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The Bateau

Hundreds of years ago, Africans on the South Carolina cotton and rice plantations built arrowhead-shaped, flat-bottomed boats, or bateaux, for subsistence fishing in the creeks around the islands and for transferring cargo from the ferryboats to the plantations.

Bateau boats were built so precisely that a skilled oarsman could spin the boat around without ever dipping the bow or the stern into the water. They are generally 16-to 24-foot-long vessels. Gullah men used the boats for traversing the sea island water ways and to fish and dig oysters to feed their families.

The Bateau is made from a 4-foot-wide plank — the length of the boat and cut in half lengthwise. The two resulting pieces are the sides, then the two pieces are cut and connected to tightly fit at the bow, then the boards are bent over a “stretching board” to form the distinctive arrowhead shape. The stern is left more or less wide open and filled in with another plank to form a square. The bateau is filled in with seats and a pine bottom is nailed to it to form a structure built to last a lifetime.

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