Friday 5 January 2007

Local girl

The most interesting small boat you’ll see on this stretch of the western Mediterranean is the Patí Català. If you look patí up in the Catalan/English dictionary you will find it means “patio”, an unlikely name for a boat, but if you let your eye wander further down the page you’ll see that it also means “skate”, which gives some indication as to the boat’s performance. These things fairly blister along.

Looking at the patí’s hulls without the mast stepped you could be forgiven for confusing the front with the back. The shallow bows have a pronounced overhang and gentle entry which runs back to a deeply veed stern. The mast is stepped well forward amongst a profusion of rigging yet there is no jib. The Patí has no boom either, or daggerboards and you wont find pintles on the stern because it has no rudder.

The boat can be steered of course, it doesn’t just bolt off for the horizon, but it turns out that what you steer it with is you—by sticking your hand or foot in the water on the inside of the turn. But that’s not all, you also get your weight on the stern, sheet out and rake the mast forward to bear away. If you want to head up you sheet in, rake the mast back, run forward and put your foot in the water. To tack you accompany the boat through the eye of the wind by walking round the front of the mast. Combined with the speed it makes for a wet and active sail.

Maybe these idiosyncratic attributes are due to its unusual design evolution. The patí’s fast lines weren’t developed by shipwrights or fishermen but by swimmers.

Back in the 1920`s members of Barcelona’s swimming clubs built double hulled swimming platforms which they paddled (standing up) out to sea to get a tranquil dip. A sail was added which gave more range and speed and it wasn’t long before the competitive members of the swimming clubs were racing their patíns on the way back from their swimming jaunts.

The craze grew until swimmers were spending almost more time building their boats and tweaking the designs than training for swimming competitions. Regattas were held throughout the 30’s and strong rivalries developed with each swimming club touting their design as the best. Finally a race held in the 40’s revealed that boats designed and made by the Monqué brothers of Badalona were significantly faster and soon this design became the blueprint for all patíns and a class was born.

The very competitive class is large, probably larger than any other class in Catalonia, with about 2500 boats being launched straight off the beaches. The patí is still made in the traditional way and of wood, which is the only material strong and light enough to withstand the torsion in the hulls and the battering they often get in the steep shorebreak. GRP was used for a while in the seventies but the results weren’t satisfactory. The strict class rules wont permit an incursion into carbon and kelvar. The workshop that produces about 80 patíns a year has only one mould, so patíns really are identical.

The patí is as catalan as cava, castelles (human towers) and calçots (BBQed mild onions). And the Catalans, as a people with a heightened sense of national identity, are fiercely proud of it. Like other emblematic icons of Catalan culture they are quirky, brilliant and yet, out of the context of their native land, (with the exception of cava) they fail to thrive. Not that the Catalans are actively trying to export their invention, they’re perfectly happy to keep it to themselves. I believe there are patí clubs in Belgium and Holland and the odd boat has been exported over the years but in general you will be hard pushed to find the patí anywhere but on these 300 km of Catalan coastline.


However, despite the cultural significance and the exciting sailing you still find abandoned hulls on the beaches. I was given one of these hulls once but before arrangements were made to get it home the local council, in a frenzy of spring beach cleaning, took it to the dump. And that’s where these ones will go too. It seems an ignominious demise for a pretty, unusual craft. A more fitting end, at least linguistically, would be to convert the hulls into benches and sell them as patio furniture.

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