THE CHARLESTON BATEAU
Here, then, are the plans for what I would call
a punt but which is called by its users a "Charleston bateau."
It was brought to my attention for the first time by Richard
H. Randall, chairman of the Maritime Committee of the Maryland
Historical Society in Baltimore, whose friend, Hugh Benet, who
grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, had one as a boy. His
brother had one also. They bought them for 50 cents apiece secondhand
from raft men who, after having delivered their logs, had no
further use for the boats. As Mr. Randall explained:
At the turn of the century much logging was being carried
on in that part of South Carolina. Rafts of timber and logs,
roughly cut planks piled on log rafts, were floated down the
rivers bound together as most log rafts were bound on the
Delaware, Susquehanna, and other American rivers—a few
angle irons driven into the outside logs, a few cross timbers
through-bolted, again to the outside logs. These rafts were
steered by a long oar, or sweep mounted on a raised Y-post
securely braced. Usually two other sweeps were pinned on the
port and starboard just ahead of midships.
Now, these raft men built at least one bateau per raft—frequently
more. They were always the same, the hull was double-ended,
with a punt-raised floor under the bow, so the bottom boards
had to be shaped accordingly. The sides were nailed to the
bottom boards, and cross cleats were likewise nailed to the
bottom and sides, with seldom more than six cross cleats per
boat. No thwarts or seats.
Occasionally a triangular piece at bow and stern helped
to hold the sides in position. They were built of the cheapest
pine and propelled by a paddle or two—usually homemade
by the purchaser, when the bateaux were sold at the end of
the trip for no more than 50 cents apiece. Obviously these
bateaux swamped easily.
Of course the rafters needed at least one to get ashore
if the raft grounded, to help get tackle rigged to pull her
out into the stream again, also to repair the raft if the
logs slipped or got loose. Rafters used the paddle too.
The shores of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers at Charleston
were muddy and swampy— still are at the southern entrance
of the Inland Waterway. This swamp shore was called plough
mud [pronounced pluff] and the boys had to dig into the mud
with their paddles and slide the bateaux along to gain solid
ground. Remember how terrible that mud smelled? And the Intercoastal
With no caulking the seams would dry out overnight and
these boats were not taken from the water, so the kids sank
them every time they came home, and emptied them the next
time they were used.
Charleston was settled by many French Huguenots, so
perhaps that is how the name bateau became connected with
this type of craft.
Following Hugh Benet's sketch closely, which
he drew from memory, I made the drawings which accompany this
description. The lengthwise planking of the bottom is not what
I am familiar with for small scows or punts like this. I believe
that cross-planked construction is more usual, yet fore-and-aft
bottom planking is probably better—certainly it would
offer less resistance in sliding over mud, if there was much
of this to be done. Also there would be fewer seams to open
and leak. As we have already seen, W. P. Stephens designed his
rather nicely modeled punt with the bottom planks running lengthwise.
There might be some difficulty in bending these
bottom planks if the bottom curve or "rocker" were
rounded too abruptly. The bottom curve I have shown in Profile
I on the drawing closely reproduces the curve on Benet's sketch,
and in my judgment might require steaming the planks. In Profile
2, I have eased this curve enough so that I think that softwood
boards (pine, cedar, cypress), if not too dry,
could be sprung in place without steaming. In a second sketch,
I show the proper way of going about this: Nail one end securely,
and then use the length of the board as a lever to spring the
board down in place gradually, nailing securely as you proceed,
both through the cross cleats of
the bottom and through the side edges. Boards several feet longer
than the bottom should be used in order to gain leverage and
to get the other end down into place. When the planks are securely
nailed, the excess is sawed off.
Boards as wide as were used originally, as shown
in the drawings, are not necessary. The bottom can just as well
be made of four boards instead of two, and the sides of two
boards each instead of one wide one. The narrower boards will
bend into place more easily.
Benet in his sketch did not show any cleats on
the sides. Possibly these are not absolutely necessary and were
not used for the cheapest construction, but I have put them
in. They support the bottom cross cleats during construction
when a lot of pressure is put on the cross cleats in springing
the bottom boards into place. Also, side cleats brace the sides
and help to keep the wide side planks from warping or splitting.
If two planks were used for the side instead of one wide one,
side cleats would, of course, be required.
This is a very easy and inexpensive boat to build)
and either as it is, or with minor modifications) could prove
a most useful craft under many different conditions and circumstances.
It is capable of carrying heavy loads, is extremely stable in
calm water, and will row or paddle more easily than might appear.
It will take a lot of abuse and should not require much care
As a utility craft or small workboat on the waterfront—a
river, lake, or ocean—this punt has real possibilities.
It could be used with an outboard motor and would even sail
with a few slight modifications. Its fore-and-aft bottom planking
makes installation of a centerboard very easy.
This is a basic hull with which a great deal
can be done for very little.