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BatteauBrian Coffield is keeping Fluvanna’s batteau history alive.

He bought and helped restore a batteau that he plans on guiding down the James River starting June 17 from Lynchburg to Maiden’s Landing in Goochland. Coffield and his crew of six, along with up to 24 other batteaux, will make the 120-mile trip in eight days as a part of the 32nd Batteau Festival. John Wilkinson, who lives in Lake Monticello, is part of Coffield’s crew.

Coffield christened his batteau the Queen Anne, taking his cue from the Rivanna River, named after the Queen of England.

Coffield works part-time as an attendant at the Pleasant Grove House Museum telling visitors about Fluvanna’s rich history of using batteaux to take goods from farmers to Richmond.

The batteau (French for boat) was designed flat-bottomed and pointed at each end. It was powered and steered with long oars or sweeps at the front and back.  The design allowed for easy navigation in the shallow rocky waters of the Rivanna, James and other rivers throughout the east.

The boats ruled river waters from 1775 to 1840 when canal locks, then trains, brought more efficient means of transportation.

While people have long been interested in batteaux, the modern era started when construction workers at a site in Richmond unearthed more than 40 of the vessels, Coffield said.

“Joe Ayers, who still lives in Fluvanna, was the parks and recreation director in the ’80s. He said, ‘I can build one of those,’” Coffield said.

And with the help of several people in Columbia, that’s what he did.

“So the modern era started in Fluvanna with a boat named the Columbia,” he said.

In 1984 Ayers poled the Columbia to Richmond on the James River.

In 1985 a group got together to race their batteaux from Lynchburg to Goochland. It attracted quite a crowd. After a few years, the race morphed into a festival with towns along the route selling food and celebrating, Coffield said.

Hundreds gather along the way at state parks and small towns to welcome the crews with bonfires, music and barbecues.

Up to 25 boats float the course accompanied by others on canoes, floats and kayaks. And they all position themselves at crucial points in the river to watch the batteaux navigate falls.

“They all hope to get a good picture of one running aground or capsizing,” Coffield said.

Those traveling in a batteau wear period costumes. “It’s a living history,” he said. “We try to be close, but you will see a few Budweiser cans.”

Down the center of the craft are wooden boxes for supplies that also functioned as the captain’s and first mate’s beds. Now the boxes keep coolers full of food and drink, Coffield said.

The Queen Anne, like many others, has a hearth for the crew to cook meals on the boat.

Building and maintaining a batteau is an expensive and time-consuming hobby, Coffield said. The giant sweeps he made cost $125 apiece.

“People retire and move on,” he said. “My dream after the Queen Anne gets retired is to bury it at Pleasant Grove.”

Coffield and his crew will hit Scottsville on June 21. To see him and the flotilla of batteaux, go to the boat ramp along the river off Jackson Street. The entire town will be celebrating.
To find out more and to download a brochure, go to www.vacanals.org/batteau.