The activity of the “Argentats”

These “argentats” (light boats that were dismantled when the journey was over) were packed with timber, staves (oak and chestnut obtained by splitting) and hoop-poles (softened chestnut boughs), for use in cooperage in the wine-producing regions of the lower Dordogne, beams, vine stakes (acacia or chestnut assembled into bundles) and stakes (poles for vine stocks).

They also transported cheese from Auvergne, skins, wine from Quercy, Domme and Bergerac, chestnuts from Limousin, fodder, “soustres” (stones for use as millstones), coal from the mines of Argentat and paper bales from the paper mills at Mouleydier, Creysse and Couze. Due to difficult passage between Spontour and Argentat, boats were not fully loaded at the outset and loading was completed on the quays at Argentat.

Argentat owners “worked the river like labourers worked the fields” explains historian Anne-Marie Cocula in her book “La Dordogne des Bateliers”. She goes on to say: “But this bore no comparison to owning a “filadière” (flat-bottomed boat used in the marshes) or a “gabarrot” (small “gabarre”, flat-bottomed wooden boats), the value of which did not exceed that of a mule or a few rows of poor-quality vines, and owning a small inshore navigation boat, which was easily the value of a large house located under the arches of the rue Fonneuve at Libourne: between these two extremes lay a whole range of river boats.”

Gabarrot owners visited the tax office of their place of departure (Spontour, Argentat, Beaulieu) to obtain a pass, noting the weight and nature of the cargo. The cargo could be very varied, as illustrated when a boat sailing from Saint-Capraise to Bec d’Ambès sank in February 1781: “72 walnut planks and 2 walnut beams, 17 bags of walnuts, 15 bushels of walnuts in bulk, 2 bookcases and 2 writing desks (broken), 3 deer foot tables (broken), 2 locked trunks, 2 bags of chestnuts (damaged), 2 barrels of salted meat, 2 pots of goose, 2 bedsteads, 3 bundles of old clothes and feathers, 2 bags of kitchen utensils, 4 bed frames, 2 casks of wine, 5 willow baskets, 1 straw mattress…”, which Anne-Marie Cocula described (La Dordogne des Bateliers) as “floating bazaars, which proved a real challenge just to move by river!”.

The “floutayris” (boatmen), with their cotton caps jammed tight on their heads, had to lead their boats, making light of the difficulties passages of the river. They negotiated the “rajols” (rapids), the “malpas” (difficult passages), rocks that are partially underwater and “meilhes” (counter-currents). They needed dexterity to avoid the capsizing when passing through “guerlous”, branches where the river narrowed, to make light of “maigres”, narrow stretches where it was possible to run aground on the gravel, and “palas” (rocky banks). “Gabariers” (as the boatmen we called) used “astes”, long poles, to free the boats when they ran aground or avoid the threat of rocks. Every attention was paid to the “solle” (the bottom of the boat)…

Depending on the situation, they needed to “tener drech” (keep the “gabare” (long flat-bottomed boats) upright), “couajar” (scull), “sarrar” (hug close), “cachar” (press), or even “tirar” (row). They took it in turns to take a well-deserved rest under a “lou ballin” (hemp canvas), which they used as a tent. The cargo was protected by a “prélart” (canvas sheet). The “malpas” of Argentat were littered with perils, in particular the rapids of the Saut de la Gratusse, near Lalinde, and the rapids of Pesqueyroux, near Saint-Capraise-de-Lalinde, where the gradient reaches 3.25 metres over 570 metres. They needed to be able to hold the “gober” (rudder) and oars steady! From Castillon to Bec d’Ambès, the boatmen faced the rigours of currents and the tidal bore, this long breaker coming from the estuary, could reach a metre with the rising tide and the ebb and flow of the water.

Sometimes “gabariers” leaving from Argentat led boats to Souillac, before setting out again immediately to Argentat in the night in search of another. This was called a “doubla tira”. It took four days to reach Libourne from Argentat. But this time was often doubled depending on the weather conditions. “Gabares” loaded and unloaded in ports such as Beaulieu, Souillac, Bergerac, Castillon and Libourne, but also at “peyrats”, temporary ports often just built on banks, where porters and stevedores busied themselves, weighed down by the weight of the merchandise.

The activity of the “Couraux”

The domain of the “couraux” (flat-bottomed boats, with a pointed stern and prow) stretched from Castillon to Souillac. These 10- to 50-ton flat-bottomed boats, strictly for use on rivers, were long, pointed and narrow in shape. They had open holds and pointed sterns, providing shelter for the crew, ropes for upstream towing (cordelles), two or three sets of oars and one or two “bergades” (long steel-tipped poles used against the riverbed to help the boats gather momentum or avoid obstacles). Alongside them sailed “couralins” or “courpets”, a similar type of boat but with a tonnage of less than 15 tons, fulfilling the role of lighter or transferring salt to Souillac. From Libourne to Bourg and beyond, large “couraux” were in circulation. These had squat, bulbous, rounded hulls built on a keel, in contrast to the boats used upstream. Equipped with a 20- to 30-ton closed hold, good rigging and a real cabin for crew, the “gabare” could move around unhindered in the lower valley. The boats changed shape around 1850. Ordinary “couraux” measured 20m in length and 5m in width and carried a maximum of 40 to 60 tons, with 1.2 to 1.5m draught. They sometimes bore masts, 13 to 14m in height with square sails, flat-bottomed, with pointed sterns and prows, resembling the more elaborate 15- to 20-ton “couraux” and “courpets”, only for use sailing upstream beyond Bergerac and Limeuil.