POWHATAN – While the James River Batteau Festival was officially canceled in 2020, the call of the river still overcame fears about COVID-19 and high water levels for the crews of several of the historically-inspired boats.
Each June, a large group of flat-bottomed boats takes an eight-day, 120-mile journey down the James River from Lynchburg to Maiden’s Landing in Powhatan, stopping at different places along the way.
This year, 13 boats, or a little more than half of the usual number, sailed down the James River from June 21 to 27 in what would have been a milestone year, the festival’s 35th anniversary. Organizers worked to keep the event low-key to avoid drawing the usual crowds that show up to see the sight of the flat-bottomed boats floating down the river, said festival chairman Andrew Shaw.
“We wanted to cancel the public face of the event and encourage people not to come down to see us in the towns we stop, where traditionally we have large crowds. We are just trying to comply with whatever the governor’s orders were on the number of people meeting, so we felt like it was best to cancel the public face of the event,” he said. “But we knew there was still strong interest among the batteau community to float down the river, so we wanted to honor that and felt like we could do that in a safe manner.”
Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 were significant enough to keep many crews away and severely deplete others. Joy Daniel of Powhatan, a member of the Lady’s Slipper batteau, said her crew sent out an email in May to start gauging early interest in participating, and many members did not feel comfortable doing so. The boat ended up still going with a smaller crew, which meant certain people needed to be on the river every day instead of rotating off, but she said they bonded even more and worked well together to make it a beautiful week on the water.
“It meant everything because that week is the rejuvenation of my soul,” she said.
While the festival was already canceled, there was a chance the unofficial event wasn’t going to happen either because of extremely high waters, Shaw said. The week before it began, heavy rain in the areas around the upper James River caused massive flooding. None of the boats began on the first day on June 20 out of Lynchburg, choosing to be patient and watch the water levels. Most of the boats felt confident enough the next day to start, and the water was so deep and swift-moving that they were able to cover the mileage of the first two days of the festival in one day.
“We encouraged canoeists and kayakers to stay off of the water. We just didn’t feel like that was a responsible thing to encourage people to come out as flooded as it was. There is a lot of risk inherent in a flooded river,” Shaw said.
The first day on the river was a challenge because of the high, swift water, which made stopping especially challenging, said Ned Nelson of Powhatan, captain and owner of the Fine Creek Mill. But the task was doable, especially as the different batteau crews are so willing to help each other.
“The only issue was stopping and everybody out here is skilled and it wasn’t a big deal. Everybody nailed the stopping,” Nelson said. “There were different challenges as far as maneuverability – we didn’t have to do much of that. But you didn’t want to get swept up in anything, so you just need to be aware of where you are. It’s powerful stuff out there.”
Even with a small but dedicated crew, Daniel said the Lady’s Slipper group made responsible decisions every day that kept safety at the forefront, especially because of the high water. For instance, the Lady’s Slipper crew decided not to launch with the other boats near Lynchburg but instead joined the others on June 22, launching from James River State Park.
But when the Lady’s Slipper did launch, Daniel said it felt wonderful – “it was freedom.”
Nelson agreed, saying even if it wasn’t official, the event was a time to come together with other people who love the river and celebrate it.
In the end, the unofficial festival finished its run without any significant problems and the organizers are thinking of making the 2021 festival the official 35th year, he said.
“The people who put all their time, money, and energy into building and maintaining the boats got to take the boats down the river and enjoy time with their friends and family and enjoy the scenes of the river. I would say that is a success,” he said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.