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Working Boats in Bottles:  Les Barques du Leman

By: H. G. Rogers

Having grown up in Virginia, in the USA, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, I was used to seeing traditional workboats, fishing, and transporting goods throughout the Bay region.  It was only logical therefore, that once I learned my hobby of putting ships in bottles, that these boats would be among my creations. 

In the past year and a half, with my companion Stefan, we have moved and are living on the shores of Lake Leman, his place of origin, and I have discovered the unique, typical, and traditional working boats of Lac Leman: The “ Barques du Leman,” and that gave me the idea to use them as a subject for ships in bottle.

The history of the” barques,” is the first thing I learned about.  Before the 16th century, Lake Geneva, and it surroundings, were entirely under the rule of the Counts of  Savoie ,with the exception of the free city of Geneva, that was a merchant city whose wealth came mainly from dealing in silk and spices. The Count de Savoie introduced on Lac Leman, the Mediterranean type galleys in order to control traffic, creating by that means, a navy fleet of respectable proportions.  Later, the Swiss, or rather the people of Bern, conquered all the northern part of the Lake and imposed their rule over most of the lake.  Progressively, the galleys whose purpose was military, were modified into a more utilitarian craft that still had the capability of being used as a galley, but whose main purpose was to transport goods.  That seems to be the origin of the” Barque du Leman.”

For several hundred years, these ships of considerable size and rigged with lateen sails, were common on the Red Sea and the Nile, but certainly not seen often so far North, and especially not on a lake, became the main means of transportation of merchandise and heavy materials for construction.  In the 19th century, les “barques” became essential in the building of almost all the towns around the lake, with their huge capacity to carry stones from the quarry of Meillerie (a small French town, not far from Evian), and timber from the hills. Many of the” barques” were built on the french side of the lake, and were operated by crews from those same places.  The name “barque de Meillerie” was more common to denominate those crafts in the 19th century than the more modern term, “Barque du Leman.”  This very busy and lucrative business was seriously hampered by World War I, and the period between the two wars only saw a mild revival of the trade, before World War II put a stop to all lake transportation and traffic.

Some attempts were made after World War II to revive the use of the “Barques”, by motorizing them, and using them as barges to transport sand, stone, and lumber, but that soon proved to be a failed enterprise, and road trucking took over.  The “barques” that had survived the war, rotted out in rivers and harbors, until there was only two left afloat: one in Geneve, La Neptune  and one in the Canton de Vaud, La Vaudoise (a ship of smaller size called a brick).  Those two boats were subsequently rebuilt and are now proud remains of the fleet.

Two replicas have been built in the past 10 years, one in Vevey, Switzerland: La Demoiselle, and one in Thonon, France: La Savoie.  The Savoie (32 meters on deck) was built using all traditional methods of construction, and can be considered the only true replica.  There is another boat called “l'Aurore,” whose appearance is similar to a “barque” but is of much smaller size, and different design. She was built in St Gingolph, a little town famous for having the french-swiss border dividing it, and for having been the capital of Barque building, with several hundred craft lauched in the 19th century.

While living on Lac Leman, I began to take up an interest in these peculiar boats, which were so different from the workboats of the Chesapeake Bay.  I had never observed a vessel with such, immense, triangular lateen sails in combination with hulls that sit so low in the water.  I could only imagine these vessels to be near sinking when fully loaded with hundreds of tons of cargo of rocks, and was impressed by the structural integrity that they must possess to transport such heavy burdens.  Having realized that only five of those boats existed on the lake, I was newly inspired to create each of them in a bottle under different circumstances.

The first barque I bottled up, was La Savoie. After studying many images of the original boat, I decided to depict her as I had seen her in a photograph, discharging a load of rocks in Geneve.  This was also my first scene in a bottle, and looking back on the project now, it was a major stepping stone in what I could be capable of accomplishing.  In the bottle, La Savoie rests at the harbor wall, with sails furled around the antennas as four men, assisted by wheelbarrows, unload the cargo.  The rocks are stacked on land and some is loaded into a wagon for transport.   

The hull of the boat was carved in two parts to pass through the neck of the bottle and reassembled inside.  The sails are made of paper, which I worked and crushed in my hands before wrapping them on the antennas and afterward painted to give a weathered appearance.  The small cargo of rocks and the harbor wall were made of tiny pebbles I collected outside of the house we live in, and one by one super glued together.  On deck, there is a capstan created from wire and watch gears.  Other details include small cleats on the mast, the flag, the “naviot” (the tender) tied to the bow, and the “apoustis” (the curved planks used by the crew to walk on the boat when loaded, glued to the exterior, upper edge of the hull), and of course, the crew unloading the cargo, with wheelbarrows. 

With a feeling of great success on the first model, I was motivated to begin the next, La Neptune.  I had seen multiple images of the barques taken while the sails were set to go downwind, each sail, like wings, on a different side of the boat, and found it to be the most attractive and picturesque moment.  This was how I would build La Neptune.  Her sails are paper, painted to show patches, and overall, the boat displays her blue, white, red, and yellow color scheme.  The capstan is present, and throughout the rigging and on deck, I've used miniscule watch washers and various other watch pieces to represent blocks, and deck fittings. 

The third bottle I created was the brick La Vaudoise.  This one rests inside a yellow tinted bottle with a flared opening.  Like the first, she was built in two sections to pass through the neck of the bottle.  She contains the same elements as the previous two with a few extra details, most importantly, the representation of deck seams.  These were created using a .02 mm drafting pen against a straight edge.  Additionally, there is a model train persona manning the tiller and the “naviot” trailing behind.  Another accomplishment was my ability to paint by hand, in tiny letters the name of the ship on the transom. 

The Fourth bottle that I made was a second version of” La Neptune” passing the “phare des Paquis,” in Geneve (this is the only lighthouse in Switzerland).  This bottle is the one I found more impressive, and the boat is even more delicate than the previous three. There is one big difference in the construction, and it is that the masts are crafted with a pegged, wooden hinge.  The lighthouse was carved from air drying clay and detailed with various materials including wire, string, and wooden sections.  I enjoy this scene a lot because it appears to tell a story of a special moment in the life of the barque.

The fifth and final bottle I have created displays the Barque Desmoiselle chasing the small “cochere” L'Aurore around the “L'ile de Peilz.”  This is a tiny artificial island, on lake Leman, built about 150 years ago, that has amazingly maintained the life of a single and huge sycomore tree which has a white appearance in winter due to the yearly visit of the Cormoran birds, and what they leave behind.   It was in this bottle that I combined all that I had learned with the previous four, and completed it with the intriguing scene of the island-tree.  Ultimately, my goal has been to relate a story to those viewing my ships in bottles.  I hope that I have captured a moment in time within each bottle that depicts the Barques in their historical importance, as well as their unique beauty upon Le Lac.

Gabrielle Rogers