, and unforgettable. We recreated a parade by townspeople historically which received the Marquis de Lafayette once he arrived, and I was able to see family and friends I hadn’t been with in months. The city itself is much more human-scale than New York, and full of lovely pubs and historical tidbits - it felt like a really triumphant homecoming
What do you miss most about home when you are sailing?
While in France I most missed my ability to have a real sense of personality in a foreign setting, or as the Swedish bosun Jens said, “saying what you want, rather than what you can”. That is, even if you can make a joke in another language, the culture or reference may be totally lost, and it feels like you’re a social child again, which can be really frustruating. I also really missed the support of history friends, so before I set sail again, I would really want to come aboard with another like-minded 18th century colleague who’d be eager to push the bounds of research and putting them into practice today as a learning experience.
For as long as you have been sailing, what is the best advice a fellow sailor has given you?
One night off of Bermuda in 2015, I confessed to my watch leader about how intimidated, and frankly scared, I’d been at various points during the crossing, especially coming on at 4am in pitch black with the sea howling all around us. He responded with something that entirely changed my opinion, saying that I should be “scared of land, rather than open water”. By his logic, the open ocean, while potentially violent, was far less dangerous than the possibility of running aground or being hemmed in with less room to maneuver away from obstacles. Understanding that certainly helped me get outside of my head and relax.
What is your most cherished piece of gear that you use while sailing?
Oddly enough, it may be my horribly abused pair of ‘petticoat breeches’ – 18th century maritime over-pants which protect my breeches and stockings from paint, tar, oil, and other grime during work. They’re incredibly functional, and a neat memento of my service so far – one I hope I can add to in coming years.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve been publishing a ‘Fishy Fashion’ blog lately which details some of my current research and projects, currently on the clothing and significance of Scottish fishingcommunities in the 18th century – check it out here: