Catherine Lonchambon, « Histoire de cordes et de rames [Les bacs de la Durance (France)] », Archaeonautica, ID : 10.3406/nauti.1998.1192
The Durance river flows along 300 km from its source in the upper Alps to the Rhône where they meet south of Avignon. The most interesting part of its course for us is between Embrun and Avignon, where until the 19th century, ferries were used to cross. Its torrential character and its floods made the building of bridges before that tinte useless. In addition to this spirit, the Durance had the inconsistency of frequently opening up new courses. The way of operating, the structures and berth for the boats had to adapt to the constraints imposed by the river. There were more than twenty ferries -for forty «communes» - on the lower and upper Durance, twenty boats described in the relative documents as covering the medieval and modern periods. The archives concerning the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries are scarce (10 %) but not negligeable. However it was not until the 18th century that a consistent mass of information became available. These texts enable us to reconstitute the general structures implemented for the ferries to operate smoothly: - The flat-bottomed boat with raised sides measured 14 to 24 m, was equipped with an imposing rudder and a «arbre» or mast placed at two-thirds ofthe boat's length to the front. It travelled through water by means of a «grosse corde» or trail stretched across the river and against which the « arbre » slid while keeping the boat against the current; embarkation and disembarkation took place on wooden boarding decks which were moved according to the water level. Other arrangements were made in addition to this simple diagram, aiming to reinforce the trail bridge and facilitate access to the ferry. During ordinary periods, the passage across was made by means ofthe trail bridge, but this ceased when the waters rose beyond a certain point. During shallow water periods, the ferry man used a small boat with oars. The lightness ο f thèse structures met the requirement to be able to move the port every time the waters changea bed and thus rendered the passage across rather difficult. The ideal berth was characterised by the existence of a sole branch of water to cross, without a ford nearby and with an easy access. Despite ail this, the crossing was not devoid of ail danger and depended, to a large extent, on the skill and willingness of the ferrymen. For the preceding centuries, the présence of a trail is confirmed up until the 14th century. The other infrastructures are difficult to understand but it seems logical that they be restored as the crossing conditions remained unchanged between the Middle Ages and the 19th century. The development of such a complex System became, very early on, necessary due to the importance of trade relations between Provence and the Comté Venaissin as well as between lower and upper Provence.