An excerpt from
Building Classic Small Craft
by John Gardner


Here, then, are the plans for what I would call a punt but which is called by its users a "Charleston bateau." It was brought to my attention for the first time by Richard H. Randall, chairman of the Maritime Committee of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, whose friend, Hugh Benet, who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, had one as a boy. His brother had one also. They bought them for 50 cents apiece secondhand from raft men who, after having delivered their logs, had no further use for the boats. As Mr. Randall explained:

At the turn of the century much logging was being carried on in that part of South Carolina. Rafts of timber and logs, roughly cut planks piled on log rafts, were floated down the rivers bound together as most log rafts were bound on the Delaware, Susquehanna, and other American rivers—a few angle irons driven into the outside logs, a few cross timbers through-bolted, again to the outside logs. These rafts were steered by a long oar, or sweep mounted on a raised Y-post securely braced. Usually two other sweeps were pinned on the port and starboard just ahead of midships.

Now, these raft men built at least one bateau per raft—frequently more. They were always the same, the hull was double-ended, with a punt-raised floor under the bow, so the bottom boards had to be shaped accordingly. The sides were nailed to the bottom boards, and cross cleats were likewise nailed to the bottom and sides, with seldom more than six cross cleats per boat. No thwarts or seats.

Occasionally a triangular piece at bow and stern helped to hold the sides in position. They were built of the cheapest pine and propelled by a paddle or two—usually homemade by the purchaser, when the bateaux were sold at the end of the trip for no more than 50 cents apiece. Obviously these bateaux swamped easily.

Of course the rafters needed at least one to get ashore if the raft grounded, to help get tackle rigged to pull her out into the stream again, also to repair the raft if the logs slipped or got loose. Rafters used the paddle too.

The shores of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers at Charleston were muddy and swampy— still are at the southern entrance of the Inland Waterway. This swamp shore was called plough mud [pronounced pluff] and the boys had to dig into the mud with their paddles and slide the bateaux along to gain solid ground. Remember how terrible that mud smelled? And the Intercoastal still does!

With no caulking the seams would dry out overnight and these boats were not taken from the water, so the kids sank them every time they came home, and emptied them the next time they were used.

Charleston was settled by many French Huguenots, so perhaps that is how the name bateau became connected with this type of craft.

Following Hugh Benet's sketch closely, which he drew from memory, I made the drawings which accompany this description. The lengthwise planking of the bottom is not what I am familiar with for small scows or punts like this. I believe that cross-planked construction is more usual, yet fore-and-aft bottom planking is probably better—certainly it would offer less resistance in sliding over mud, if there was much of this to be done. Also there would be fewer seams to open and leak. As we have already seen, W. P. Stephens designed his rather nicely modeled punt with the bottom planks running lengthwise.

There might be some difficulty in bending these bottom planks if the bottom curve or "rocker" were rounded too abruptly. The bottom curve I have shown in Profile I on the drawing closely reproduces the curve on Benet's sketch, and in my judgment might require steaming the planks. In Profile 2, I have eased this curve enough so that I think that softwood boards (pine, cedar, cypress), if not too dry,
could be sprung in place without steaming. In a second sketch, I show the proper way of going about this: Nail one end securely, and then use the length of the board as a lever to spring the board down in place gradually, nailing securely as you proceed, both through the cross cleats of
the bottom and through the side edges. Boards several feet longer than the bottom should be used in order to gain leverage and to get the other end down into place. When the planks are securely nailed, the excess is sawed off.

Boards as wide as were used originally, as shown in the drawings, are not necessary. The bottom can just as well be made of four boards instead of two, and the sides of two boards each instead of one wide one. The narrower boards will bend into place more easily.

Benet in his sketch did not show any cleats on the sides. Possibly these are not absolutely necessary and were not used for the cheapest construction, but I have put them in. They support the bottom cross cleats during construction when a lot of pressure is put on the cross cleats in springing the bottom boards into place. Also, side cleats brace the sides and help to keep the wide side planks from warping or splitting. If two planks were used for the side instead of one wide one, side cleats would, of course, be required.

This is a very easy and inexpensive boat to build) and either as it is, or with minor modifications) could prove a most useful craft under many different conditions and circumstances. It is capable of carrying heavy loads, is extremely stable in calm water, and will row or paddle more easily than might appear. It will take a lot of abuse and should not require much care or upkeep.

As a utility craft or small workboat on the waterfront—a river, lake, or ocean—this punt has real possibilities. It could be used with an outboard motor and would even sail with a few slight modifications. Its fore-and-aft bottom planking makes installation of a centerboard very easy.

This is a basic hull with which a great deal can be done for very little.