In the colonial era, flat-bottomed, double-ended batteaux were built by the hundreds in eastern Canada and upstate New York.
They first appeared in the St Lawrence River valley in the 1660's when shipwright Moise Hillaret and his associates were asked to build boats to transport the French soldiers of the Carignan-Salieres regiment up the rapids into the interior wilderness.
Documents from the 1600's use the name batteaux plats for these vessels, which simply means flat-bottomed boats. By the 1700's so many hundreds of them were in use that the adjective 'plat' was dropped as they became the ubiquitous boat type on the St Lawrence River. Bateau with one t is the modern French spelling for any type of boat. Today the archaic spelling with two t's is used to differentiate the historical boat type.
Batteaux from the late 1700's are generally depicted as having been slow, crude, awkward craft. However, in the 1980's, archaeologist Daniel Laroche excavated four very early batteaux on the Quebec City waterfront. These early French-built craft have the rocker, sheer, flare and sleek lines of whitewater thoroughbreds.
This project was to take the archaeological drawings of the Quebec City batteaux and quickly replicate the approximate shape at 2/3 scale in stitch & glue plywood construction to get a better sense of the hull form and see how it performs in whitewater.
Here's how it was done:
Copies of the reports on the excavation of these boats were obtained at the archaeology department of the Ministere de la Culture et des Communications in Quebec City. The actual remains of the boats themselves were measured, traced and photographed at the Centre de Conservation du Quebec in 2002.
The Quebec City batteaux are 34 feet long. Scale models were made to work out the construction method and determine a workable size for a smaller version. 2/3 scale was settled on, to give a 23 ft x 4 ft boat that would fit four rowing positions and a weeks worth of camping gear. Informal 'tank-testing' of the models was done to get an idea of the hull's performance and behaviour under various conditions.
The dimensions of one of the four boats was scaled straight off the archaeological drawing at 2/3 scale.
The dimensions were plotted onto plywood sheets that had been spliced into 24-foot lengths. The shapes were cut out and stitched together with plastic zip-ties. a few moulds hold the correct cross-sectional form while the corners are glued with fillets of thickened epoxy resin.
Strength was added to the thin plywood shell with heavy gunwales and breasthooks. Internal framing was added in a similar configuration to the original batteaux. Foam-filled floatation chambers were bonded into each end.
Launch day on a frozen Lake Ontario in January, 2012. The hull showed itself to be fast, nimble and easy to launch on and off of the ice.
The colours blue and red were chosen based on this excerpt from a letter written by Count Frontenac in November 1673 after his expedition to Lake Ontario:
"I had two small bateaux plats built which I had been told could be taken up the rapids, into which I had six small cast iron cannon put, which I had found in the fort at Québec. I even believed that it was proper for the Indians to smear them with red and blue and with some adornments which the painters of this country are capable of doing, which produced among the Iroquois an excellent effect."
Shortly after the boat was completed, it was featured in two art shows curated by Su Sheedy in Kingston titled I AM WATER. The publication from the art exhibition is HERE.
Finally, six years after launching, the batteau finally got a test in the whitewater it was built for. May long weekend 2018 we tried it out in the Madawaska River at Palmer Rapids.
Batteaux plats are steered with a canoe paddle from the stern. The rockered, flat bottom and flared sides of the batteau were mirrored by the many cutting-edge whitewater canoes at Palmer Rapids.
Its performance in the rapids was impressively good. More to come.