Thursday, 8 January 2009
The boat that split in two
The ‘pontona’ is a traditional Catalan craft, an elusive denizen of the Ebro Delta and more than half way to extinction. Some can be seen languishing in the mud full of water and losing their shape to rot, others list alarmingly, moored to posts in lagoons. And a handful are still in use, working out of the busy fishing port of Sant Carles de la Rapita, the penultimate town on the southern Catalan coast.
Double ended, flat-bottomed and of a heavy carvel build the ‘pontona’ is a rudimentary rowing skiff constructed in different sizes. The shape changes slightly as the design is scaled up and whereas the larger vessels show some decided sheer the smaller versions of the pontona have virtually none, no fore and aft curvature, giving them a boxy, rather childish appearance. They have almost no rocker either.
Propelled by a quant in thin weedy water or by oars, usually plied facing forward in deeper stuff, they were used for fishing with nets on the shallow sheltered waters behind the long sandy spit called el Trabucador on the south side of the river Ebro delta. Some had lateen rigs and crude lee-daggerboards but having low sides and no reserve buoyancy they couldn’t be sailed safely in anything but very calm conditions.
However, with the advent of the internal combustion engine, the ‘pontonas’ demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt. Fishermen took saws to the sterns and, cutting them back one or two frames, mounted outboards on the resulting square transoms. The boats worked well with a small engine but with time larger engines were tried and found not to be so effective, the boats showed a tendency to bury their sterns and ‘wheelie’. The solution? Cut the boats in half and thus obtain a wider, more buoyant transom.
A pontona with a makeshift cuddy
The cut-down, square-transom version of the ‘pontona’ proved efficient and popular enough to warrant a fibreglass version, introduced in the 80’s, which then developed into a rather more typical engine powered skiff though still retaining the name ‘pontona’.
Though the original double-ended wooden craft for use under oars is now a dying breed on the coast, far up the Ebro River in the town of Flix they still exist. Used as competitive rowing boats they generally carry four oarsmen, and a cox. Though to confuse matters this type of ‘pontona’ is often called a ‘muleta’