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Structurally Predominant Bottoms in Frame-First Construction: the Case of the Barque du Léman

Paul Bloesch
p. 131-135

Résumés

La barque du Léman (France/Suisse, xixe-xxe siècles) est une grande embarcation à voile latine, construite sur couple selon la plus authentique tradition méditerranéenne postmédiévale. Cependant, son fond a été construit d'une manière très particulière : les lourds bordés de fond en sapin pectiné (Abies pectinata) sont presque aussi épais que la membrure et courent sans interruption sur presque toute la longueur du fond. Le reste du bordé était en chêne (pour le bouchain) et en mélèze (pour les flancs). De toute évidence, la résistance structurelle du fond dépendait principalement de ces planches de sapin.

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Texte intégral

1The barque du Léman, as it is conventionally called today, was a specific type of transport vessel used on Lake Geneva. It reached the end of its evolution around the year 1900 and disappeared between the two World Wars. The smaller vessels (called bricks) had a carrying capacity of between 30 and 70 tons deadweight, the bigger ones (the barques) carried from 90 to 180 tons. They were built frame-first in genuine post-medieval Mediterranean tradition, and rigged with two lateen sails, to which a jib was added shortly before 1900. Two vessels have survived to this day, but not without having undergone some radical repairs or even rebuilds: the Neptune, of 1904, at Geneva, and the Vaudoise, of 1931, at Lausanne-Ouchy.

2The planking, which was added to the pre-erected framework, can be divided into three categories: the flat part of the bottom, made of silver fir (Abies pectinata); the rising and narrowing extremities of the bottom, made of oak (Quercus sp.); and the bilges and sides, each made of larch (Larix decidua). The particular structure of the bottom will be the subject of the present contribution.

3The principal characteristics of the fir planks in the centre of the bottom have been described by Gérard Cornaz (1976, p. 75, 191). Called meïnets, they were up to 17.50 m long and from 8 to 14 cm thick, almost as much as the sided dimension of the floor timbers (10 to 14 cm according to the size of the vessel). They were worked green, and applied to the frames without any heating. In order to fit the shape of the rising floor timbers fore and aft, the meïnets were sawn obliquely at their extremities (Cornaz 1976, p. 75: “Le sciage aux extrémités se faisait en biais pour épouser la forme acculée des varangues à l'avant et à l'arrière”). This could be understood as if the faces of the planks were sawn at their extremities to exhibit a slight twist, but this is not the case, as will be shown later. The meïnets were fastened to the framing with treenails made of laburnum (Laburnum alpinum), one per strake and per floor timber, and distributed in an alternating pattern. The treenails were driven from the inside of the floor timbers and wedged at the outer face of the plank.

  • 1 Cornaz (1976, p. 75, 191) writes pièces en torse, but we prefer the adjective following the usage (...)

4The meïnet strakes were continued at both ends of the vessel by oak planks called pièces entorses, which can be translated by “twisted pieces”1. These planks were bent by heating over fire, and fastened with iron spikes.

5During the winter months 2004-2005, the restoration of the barque Neptune in Geneva provided this author with the oppor­tunity to study the structures that might be original, or at least be related to repairs executed during the first career of the ship. Unfortunately it was not possible to record in detail more than four fragments of old planking situated in the rear of the port half of the bottom (fig. 1: yellow). The piece next to the keel seems to be original, while the following three result from an early repair, as they have been laid over plugged spike holes in the floor timbers. The seams, on the other hand, could be recorded for most of their length thanks to the carpenters who, when dismantling the bottom planking, had carefully marked them on the floor timbers (fig. 1: bold dashed lines).

Fig. 1: Neptune, 1904

Fig. 1: Neptune, 1904

Planking expanded.

(drawing P. Bloesch)

6We can distinguish four strakes on each side of the keel: they exhibit straight edges and steadily narrowing widths as they approach the rear end of the bottom. The extremities of most bottom planks are further reduced in width by a more or less oblique cut of their outboard edges. At the forward end of the bottom the situation is less clear. Several conspicuous oblique seams could be observed, but unfortunately no old planking was left.

7Two kinds of fasteners could be observed: treenails in the central part of the bottom and iron spikes in the ends of the planks which, in the case of the four recorded fragments, extend over three to seven floor timbers (fig. 2). The treenails, one per strake in every floor timber, are driven from inboard, wedged at the outboard face of the plank, and arranged in the characteristic pattern described by Cornaz (1976, p. 75). The treenails are of two sizes: about 25 mm and about 29 mm mean diameter. The spikes, about 10 mm square, are distributed normally two per strake in every floor timber. There is also evidence of the use of some odd threaded iron nuts and bolts near the ends of the planks.

Fig. 2: Neptune, 1904

Fig. 2: Neptune, 1904

Bottom planking thickness in centimetres.

(drawing P. Bloesch)

8The dimensions of the bottom planks are impressive. Their widths range from 33 to 46 cm at their wide ends, and from 29 to 39 cm at their narrow ends. Since the original planks are almost entirely lost, their lengths could not be established. Their thickness was 11 cm near the keel, tapering to 10 cm at the outer edge of the third strake and to 9 cm at the outer edge of the fourth strake (fig. 2). The ends of the planks taper to 8 or 7 cm at their butts where they meet the oak pièces entorses, which in turn taper to about 5 cm close to the rabbet of the stem and at the sternpost. The rabbet has a depth of about 4 cm, which is also the thickness of the hood ends of the planks fitted into them.

9The general pattern underlying the construction of a barque bottom, which looms through the planking seams of Neptune, is further revealed, and confirmed, by a model in the Musée du Léman at Nyon (Inv. No. ML 141) and said to have been made in 1905 or 1906 by a shipwright apprentice, called Duchamp, at Saint-Gingolph (fig. 3). It indeed looks very much like a school exercise. It shows the characteristic planking pattern in its simplest form, and it reproduces the choice of the wood species of the real construction. On each side of the keel we see two long fir planks with parallel edges and trapezoidal ends, each continued forward and aft by oak planks (the pièces entorses). The third fir plank, with diverging edges and square ends, is continued by larch planks, and the sides are entirely planked in larch.

Fig. 3: Barque model, about 1905

Fig. 3: Barque model, about 1905

Nyon, Musée du Léman, ML 141. Keel length: about 1.31 m.

(photography P. Bloesch)

10This particular shape of the bottom planks seems to have remained unnoticed until quite recently, when it was possible – as mentioned above –, to record the seams of the bottom planking of the barque Neptune in detail, and to compare the resulting pattern with that of the model of Duchamp.

11Cornaz (1976, p. 75, 191) does not explicitly mention this pattern of the bottom planking. He only says, as we remember, that the fir planks were up to 17.50 m long and had their extremities sawn “obliquely”. However, in the light of our observations, this can only be understood in the sense that the extremities of the planks were given the trapezoidal shape we have seen in the bottoms of Neptune and of the model of Duchamp, and not in the sense of their being sawn with a certain twist at the ends of their faces, which, incidentally, could only have been achieved by handwork, and not in a sawmill. Curiously enough, Cornaz’ drawings (e.g.. 1976, plan No. 1-2 of Victoire) and a model he built to illustrate the results of his research (currently held in reserve in the Swiss National Museum, Affoltern am Albis, Inv. No. LM 71 909) only show normal continuous strakes with fair seams throughout the ship. The same has to be said about two more models built by professional shipwrights: one in 1878 by Prudent Borcard of La Belotte near Geneva (Nyon, Musée du Léman, Inv. No. ML 321/B), the other in the 1950s by Louis Jacquier, former director of the shipyard of Le Locum near Meillerie, where Neptune had been built in 1904 (Thonon-les-Bains, Musée du Chablais). This reminds us to be careful when using models as evidence, even those built by professionals of the trade.

  • 2 Account books of the shipyard Christin at Saint-Gingolph, vol. I, p. 37 ( Fenalet) and vol. II, p. (...)

12From what has been observed, it can be assumed that in building a new barque, the fir bottom planks were made as large as possible, extending the whole length of the flat part of the bottom. Their length was limited only by the shape of the hull or the working length of the sawmill, their width by the size of the log. Only two planks could be cut from one log. The length of up to 17.50 m, according to Cornaz (1976, p. 191), probably refers to the sawmill belonging to the shipyard of Le Locum, as Cornaz took much of his information from its former director Louis Jacquier (Cornaz 1976, p. 1). In the shipyard of Saint-Gingolph, planks of 18 m were not unknown: for the repair of the barque Espérance, executed in 1921, five new fir planks were employed, each 18 m long, between 35 and 39 cm wide, and 12 or 13 cm thick. Some years earlier, in 1910, the repair of the barque Fenalet needed somewhat shorter lengths (12 and 14.50 m), 47 and 48 cm wide, and 11 cm thick22. It should be noted that at this time new barques were no longer built at Saint-Gingolph.

13The bottom structure of Neptune, and of the barque du Léman in general, with its uninterrupted (when new) and very wide and thick strakes of particular shape, appears to be quite different from normal Mediterranean frame-first practice. This becomes more evident when we consider the proportions between the thickness (sided dimension) of the floor timbers, the distance between them, and the thickness of the planking, and compare those of Neptune with those of some examples of Mediterranean merchant vessels gathered at random (table 1).

Table 1: Relation between thickness (sided dimension) of floor timbers, distance between them, and thickness of planking

Table 1: Relation between thickness (sided dimension) of floor timbers, distance between them, and thickness of planking

The Neptune compared with four Mediterranean examples.

14Internal structures, on the other hand, follow the usual prac­tice: bilge stringer, beam shelf, and ceiling. The keelson is notched over the floor timbers and fixed with a few spikes, but not bolted to the keel. By means of a row of stanchions, it serves only to spread the weight of the cargo, which is normally car­ried on the deck.

15The structural strength of the hull obviously depends more than usual on the size of the bottom planks. This aspect is further enhanced by repairs implying the partial replacement of floor timbers (fig. 4), where the new floor timber heads are fas­tened in the usual way to the bottom planks, but not to the stumps of the remaining part of the floor timber. The new floor timber heads and the futtocks, on the other hand, are well fastened to each other with square drift bolts.

Fig. 4: Neptune, 1904

Fig. 4: Neptune, 1904

Repair of floor timber A 10. The outer edge of the fourth strake has been reduced in thickness in a subsequent repair, carrying away the head of the spike.

(drawing P. Bloesch)

16The heavy planks are doubtless the structurally predominant elements of the bottom, but the underlying structural concept, as well as the method of construction, is frame-first. The bottom planks are fastened to the pre-erected framework, even if the treenails are driven from the inside of the hull. The particular configuration of the seams is a consequence only of the size and the mechanical properties of the fir planks.

  • 3 Berne, Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern, B II 632, p. 53-55: “...pour la construction, il y a des aix (...)
  • 4 Annecy, Archives départementales de la Haute-Savoie, 6 C 1039, 1re partie, fol. 40v-41, agreement (...)

17The earliest evidence of fir bottoms in skeleton-built vessels of Mediterranean tradition on Lake Geneva is a report of 1663 about the construction of two galleys in the city of Geneva3. At the present state of our knowledge, it is impossible to say if this particular construction detail was introduced to the lake from abroad, or if it was the result of a local development. The fact that the name of the bottom fir planks, les meïnets, has been taken from the vocabulary of the local tradition of building bottom-based ships4, might be a hint in this direction. However, direct evolution can be excluded.

  • 5 Turin, Archivio di Stato di Torino, Corte, Materie politiche per rapporto all'interno, Lettere di (...)

18In any case, when the shipwright Laurent Dental from Nice was commissioned by the Duke of Savoy in 1671 to build two Mediterranean barques on Lake Geneva (Bloesch 1999), he almost immediately went to a mountain forest to select and fell some exceedingly large fir trees suitable to be sawn into bottom planks5. This is a striking illustration of the maxim pointed out by Fernando Oliveira in his Livro da fabrica das Naos, namely that a shipwright working in for­eign countries should, in choosing his building materials, follow the local traditions (Rieth 1999, p. 38; Oliveira 1991, p. 66, 144).

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Bibliographie

Bloesch P.
1999 “Conversion d'un navire de mer en navire de lac (lac Léman),” in P. Pomey, É. Rieth (eds), Construction navale maritime et fluviale. Approches archéologique, historique et athnologique, Actes du Septième Colloque international d'archéologie navale/Proceedings of the Seventh International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA 7), Île Tatihou 1994, Paris, éditions du CNRS, Archaeonautica 14, p. 115-121.

Conti (de Zuanne) S.
1686 L'architettura navale. London, British Library, mss. Add. 38655. Another copy is kept in the Biblioteca comunale of Treviso, Italy, ms. 1784.

Cornaz G.
1976 Les barques du Léman, deuxième édition revue et corrigée, Grenoble, 4 Seigneurs. (Nouvelle édition revue et corrigée: Genève, Slatkine, 1998.)

Joncheray J.-P.
1988 “Un navire de commerce de la fin du xviie siècle, l'épave des Sardinaux. Première partie: Le navire et son mode de chargement,” Cahiers d'archéologie subaquatique 7, p. 21-67.

Mazaudier M.
1835 Guide pratique d'architecture navale, Paris – Toulon, Desauche – Bellue.

Oliveira F.
1991 Livro da fabrica das naos, Facsimile of the cod. 3702 of the National Library of Lisbon, edition, and English translation, Lisbon, Academia de Marinha.

Rieth É.
1999 “La sélection des bois selon le Livro da fabrica das naos (1570-1580) de Fernando Oliveira,” in A. Corvol (ed.), Forêt et Marine, Paris et Montréal, L'Harmattan, p. 33-40.

Villié P.
1998-2005 Unpublished excavation reports of the site U Pezzo, Saint­Florentin, Haute-Corse, Marseille, Département des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines, EA 2331.

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Notes

1 Cornaz (1976, p. 75, 191) writes pièces en torse, but we prefer the adjective following the usage of the shipyard Christin of Saint-Gingolph as attested in its account books covering the years 1910-1921 (private collection, Saint-Gingolph).

2 Account books of the shipyard Christin at Saint-Gingolph, vol. I, p. 37 ( Fenalet) and vol. II, p. 270 ( Espérance ).

3 Berne, Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern, B II 632, p. 53-55: “...pour la construction, il y a des aix de chesne desçiés à suffisance, comme aussi ceux de sapin pour le fonds et couvert...” (Translation: “...for the construction, there are oak planks sawn in sufficient quantity, as also fir planks for the bottom and deck.”). This document is undated, but relates to an entry of 3 September 1663 in the register of the War Council (B II 13, p. 25).

4 Annecy, Archives départementales de la Haute-Savoie, 6 C 1039, 1re partie, fol. 40v-41, agreement about the sale of building materials for a grand bateau, 17 January 1699): “…dedit larze […] a la reserve des mennetz pour le fond dudit batteau”. (Translation: “…of the said larch […] except the mennets for the bottom of the said ship”.)

5 Turin, Archivio di Stato di Torino, Corte, Materie politiche per rapporto all'interno, Lettere di particolari, M 48. Letter of auditor Metral, dated 31 March 1671, informing the Duke that “demain je les conduiray tous deux a la montagne pour marquer les pieces de sappin necessaires...” (Translation: “tomorrow I will take them both [i.e.. the shipwrights] up into the mountain to mark the necessary fir trees.”). An anonymous memorandum informing the Council of Geneva on 2 June 1671 (old style) about the progress of the Savoyan ship­building programme (Geneva, Archives d’État, CL 46, fol. 14-15) mentions “les bois de la forest de Toulon qui est au dessus du village de Maillairia et de St Gingou ou il y a des scies assez propres à refendre lesdits arbres d’excessive longueur et grosseur qui sont des vuargnes propres pour faire lesdits fonds des bastimens qui ne se pourrissent dans l’eau...” (Translation: “the woods of the forest of Thollon, situated above the villages of Meillerie and Saint-Gingolph where there are saw[-mills] quite suitable for sawing the said trees of excessive length and thickness, being firs suitable for making the said bottoms of the vessels, which do not rot in the water”.)

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Neptune, 1904
Légende Planking expanded.
Crédits (drawing P. Bloesch)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/archaeonautica/docannexe/image/2332/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 375k
Titre Fig. 2: Neptune, 1904
Légende Bottom planking thickness in centimetres.
Crédits (drawing P. Bloesch)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/archaeonautica/docannexe/image/2332/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 331k
Titre Fig. 3: Barque model, about 1905
Légende Nyon, Musée du Léman, ML 141. Keel length: about 1.31 m.
Crédits (photography P. Bloesch)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/archaeonautica/docannexe/image/2332/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 604k
Titre Table 1: Relation between thickness (sided dimension) of floor timbers, distance between them, and thickness of planking
Légende The Neptune compared with four Mediterranean examples.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/archaeonautica/docannexe/image/2332/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 169k
Titre Fig. 4: Neptune, 1904
Légende Repair of floor timber A 10. The outer edge of the fourth strake has been reduced in thickness in a subsequent repair, carrying away the head of the spike.
Crédits (drawing P. Bloesch)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/archaeonautica/docannexe/image/2332/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 38k
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Paul Bloesch, « Structurally Predominant Bottoms in Frame-First Construction: the Case of the Barque du Léman »Archaeonautica, 21 | 2021, 131-135.

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Paul Bloesch, « Structurally Predominant Bottoms in Frame-First Construction: the Case of the Barque du Léman »Archaeonautica [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 24 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/archaeonautica/2332 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/archaeonautica.2332

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Paul Bloesch

Schalerstrasse, 1, 4054 Basel, Switzerland

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