When the British sank their fleet of warships in Lake George 250 years ago, their aim was to hide them from their French and Indian enemies. When a group of Saratoga students sank their replica bateau in the lake last month, their hope was that people would see it.
The Maple Avenue Middle School students spent seven months crafting the replica, which they then submerged off the southern shore of Lake George to give pedestrians the experience of discovering an 18th century shipwreck.
“They learned about history and they learned a little about boat building,” said Jeff Sova, a technology teacher at Maple Avenue Middle School, about his students.
The 30-foot-long hemlock replica was placed in four feet of water along the lake shore on June 20, directly behind the Lake George Visitor Center at Canada Street and Beach Road. It can be seen easily by pedestrians when the water is calm.
The idea to build an exact replica of one of the 250 bateaux the British deliberately sank in Lake George in 1758 to protect them from the invading French forces came from Bateaux Below Inc.
This 20-year-old nonprofit organization that studies historic shipwrecks in Lake George is best known for the discovery of an intact French and Indian War gunship, called a radeau, in 1990.
Joseph W. Zarzynski of Wilton, executive director of Bateaux Below and recently retired from teaching at Maple Avenue Middle School, suggested to Sova, a longtime Maple Avenue teacher, that the students create the bateau wreck.
Scuba divers can dive to some of the dozens of bateaux on the bottom of the southern end of Lake George. The replica bateau wreck allows people who don’t dive to get an idea of what a historic shipwreck looks like.
Zarzynski said the bateau was the workhorse troop and supply transport vehicle of the war. Thousands of the flat-bottomed boats were built in shipyards in Schenectady and Albany during the French and Indian War.
The British floated the boats up the Hudson River to Fort Edward and then carried them by wagon over the 14-mile military road to Lake George.
The students started work on their wooden “wreck” in November after Zarzynski and Sova of Middle Grove bought the hemlock lumber from a small sawmill in Greenfield.
A group of 15 technology students started work on the project during after-school enrichment classes. Later both 7th grade and 8th grade technology students pitched in to work on the project.
Student did artwork
Sova said that Will Fortin, an eighth grader from Saratoga Springs, “made incredible drawings” from a photo of a bateau provided by Bateaux Below Inc. and drawings of a bateau wreck from the Adirondack Museum.
“He drew a mock-up to scale,” Sova said about Fortin and his technically accurate drawings.
Fortin, 14, said he is “really into drafting.”
“I like designing and to build what I design,” Fortin said.
He said he was given a picture of an actual bateau wreck.
“I took some detailed measurements and enlarged them,” Fortin said.
He wants to study architecture in college.
“He has loved to draw since he was young,” said Will’s mother, Kelly Fortin. She said Will won the 8th grade technology award at the Maple Avenue Middle School. He will start 9th grade at Saratoga Springs High School in the fall.
Sova laid out the boat dimensions on his classroom floor using blue painting tape. “It took the whole shop floor,” Sova said.
Sova and other technology teachers, including Preston Sweeney and Karen Covatta, guided the students. The students especially liked using a blow torch on the finished wreck to give it an aged look.
The students also learned how to use a wood joining tool to create the 12-inch wide planks for the bottom of the boat.
“They learned a lot about building things on a large scale,” Sova said. “It looks almost identical to the museum [bateau wreck].”
The group also had to obtain permits from the state and Lake George Village in order to place the boat into the lake and erect an interpretive sign along the Lake George boardwalk.
This is when Steven Resler of Albany, a scientific diver and retired employee of the state’s Division of Coastal Resources, became involved with the sunken wreck.
Resler helped the group obtain the necessary permits from the state so the boat could be placed in the lake.
Resler also helped Zarzynski and other Bateaux Below members launch and sink the completed wreck replica in the lake.
“We had a ball,” Resler said.
When the boat was being sunk in the shallow water with the help of some large rocks (just as the British sank their bateaux) a crowd began to gather.
Resler said when former history teacher Zarzynski saw the people with questioning looks on their faces he presented a brief lecture.
“Zar is very good at that,” Resler said about Zarzynski’s history talk on the importance of the French and Indian War and how the British finally prevailed in driving the French forces back to Montreal and Quebec.
He explained that the replica will be in the lake for up to three years to help commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Sunken Fleet of 1758, when British and provincial soldiers at Lake George deliberately sank more than 260 bateaux and other warships to place them in “cold storage.”
The boats were sunk in 15 to 40 feet of water. This unusual 18th century military strategy protected the British vessels from the French raiders over the winter of 1758-59 when the British retired from the lake area, according to Zarzynski.
“The British raised over 210 bateaux,” Zarzynski said. They also raised two radeau gunships and the sloop, Halifax.
He said 80 percent of the bateaux were sunk in relatively shallow water and were used in 1759 during the successful General Amherst campaign that swept through the Champlain Valley and forced the French and Indian forces to retreat north into what is now Canada.
Zarzynski, who is an avid scuba diver on Lake George, said that when a diver comes upon a bateau sunken wreck there is an aura of mystery as one attempts to figure out what he or she is seeing.
This same sense of mystery exists off the Lake George boardwalk where the bateau replica is sunken.
He said pedestrians looking down through the water gain enough of a glimpse of the sunken wreck to “tantalize” the curious.
For more information on the sunken wreck, passers-by soon will be able to go into the Lake George Visitor Center when a small brochure is available on the Bateaux Below/Maple Avenue school project.
Later this month a three-minute video presentation will be up and running in the visitor center.
More from The Daily Gazette: