2000 years of sailing on Lac Léman
Lac Léman is surrounded by Alpine valleys and is served by major road links that already existed in prehistoric times (Some relics of a pirogue dating from the end of palaeolithic age can be seen in Geneva).
Inscriptions carved on stone from the Roman period were found and are evidence of the intense activity of the Roman Gaul boatmen corporation on the Rhone and Rhine rivers and on Lac Léman and on the lake of Neuchatel.
The golden age of boating on Lac Léman, from 13th to 15th century, is mostly shown in the archives and iconography. In the Middle Ages, seas were not safe and most of the goods coming from the East (silk, spices...) were transported through the Alpine passes such as the Grand Saint Bernard. Lac Léman was the next obvious route as it was more practical to transport goods by boat than on the roads that hardly existed on both sides of the eastern part of the lake. At that time, Geneva was hosting one of the most important trade fairs in Europe. We assume that flat bottom boats with square sails, like the "gabarres" on the Loire and Garonne rivers, carried most of the goods.
But the region's feudal situation led to an innovation that brought the Léman's fleet an unrivalled originality in Europe for the lake and river boating.
As a matter of fact, in the 13th Century the Counts of Savoie owned the whole of Lac Léman's shores except Geneva. To make sure that they kept control of the lake, they asked some Genovese carpenters, based in Chillon, to build a fleet of galleys. This is the appearence of naval Mediterranean technics on Lac Léman which were later developed by other builders from Nice and which still exist today. Rivalries between Savoie, Geneva and Bern led to the construction of real armadas, with naval battles, pillaging and exactions.
Galleys remained until the 18th century and they were adapted to local conditions: low draught, large beam, huge lateen sails, decks allowing the loading of heavy goods (or cannons).
In the 19th Century, the barques responded to more peaceful needs. During that period, the development of major towns on the sides of the lake encouraged the use of barques and led them at their heights.
For over a century, more than a hundred boats were built by local shipyards in St Gingolph, Meillerie, Geneva, La Tour de Peilz. They transported cut stones, rip-rap, gravel from the quarries of Meillerie and St Gingolph to Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux, Evian and Thonon harbours, leading to a important economic growth boosted by the advantageous tax system of free zones.
We distinguish the boats called "bricks", much more present on the Swiss coast, having a capacity of 30 to 70 tons and being manoeuvred by 3 boatmen (called "bacounis"), and the "barques", which could carry 80 to 220 tons with 4 to 5 boatmen. Their size was the major difference between the two but they both inherited technical features of their ancestors, the galleys, such as the keel, on which the barque was built, the lateen sails, the side galleries, and the side decks, not supporting paddles anymore, but which turned out to be very useful to manoeuvre on a deck cluttered with loads of stones.
At the same time, the flat bottom Cochères, much smaller and rather unstable, still improved models of the Middles Ages "naus", transported local wood, cheese, wine, livestock.
These traditional sailboats started to decline with the arrival of trains, roads, metal motorized barges, concrete, and they completely disappeared before the Second World War. In the beginning of the 20th Century, we could only see the Barques' elegant shape on touristic posters or postcards, as well as in old boatmen's memories, if two boats hadn't been saved. In Lausanne, La Vaudoise, the last "brick" built in 1932 in Meillerie, still sails today under the "Confrérie des Pirates d'Ouchy" flag. In Geneva, Neptune, built in 1904, was saved from demolition in 1974.
On the 11th June 2000 in Thonon, these two sailboats, venerable witnesses of 2000 years of commercial navigation on Lac Léman, attended the launch of La Savoie, a copy of a barque built in Geneva in 1896 and demolished in 1945 on the exact site of her rebirth.
Today, all three Barques, now catched up by L'Aurore, a "cochère" rebuilt in St Gingolph and La Demoiselle in Villeneuve, get together to sail amongst pleasure sailboats, barges loaded with gravel, steam and motor boats belonging to the CGN which still sail tirelessly to and fro on the blue water of Lac Léman.