The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Next on ESPN6: Amish Rake Fighting!

Sunday-before-last was the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Lyon. Once upon a time this might have been a bigger deal: With the advent of railroads, Lyon lost a lot of the importance as a river-commerce center that had led to its founding back in Roman times. There is still some shipping---big cargo ships still offload at the dockyards south of town, and smaller barges ply the Saone up into the Beaujolais--but whatever civic culture of watermen once existed is gone now.

So the blessing of the fleet continues more as a nod to tradition than as an actual source of hope that the city's sailors would return safely home from their dangerous work.

One could argue that the diminishing power of the church as a guiding influence in French people's daily lives plays a part as well.

So the blessing of the fleet is a pretty low-key affair, much like an American small town's Labor Day picnic, with some games for the kids, a cookout, a few speeches from local elected officials, and a band from the local high school.

There is of course the blessing itself, a mass held on board a floating chapel river barge--itself a vanishing icon of a bygone era when strongly religious sailors needed a place to take communion and go to confession but were nowhere near their home churches. This one [2nd pic, in blue and white with French tricolor; altar under the arched awning at center] is said to be the last one in France operating full-time.

The high point for me, though, was the boat jousting. On this day there were crews from La Mulatiere and St. Fons, two neighboring towns just south of Lyon on the right bank. This was more of a demonstration match than a battle royal for supreme control of the Federation Nationale de Joute Nautique (I just made that up), and both crews seemed to be having fun, taking spectators along for the ride on some passes, pushing each other into the river, and so on.

Let's go to the action:

The jousters stand on flat platforms at the rear of each boat. Protective gear is minimal; there's a shield worn on the left arm and a chest protector under the shirt. A rescue boat stands by, with an ambulance waiting on the quai just in case.

The lances are long, flexible wooden poles that have enough spring in them to launch an opponent off of his platform.

The boats are powered by smallish inboards just in front of the platform--in the old days they would have been rowed. The crews today are mostly just along for the ride and to haul the loser and any floating lances out of the water.

At a given signal, the boats line up on each other, and the jousters brace themselves on wooden foot blocks bolted to the deck.

The boats aren't moving all that fast, certainly not as fast as a galloping horse, perhaps more like a slow jog.

The crews all hit the deck to avoid being fwapped in the head by stray lances.

Each jouster finds a good place to plant the business end of the lance (preferably in the target niche in the center of the opponent's shield)...

The lances bend...

And sprooiiiinnnnng! someone goes swimming.

The loser is fished out of the Saone, is taunted mercilessly (Silly French knigget! Hamster/elderberries/etc.!), and the next contestant mounts the platform.

I can't say that joutes nautiques is likely to replace soccer (or rugby or cycling or volleyball or basketball or handball or tennis or petanque or skiing or biathlon or fencing or...) on the pages of L'Equipe, but a pleasant enough way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

PS: I'll be darned! There is a national federation! Here are the current standings in the Senior Heavyweight division. Jean-Christophe Moras' lead in the points race looks insurmountable.


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