Most folks know that one of the most exciting new projects at the Lighthouse is our wooden boatbuilding program. Part of LAMP’s First Coast Maritime Archaeology Project, the LAMP Boatworks is dedicated to keeping traditional maritime craftsmanship alive, while providing experimental archaeological and public outreach avenues to help us better interpret boat and ship remains preserved in the archaeological record. Our first build was a Bevin’s skiff, a traditional skiff design available as a kit build through the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. While this inaugural and beautiful little boat was an undisputed fantastic success, many of us were eagerly awaiting our first boat to be built from scratch. This was to be the barca chata.

The barca chata, which is Spanish for “flatboat,” is one of several vessel types mentioned in a 1602 inventory of ships and boats in St. Augustine belonging to the Spanish Crown. It was one of many boat types in use during the early days of St. Augustine, along with a fragata (frigate), batel pequeno (small boat), falua (gig or tender), a chalupa (shallop), and canoas (Timucuan-style dugout canoes). Right now we do not know exactly what the barca chata would have looked like, as there are no plans that were written down and saved, nor are there any archaeological examples known to us. But our boatbuilders were up to the task of researching what this vessel may have looked like, and had the help of LAMP’s Director of Archaeology and resident historian Dr. Sam Turner. We finally agreed on a simple workboat design that has been used in the coastal and estuarine waters of the southeastern United States throughout the entire colonial period. Our interpretation of the St. Augustine Barca Chata is a punt-like flatboat, relatively flat-bottomed but with rockered ends, meant to be poled, paddled, or rowed and used as a stable-platform work boat. Each of its sides consist of a single, shaped pine plank, its bottom consists of three cedar planks, and both ends feature a flat transom. Vernacular-built watercraft of similar design would have been used throughout St. Augustine’s long maritime history.

In fact, a workboat very similar to our barca chata can be seen in this 1855 engraving of St. Augustine’s waterfront. It is on the right side of the picture, and is shown with two operators and a cargo of logs. We found this image recently (see Brendan’s LAMPost entry), after we had already completed the boat, so that discovery was a nice confirmation of our hypothesized design.

A few weeks ago we decided it was time to put the newly-built barca chata into the water for a sea trial. Since this was our first build from scratch, rather than a kit build, it would truly be a “sink or swim” moment. Here LAMP staff and volunteer boatbuilders move the boat from our boatbuilding platform onto the trailer usually used to launch our smallest research vessel, the Indy.

We gather a lot of interest as we tow the boat to the public boat launch. Folks have never seen anything quite like this vessel, and they are curious.

In this picture, taken right before launching, you can see a good side or sheer view of the barca chata.

And here you get a good view down the length of the vessel. Seen from above, she is rectangular-shaped.

Our boatbuilders, always modest, expressed a bit of concern that their first boat built from scratch might leak pretty heavily, and joked that we might need to stage an “archaeological recovery” if she should sink. Some even point out her resemblance to a pine box coffin! Having utmost confidence in their skills, however, I volunteered to be the first in the water, and hopped in before we launched her.

So far, so good, she floats . . .

The boatbuilders immediately ask me if she’s leaking. Taking a quick note of my situation, I can only answer a resounding “Yes!” But its not so bad, actually. We expected some leaking at the seams, and while the trickles are constant they are slow. There is no immediate danger of sinking, or even of getting my feet wet, and we expect that given more time soaking in the salt water the wood will swell and eventually plug the leaks. I take note of the worst areas so that our boatbuilders can re-seal the seams.

Meanwhile, LAMP archaeologist Brendan Burke is itching to get on board, so he joins me and we both go paddling in Salt Run. We are surprised to find her very maneuverable and extremely fast.

Back on the dock, our boatbuilders watch us with some pride. From left to right are Maury Keiser, Curt Bowman, Jim Gaskins, Eli Subin, and Ralph Higgans.

We are especially fast when paddling with the current.

Back at the dock, we test the boat’s stability. Though she paddles and maneuvers like a canoe, she sure doesn’t tip like one. Brendan can actually stand on the gunwale without overturning the boat, though I am still inside to provide some counter-ballast. It is easy to imagine performing a variety of tasks while standing or sitting in this vessel, which makes a very stable platform.

Check out this video of Brendan rowing the barca chata back to the trailer.

Back at the Lighthouse, we all inspect our new favorite boat, which still retains some water. We don’t bother draining her, as unlike fresh water salt water won’t hurt a wooden boat, since it won’t grow algae or rot the wood. We believe that it will help the wood swell and seal better the next time. In the meanwhile, we have a few minor modifications to finish, and then the boat will make a fine working platform for LAMP operations, a great training boat for kids, and a living display for our visitors. Check back for more adventures with the barca chata!