The Brutal Yet Refined Art of Boat Jousting

In Southern France, the medieval art of jousting is still practiced by modern knights, only with a big twist – they use no horses and face each other on water The sport is officially called Water Jousting or Marine Jousting and although the practice can be traced back to the ancient Egyptian civilization (as far back as 2300 BC), the French have embraced it as their own since the Middle Ages. Back then, water jousting tournaments were staged for a royal audience at local festivals. The sport is still taken seriously today, and is played on rivers and canals all over France.

The jousters fight as they balance themselves on long wooden boats, powered by 8 to 10 rowers and a helmsman. A wooden platform, called tintaine, extends off the boat about three meters above the water. The jousters stand on this platform at the back of the boat, while carrying a 28-inch wooden shield and a 9-foot lance. The liveries worn by the rival boats and teams are always red and blue – blue for bachelors and red for the married. At the stern of each bark, an oboist and a drummer sporting flat-brimmed straw hats play medieval tunes that help the oarsmen stay synchronized.


Photo: King

Before the fight begins, each jouster straps on an elaborate wooden breastplate. The shield serves a dual purpose – to dodge jabs and also to avoid using the non-lance hand to topple the opponent.  As you might have guessed, the main objective of water jousting is to knock the opponent into the water. The player who manages to stay on the tintaine till the end is declared the winner. Each competitor has just one chance to prove himself, competing against the winner of the previous game.


Photo: Zubule

Water jousting, they say, isn’t as dangerous as it looks, mainly because boats aren’t as fast as horses and the water breaks the loser’s fall, but taking a wooden lance to the face, or hitting your head on the boat on your way down can happen, so it’s not entirely risk-free. Winning, however, comes down to only one skill – picking the perfect moment to lunge.


Photo: Sabin Paul Croce

Each year, during the Festival of St. Louis, the prestigious Gold Cup championship is held in the French town of Sète. These tournaments are generally broken down into different categories according to age and weight – the junior competition is for those under 21, and the heavyweight class is for anybody over 88 kilograms in weight. The heavyweight title is considered rather prestigious in France, with the winners getting their names engraved on a shield that is displayed in the Paul Vallery Art Museum in Sète.


But if winning brings glory and honor, losing is quite the opposite. The loser of a water jousting match (once he falls into the water) isn’t allowed back on the boat. He needs to swim all the way to the shore, while elderly men in straw hats row out to collect the fallen lance. Water jousting is so popular at Sète that the town has a monument erected in its honor – a 15-foot tall statue of a man brandishing a 20-foot long lance, keeping watch on Pont de la Civette bridge.


This year, the tournament at Sète will take place between 21 and 26 August. It’s a major tourist attraction each year, and you can watch the match quite safely from the spectator’s stands, sipping wine and slurping fresh oysters.

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