Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2433
BATEAUX, GUIDE BOATS, AND MORE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, new boats in a new land. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When Europeans came to North America they found a world of water and wood that had to be navigated. Native Americans had faced the same situation and created kayaks and canoes light enough to be portaged over the land between lakes and streams. Now the newcomers both copied the Indians, and went their own way.

The familiar rowboat (or skiff) is stable, fairly heavy, and meant for service on one lake or stream. It's pure European. But canoe adaptations are more interesting -- like the big cargo-carrying canoes of 18th-century Canadian trappers, the Voyageurs.

European newcomers also adapted their own tools and skills to create new forms. While the Indians built a light wooden frame in a bark or hide skin, the Europeans adapted their traditional use of planking laid on ribs. At the same time they created new hydrodynamic designs and they invented lighter structures.

Take the logger's bateau, a lovely workboat, heavily used in Maine's 19th-C logging industry. It was a rugged, flat-bottomed, broad-beamed, shallow-draft boat with a high prow and stern. It was a stable platform from which loggers could herd floating logs in Maine's estuaries. Yet, for all its ruggedness, the bateau still rode the water like a newly-fallen autumn leaf.

Maine logger's bateau, side view

The loggers often propelled a bateau with the same poles they used to jockey logs. When one hit logs it rode up out of the water onto them; it was not likely to be crushed. Yet it was meant for one job only; and, when that job disappeared, so did it. The Maine Maritime Museum has a very rare complete bateau and it's no light canoe. It's 33 feet long with a six-foot beam; yet still kin to the canoe in the way it rides the surface of the water.

The idea of creating canoe-like buoyancy with planks and ribs reached an apogee in the 19th-century Adirondack Guide Boat. It was developed for hunting guides in the patchwork regions of lakes and hills called the Adirondack Mountains.

The ribs in a guide boat are single pieces, cut along the grain of wood -- very light and strong. The planking is thin quarter-inch pine and it's laid without caulking. The finished boat is simply immersed in water until the planks swell and seal themselves. It looks like a canoe, but it's rowed -- with crossed hands. It's very light. A thirteen-foot guide boat might weigh a little over only fifty pounds, and its draft is only a few inches. A guide can easily carry such a boat from one lake to the next.

Adirondack guide boat

So look at the bateau and the guide boat. Admire their kinship. The wide flat bottom of the bateau shrinks to maybe eight inches in a guide boat. But both reflect a love of the beauty of wood used well. My listeners know I like to talk about airplanes. Well, what draws me to these boats is that same gravity-defying impulse, the same love of buoyancy. They truly do lie off in the vast fluid world between the Indian canoe and the early aeroplane.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


K Durant and H. Durant, The Adirondack Guide-Boat. (Blue Mountain Lake, NY: The Adirondack Museum, 1980).

Thanks to Libby Barlow, UH Administration, for suggesting this episode and for providing the Durant source. Nathan Lipfert, Senior Curator of the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine, provided very helpful counsel.

Thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the Adirondack guide boat images. Photos of the bateau at the Maine Maritime Museum by JHL.


Maine logger's bateau, front view
Maine Maritime Museum's logging Bateau -- 32' 9" long, 6' 3" wide


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.