September 27, 2009

Lovely Ladies of Léman

Blogger, watercolorist, and denizen of New York's Sixth Borough, Bowsprite, recently did a wonderful post on the old paddlewheel boats that preside over the waters of Lake Geneva - or Lac Léman if you're trying to impress people with your worldliness.

The truly amazing thing is how well Bowsprite - without ever actually seeing the boats - captured the grace, splendor, and general verycoolness of these stately ships - some of which are still powered by their original steam engines.

She was in a doctor's waiting room while touring another part of Switzerland (I think she's fully recovered) and spotted one of those coffee table books, presumably on the coffee table, filled with the story of the ships and lots of photos.

When I saw her post, I instantly recognized the boats as they had been part of several very happy bike trips I've taken in that part of the world (grist for other O Dock blog posts, maybe).

I dug out some photos from my last trip there - it was about five years ago - and offer them here. Click any photo for more detail.

The Montreux heading west, from the east end of the lake, after an evening thunderstorm, with the French Alps in the background.)

OK, this is supposed to be a sailing blog, and aside from the fact that Alinghi's latest sail-powered rocketship has been tearing up those waters lately, there's not much sailing relevance here. But, no matter how hard core a sailor you might be, no matter how much you despise boats that have an ugly petrochemical habit, you just may be swayed by the delicate lines and voluptuous figures of these lovely ladies.

And if you happen to be in their alpine-shaded, vineyard-bedraped neighborhood, I challenge you to resist their siren call, no matter how close you might be to the nearest pâtisserie, boulangerie, or laverie (no wait, I think that last is a laundromat, but everything sounds cool in French).

I see now that the Italie has supposedly been decommisioned, but she was very much kicking in 2004.
The steam-powered Rhône eases into the dock at Nyon, Switzerland. Do you think boat's were prettier before or after Computer-Aided Design (CAD) came along?
The first-class dining salon of the Rhône. Does your local ferry boat have a first-class dining salon with hardwood-framed upholstered seating and wood paneling? Neither does mine.
The Rhône is a very cool boat, indeed. But the absolute knockout part, if you have the slightest bit of machinery geek in you, is the original steam engine. Here's what I wrote on Bowsprite's blog, just from memory, before I dug out this photo. I remembered more brass than is actually there, but the rest is pretty right on, I think. Sorry, I was waxing lyrical - I just couldn't help myself.

The engine’s in the middle of the boat, a deck below the passengers, but in a well that’s open above. The designers knew very well what they were doing, opening the heart of the beast for all to see, like a giant brass pipe organ, playing beautiful music.

The engineers perform, as in an orchestra pit, monitoring pressure and scurrying about with oiling cans, in neat, Swiss uniforms, while the massive drive rods swing out into open space, the sparkling oil reservoirs at the bearings like diamonds.

We tend to hide our machinery today behind faceless panels that quiet the sound. But this was the machine age and no one was prouder of their machines than the Swiss.

I’m reminded of a line from Theodore Roethke:

“She moved in circles, and those circles moved.”



  1. rainbows in the highlands, a sail beyond the wheelhouse . . . and the lovely swiss-red head and sivery pistons . . . these are great fotos. i'm planning a steam engine post--waiting for questions to be answered--and then i'll link to both your and bowsprite's take on swiss-made steam. with bated breath, i await you next foto post and the next and the next.

  2. That first pic is stunning. My ancestors on my father's side are from just north of there.

    The last pic reminds of when I was about 14 and rode the ferry from Seattle to Victoria, BC. I spent a lot of time exploring the engine room, until they threw me out. :0
    Of course, it wasn't steam, and not so beautiful...

  3. Thank you, ODocker! such lovely photos of such lovely memories...Dr. Hans will be quite tickled to see the ripples his little book has made! I'll pass your post to the Friends of the Steamboats of Léman! maybe we'll all invade there for the next Int'l Waterbloggers Convention, and sip cafe luz's while steaming around!

  4. Thanks for all of the compliments.

    Tugster, I'm looking forward to your post. it would be nice to know a little more about what I was looking at.

    Panda, the scenery there always seems more impressive than the camera can capture, but occasionally, the light cooperates.

    Bowsprite, thank YOU for inspiring me to put this together, with your post.

    As much as I like to sail in SF, that region would be a spectacular place to have a boat. Besides the backdrop of the Alps, imagine being within a day's sail of places like Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux, Yvoire, and Nyon. And the food isn't bad, either.

  5. Switzerland tries its best, but I remain unfooled: it's still landlocked to me.