Batteau Festival to set sail Saturday

Under the setting sun, crew members from the Rivertime batteau patch leaks in their boat in a last-ditch effort to get it ready for Saturday’s 27th annual James River Batteau Festival.

As the sky grows darker, more boats arrive. The normally quiet Amherst County boat ramp buzzes with excitement as crews prepare for a week on the river.

On Saturday morning, a fleet of 19 boats will shove off from Percival’s Island in Lynchburg and begin their 120-mile trip down the river.

“We’re hoping to have a good crowd out there to come see us,” said Philip deVos, a festival veteran and member of the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society.

For the first time in years,Lynchburgwill hold a riverfront festival revolving around the batteaux send-off. The family-oriented event aims to celebrate the river’s history as a vital trade route through Virginia, said Anna Bentson, executive director of Lynch’s Landing.

“There’s nowhere else in the world where you can see this kind of thing happen,” she said. “We wanted to bring back some of the festivities and work with our partners to do that.

“I think people really missed having a celebration.”

The batteau festival pays tribute to a time when the James River served as the superhighway between the tobacco fields of Lynchburg and the Richmond marketplace.

For eight days starting Saturday, crews take to the river in handmade replicas of batteaux and retrace 18th- and 19th-century trade routes.

Lynchburg’s launch festival will feature live music, crafts, storytellers, dancers from the Monacan tribe, historical exhibits and food vendors. The day includes a fishing tournament and canoe and kayak race to raise money for scholarships at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah.

At 11 a.m., hundreds of spectators are expected to crowd the banks of Percival’s Island to watch the batteaux shove off for Richmond. The majority of crews hail from communities along the James River watershed and most come back year after year.

“The health of the festival, from a financial standpoint, from a participation standpoint, is very strong,” said Ralph Smith, president of the James River Batteau Festival and longtime crew member of the Anthony Rucker.

“It’s been a good many years since Lynch’s Landing has really welcome us to Lynchburg by doing something at Percival’s Island. We’re really excited about them reengaging.”

Smith hopes the launch festival will bring more awareness to the river so it can be preserved for future generations.

“Lynchburg’s roots were largely because of the James River. Now with the downtown development, I think it’s fair to say there’s focus back on the river after years and years of sort of ignoring it.”

Several newly constructed boats will make their debut this year, manned by crews with previous festival experience.

A highly anticipated addition is the Mary Marshall, a Lynchburg-based batteau that recently conquered a dangerous stretch of rapids in the New River Gorge in West Virginia. The feat was part of an expedition sponsored by a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant.

 “Everyone in the world is anxious to talk to them about what they did,” said Smith, adding no batteau in recent memory has tackled the New River Gorge.

The fleet also includes Fine Creek Mill from Powhatan County, Slate River from Buckingham County and a new local batteau called Rivertime.

Rivertime was crafted in Amherst County by a crew that got its start on the Virginia Faye, a now retired boat.

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By CapitalBay Online 06/14/2012 18:44:00