Editor's Note: In 1996, our intrepid writer, Muddy Paddle, built a historic wooden bateau and took it and a group of kids down the Hudson River. Accompanied by a war canoe and a modern sailboat, the three vessels had many adventures along the way. Check back each Friday for the next installment.
Building the Bateau
Although the word in French simply translates to “boat,” a bateau as understood in New York’s eighteenth and early nineteenth century history meant a flat-bottomed and double-ended boat used on the state’s inland waters for military transportation and freight. Typically 25 to 35 feet in length, these versatile boats were simple to build, stable and tough. They could be rowed, sailed or poled depending upon circumstances and they could be safely beached, dragged through the woods or over stony bars and rifts. During the French and Indian War, Abercrombie built 900 bateaux to move 16,000 troops on Lake George. During the American Revolution, Clinton assembled 220 bateaux to advance his strike force down the Susquehanna into Pennsylvania. And in the years before the construction of canals, countless bateaux were built to move freight east and west through the Mohawk, Oswego and Seneca watersheds.
I learned about these boats by diving on the remains of a few of them at the bottom of Lake George where hundreds were intentionally scuttled in 1758. Most of these boats were recovered the following year, but some failed to float free and still lie in the mud. These wrecks are found with with intact bottoms, some frames and piles of ballast rocks. The more I learned about how they were built and used, the more convinced I became that we could build one with kids and take it on camping expeditions.
Several replicas were built professionally before we got started including a beautiful Mohawk River bateau for the New York State Museum in 1992. At about the same time, Ted Caldwell, a high school teacher in the Adirondacks, began building these boats with students to teach math and carpentry skills. The big payoff was that they could take the completed boats out on the water at the end of the school year. Ted loaned one of these boats to me in 1993 for use as a template in building one that could be used on New York rivers including the Hudson. I opted to raise the sides of his boat a little higher than Caldwell’s prototype so that she wouldn’t swamp in the waves kicked up on the Hudson.
The new boat would measure a little less than 24 feet in length, 5.5 feet in beam and carry a 14-foot mast.
The first task was to obtain the required lumber. A sawmill west of Albany in the Helderbergs cut 450 feet of white pine planks ranging from 9 to 11 inches in width and roughly an inch in thickness and offered to help me and a group of boys plane the planks on one side and along the edges for $450. The planks, ranging in length from 12 to 16 feet were lengthened to 25 feet or more with scarf joints with the help of a local Social Studies teacher who built a jig so that the scarf angles would be uniform. A construction platform was built with scrap lumber donated by a local lumber company and the bottom boards were laid out on it, taking care to stagger the scarf joints. The shape of the bottom was traced from the bottom of Caldwell’s boat and the bottom boards were joined by cleats.
The frames were copied from Ted’s boat making sure that each was lengthened above the desired height, flaired and beveled at the correct angles to receive the side planks. Before the sides were installed, the bottom was given “rocker”, that is the upward curvature of each needed for better handling and rigidity by blocking up the bow and stern 3 inches. The sides of the boat were raised up in less than a day and the fitting of clamps, seats and rails went together easily over the course of a few evenings and weekends.
A local blacksmith offered to help me and a few boys hammer out iron work for the bow and stern on his backyard forge. The finished boat was oiled with a solution of linseed oil and pine tar and caulked after this had penetrated. A steering oar was fashioned from a sapling and a board, two more saplings were trimmed for use as a mast and spar and a sail was made from a painter’s drop cloth. The oars, however, were purchased.
The boat was launched in the Hudson and rowed by six boys approximately one mile to her new berth on the banks of the Vlomanskill near its junction with the Hudson. She was left there to “take up”, that is swell up with water so that the joints would tighten up and leak less. After a week, the boat was given a good Hudson River name, Sturgeon, and sea trials were conducted on the river. The boat performed well, steered easily and sailed downwind and on broad reaches. It was late in the season and so she was hauled out on the bank of the creek and inverted on the construction frames for the winter.
During the following spring and summer, the Sturgeon took a short trip on the Susquehanna River and a week-long journey down the Mohawk River between Rome and Schenectady. The boat was laid up on the shore in September, inverted on her frames again, oiled and then covered with a tarp.
We almost lost the boat a few months later. Heavy snows followed by a sharp January thaw and two inches of rain swelled the river and creek where the bateau had been set aside. The flooding covered all of the land surrounding the boat. Then it froze up. Steve, the property owner and I found a dingy, broke ice in front of us, and eventually reached the site of the all but submerged boat. The velocity of the water beneath the ice was frightening. We were able to secure a line to one of the forged ring bolts and tie the line to a nearby tree. That was about all we could do. We gingerly paddled back to high ground and hoped for the best. The line saved the boat from making a premature trip down the river and although chunks of ice scoured the landing site, carried away the sail rig and left a debris field of trees, branches, plastic bottles and tennis balls when the ice receded, the Sturgeon was in good shape. Plans were made for our long anticipated adventure down the Hudson.
Muddy Paddle grew up near several small muddy streams that lead to the Hudson River near Albany. He developed an affinity for small wooden boats as he explored the river's backwaters with oars and paddles. Muddy aspired to build a wooden boat for long trips but lacked the requisite skills, tools and space to tackle most types. However, building a bateau of the type used in eighteenth century appeared to him to be a feasible backyard carpentry project. With the help and advice of several friends and teenagers, he built a sturdy and seaworthy open boat for rowing and sailing.
The next installment of Muddy Paddle's Bateau will return next Friday! To read other adventures by Muddy Paddle, see: Muddle Paddle on the Erie Canal, Muddy Paddle: Able Seaman, about Muddy Paddle's adventures on the replica Half Moon, Muddy Paddle's Excellent Adventure on the Hudson, about his first canoe trip down the Hudson River.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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