When you’re trying to manage a shallow river boat 120 miles down the James River in eight days, the last thing you need is a good buzz.
“The Lady Slipper is dry,” says Carolyn Stewart, an eight-year member of the all-woman Lady Slipper crew — “until we get to camp,” she adds. “[Then] we can party with the best of ’em on the ground.”
Begun in 1985, the James River Batteau Festival is an annual opportunity for river enthusiasts to keep the spirit of the hardworking bateaux alive: Replicas of the 17th-century, flat-bottomed boats used to transport large hogsheads of tobacco to the port of Richmond from points west are built by individual crews and floated down the river.
The Lady Slipper is distinctive because of its all-female crew. “On some of the men’s boats, you see the girlfriends and wives just sitting on the boats,” says Terry Zimmerman, captain of the Lady Slipper since 2011. “If I wanted to sit around, I’d stay at home.”
Instead, she’s part of the Women’s Batteau Guild, the group that owns the Lady Slipper, which they maneuver and maintain, even putting it in the river themselves. The members’ ages range from the mid-30s to early 70s. Many women who’ve given up the physicality of handling the boat, often because of knee or back issues, continue to be dues-paying members so they can participate in the group’s social activities throughout the year.
“There’s a type of person this appeals to,” Zimmerman says. “You’ve got to like dirt, camping and dirty water.”
Stewart, who says she loves an adventure, came onboard in 2007. Because of the historical nature of the replica bateaux, the women dress in period costumes and wide-brimmed hats, with a couple of nods to modernity: sunscreen and bathing suits under their costumes.
After breakfast and an 8 a.m. launch, the group heads downriver, pulling into shore to have lunch, stop for a swim and meet up with other boats.
“We have water battles with other boats because some people bring water pistols,” Stewart says, laughing. “But they always break because we use them so much.”
How quickly bateaux cover distance on any given day is determined by the depth of the river and how much work is involved to move the boat forward. Bateaux are propelled by crew members using long poles while a rudder on each end called a sweep determines the direction. “If the water’s high and moving,” Stewart says, “we practically don’t have a job.”
The festival takes a village of far more than just the bateaux crews. Kayakers and canoeists make the journey alongside them, many regulars from year to year.
Dave Polce, known as the Paddling Potter, carries baskets filled with pottery in his boat, spreading out a blanket and selling his wares in the evening when crews camp out along the James River. “When he runs out, his wife meets him to replenish his stock,” Stewart says. “He also sings and does poetry.”
People known as schleppers are responsible for moving everything from one campsite to the next and setting up, shopping and refilling water containers and coolers while crew navigates the river.
“Come evening, it’s a party-hearty atmosphere,” Zimmerman says. “Certain bateaux carry more beer than supplies.” Some crews cook on their boats — “Not us, I like not cooking” — using a firebox and sand, while another typically has a miniature cannon on board. “He fires it to make a lot of noise,” she says. “It’s all part of the fun.”
“One thing I find impressive is the family that’s out there,” Zimmerman says. “People stop and help you. We’ve rescued canoers and other boats. When you’re out there, you’re not on your own, you’re part of a team. We’re one big river community.” S
The James River Batteau Festival launches June 20 at 11 a.m. in Lynchburg and finishes at Maidens Landing in Powhatan on June 27 at 4 p.m. Along the way, two bateau weddings will be celebrated in Scottsville and Howardsville. vacanals.org/batteau.