Monday 24 November 2008

Boats built to last

The Sant Isidre is one of three remaining ‘barques de mitjana’ (pronounced bar-kas dey mitch-ana) still residing on the Catalan coast. ‘Mitjana’ in this context means mizzen and it is this sail that gives the lateen rigged 14 metre heavy wooden boats their name. The Sant Isidre also flies an almost equilateral jib on a long bowsprit. One would have to look at Phil Bolger’s book on sailing rigs (which I don’t own) to find out exactly how this type of boat would be named in English. The wide, double ended hull with plumb bow and stern follows the typical form of the llaüt.

Built in Mallorca in 1925 as a sail powered trawler by the shipwright Joan Creus Julià it wasn’t long before the ‘patron’ turned the Sant Isidre to smuggling. Caught with a cargo of contraband the boat was decommissioned, de-rigged, painted grey and renamed V13. With her wings clipped the V13 patrolled the fishing on the Catalan coast until the Civil War broke out in 1936 and she was seized by the POUM. (The Marxist political party in whose militia George Orwell fought against the Fascist troops on the Aragon front.) As a gun boat the V13 operated from Port de la Selva on the north side of Cap de Creus. After the Civil War the boat fell into disuse. Limping through the decades until weary with neglect, she was sold for 100 pesetas (0.60 euros) to a diving organisation who gave her a rudimentary refit and, after six years of intermittent use, sold her on to a private owner. She received a Bermudan rig and undertook oceanographic surveys for Greenpeace and other organisations. But in1993 the owner, choked by lack of funds, abandoned the boat in the Port of Palamos. Two years later, though greatly deteriorated, she had a lucky break being discovered and restored by the association Vaixells del Mediterrani. After four years of restoration work the boat was re-launched in 1999 with her original name and lateen rig. The Sant Isidre is now used for cultural and heritage events up and down the Catalan coast.

Quico Despuig of Cadaqués undertook the restoration work and he has been her skipper since. Quico is one of a handful of ‘mestres d’aixa’ (master shipwrights) on this coast. Restoration and maintenance are bread and butter work but this year, working from half models, Quico has also built and launched his own design; ‘Kuyunut’, a 5.94 LOA, 2.16m beam, lateen rigged llaüt. Carvel built of Niangon (Tarrietia utilia) on iroko frames, with Oregon pine for the mast and yard and silicon bronze fastenings throughout. Wanting to maximise sailing performance Quico designed the boat with a fine, deep and slippery underwater hull shape.

The name, pronounced coo-yoo-noot, is a play on the spelling of the Catalan word ‘collonut’ meaning ‘of or having testicles’ but here, I assume, it is used in its colloquial form to mean ‘the bollocks’ as in ‘it’s awesome mate, it’s the bollocks!’

If the boat lives up to its name it should be amazing to say the least.

'Kuyunut' at the Barcelona boat show.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Friday evening

When I am working away from home my life is put on hold, suspended somewhere—hopefully near the sea—while the physical me, wearing a paper smile, counts the turns on the treadmill. The job is not taxing but nor is it relaxing, long days preclude outside life and by the end of the week I’m beginning to forget who I am. I look at this blog from a great distance and wonder if I know the fellow who writes it.

And then on a Friday evening standing on the dock in Barcelona, a lateen rigged llaut reeling in motorboat wake tied to the bollard beside me, I scroll through my contacts on the mobile. Press call.


‘Hello, Quico?’

Groggily, ‘Yes.’

My best Catalan, ‘Yeah, err, hello it’s Ben. I don’t know if you remember me. We met at last year’s boat show, I visited your workshop in April…’

No response.

‘Err, I called you when I sailed up to Cadaqués in my homebuilt boat but we couldn’t meet? Ben, you know, weird English guy, always ringing up at odd times...’

Finally, ‘Ah Ben, how are you?’

‘Good. Fine. Look I’m just standing on the quay by the Sant Isidre and wondered if you were on board.’

‘Yes I’m right here! Just having a nap actually, but come aboard.’

I look down at the gunwale rising on a surge below me, then suddenly receding, yawing away from the quay and revealing a black band of dirty water then heaving up again. Just watching the movement is sickening, I feel like a lead-footed fool teetering on the brink of an embarrassing accident but just before Quico appears through the hatch I choose my moment and jump.

And it must be while I’m travelling through the air, just before the deck rises to meet my feet, that I shed the weekday shackles and re-inhabit myself.

Then a warm handshake, quickfire talk of boats, building, design and sailing. A can of cold beer is placed in my hand. The phone rings and Quico answers while I walk forward, treading purposefully on the old boards, up to the bow. The sun slips behind Barcelona and I place my hand on the Sant Isidre’s high, unvarnished stem, the warm wood fitting neatly into my palm.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Rowing the polbeiro

Two-handed rowing

One-handed rowing

I’m afraid the photos are truly appalling but hopefully the hull form is clear and the rowing technique can be deciphered through the blur. The owner, sailor, demonstrator who had been using the boat for many years was convincing of its qualities and I found the crude yet ingenious simplicity summed up in the construction of the anchor wholly appealing.

Also at the boat show Bolger’s ‘Light Scooner’. The schooner was brought to Catalonia from Maine and serves as a trainer for ‘Sea Stars’—a brigantine whose wake Onawind Blue crossed on our summer trip north. While the rep couldn’t confirm the schooner was Bolger’s he did say, as one would expect, that it really shifted when sailing off the wind.
The design has interested me since I came across it while embarked on the search that led to the Light Trow. Radical and audacious it seems to raise the hackles of the conventionally minded, but despite their doubts about the large sail area, the narrow beam and the off-centre daggerboard the design clearly works within the parameters that Bolger intended.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

El Polbeiro

I left the Barcelona Boat Show feeling mildly depressed. An afternoon indoors, threading labyrinths of gleaming plastic boats, under the 100-watt smiles of manicured sales people high on the epoxy pong of the brand, spankingly new, was just about bearable. It was the undertones of elitism and the clear but sublime message that if you’re not well shod you’ve no place being interested in boats that fuelled my hang-dog mood.

Thankfully there was a small section dedicated to ‘marina tradicional’ where you could see lateen rigged llauts and speak to the dedicated craftsmen that have restored or built them. There was just enough to make me feel slightly positive about the survival and consolidation of Catalonia’s maritime heritage after my recent gloom.

The most interesting boat however came from the other side of Spain. The Polbeiro of Galicia is an almost double-ended 14 foot row and sailing boat with a deeply veed forward section and a huge rudder that curls under the transom. Maximum beam is just abaft the mast—a solid yet lean and knobbly length of untreated pine. The Polbeiro flies a large dipping lugsail, the halyard doubling as a windward stay. The hull is of broad pine planking like a cross between multi-chine and lapstrake construction indicating that the design would adapt well to modern ply and epoxy building methods.

I was lucky enough to be roped into a demonstration in which I had to play crew on halyard detail while, during a simulated tack, the ‘patron’ (another volunteer who played the part of seagoing tyrant to perfection) brought the sail from one side of the mast to the other.

But what really interested me about this boat were the oars; 10-foot monsters with narrow, curving blades and massive handles. Made of two overlapping pieces, they had a boxed in section where they attached to square thole pins. The oars were so long that the handle of the starboard oar reached right over to the port gunwale and vice-versa. The boat, it transpired, is rowed with the oars crossed over—your port arm moves the starboard oar and your starboard arm the port oar. I couldn’t quite work it out and another demonstration ensued. Like those inventions that enable you to row while facing forward it looked odd but the blades moved in the familiar way. The advantage of having the oars crossed in front of you, the friendly man explained in Galician, is that you can row with one hand and fish with the other.

He invited me aboard for a try. The long oars were well balanced. You pull the aftermost oar towards you with one hand which automatically brings the other oar forward, then you push the oars back with your forearm. It is an unusual technique and I’m sure it would be easier on water.

Then we put one oar on an aftermost thole pin and my teacher stepped aboard and sat on the aft thwart to row stroke. This is how the boat is propelled with crew and there was just enough room for us both to row without me, on the forward thwart, poking his kidneys out. We were going along fine, building a good rhythm, an imaginary wake streaming behind when one of the slim legs holding the boat upright collapsed and we were ignomiously capsized onto the carpet.

Here are some photos gathered from the web. More images when I find the USB cable for my camera.

Friday 7 November 2008

Some History

To temper yesterday’s rather negative post here’s a sketchy overview of the decline of the boat building industry on this coast.

Boat building in Catalonia dates from the end of the 18th century. The golden age of industry arrived around the turn of the last century—and the agonising end in the 1920’s. Building mainly took place on the beaches of the ‘El Maresme’ area north of Barcelona, which enjoyed a plentiful supply of timber, cheap labour and the steep shores that permitted the easy launching of deep-keeled craft. Boats were built at the water’s edge and the industry employed, as well as the master shipwrights, sawyers, caulkers, ironmongers, carpenters, rope makers and sailmakers.

Photos from the era show the sands cluttered with vessels in various stages of completion, scaffolds, piles of timber, thin curls of smoke and, as in so many old images, scores of bods standing about in hats.

100 years ago the Mediterranean was a rich sea and large fishing fleets launched from the beaches of coastal towns. The mountainous mainland impeded rapid transport and goods were mostly carried by schooner. The decline of Catalan boat building began with the arrival of the train but there were other factors that ultimately hastened its demise.

With the loss of the Spanish colonies came less demand for ships capable of crossing oceans. Having a limited steel industry Catalonia was unable to keep pace with industrial development and more importantly laws regarding trading rights were abolished meaning that foreign steel boats could be bought more cheaply. Foreign vessels could also fly flags of convenience and avoid the taxes imposed on Catalan boats.

While some of these factors affected the shipbuilding industry all over the world there were other more important and interesting reasons within the Catalan industry that impeded its ability to survive.

Catalan boats were heavy and consequently expensive. Shipwrights were said to build ‘per els nets’ (for their grandchildren). I am sure that fishermen weathering a tramuntana blow in the Gulf of Lions were grateful that their boats were over-engineered, but in the book ‘El segle d’or de la marina Catalana’ (the golden age of Catalan sail) author Capitain Ricart mentions that boats were often so heavy as to be sluggish and, more damningly, that occasionally their weight rendered them slow to rise to waves and as a result they sometimes buried their bows.

But probably the most decisive factor was the industry’s failure to adapt. Boatbuilding families were tightly knit units, skills and methods passing from fathers to sons. Techniques were jealously guarded secrets. With no active collaboration or discussion the industry stifled its opportunities to progress. The staid, foundering yards revived briefly with the demands of the Great War, then went under definitively.

And what happened to all those boats that were built to last?

How Catalonia lost its maritime heritage is another story but it is quickly told. There are few natural harbours on the Catalan coast where boats might have been conserved—the plethora of marinas that now interrupt the coastline arrived later. Many boats ended up in El Port d’Alfacs on the south side of the Ebro Delta. Photos from the 70’s of this large natural lagoon show an elephant’s graveyard of elegant wooden schooners, their topsides rotting while their keels sink into the mud. But many boats remained on the beaches where they had always lived. By the 60’s the consequences of over-fishing were already becoming manifest but luckily for the economy this coincided with the birth of the tourist industry. Soon the beaches were alive with northern European holidaymakers. Selling trinkets to tourists was lucrative and many fishermen eagerly made the transition while their boats fed the traditional bonfires of the ‘fiesta de Sant Joan’ that celebrates the summer solstice.

The first moves to salvage maritime culture came in the mid 90’s. Unfortunately in those 35 years of total neglect the majority of boats had been lost and the last of the boatyards had closed.

Thursday 6 November 2008


Spain’s apparent death wish is to grind its mountains to dust, add water and bury its self under the resulting cement. Unstoppable development and construction have led to new roads and with the swathes of blacktop have come roundabouts. That nobody knows how to use them is beside the point, though the fact that the inside lane is more often used for overtaking on otherwise congested roads makes roundabouts dangerous places to let your attention wander.

Coastal towns, however, with an unintentionally ironic gesture towards their maritime past, have taken to decorating their roundabouts with the remains of the Catalan boatbuilding industry.

Reflecting on the progress that fills the beaches with people in summer and relegates its maritime icons to traffic islands where they quietly rot among indifference and exhaust fumes I snapped away. Putting my life in more danger than I do going to sea in Onawind Blue I attempted to make an interesting composition but alas, even a beautiful boat cannot relieve the stark ugliness of a roundabout against a backdrop of coastal architecture.

The Julie Skiff

Like the Light Trow Gavin Atkin’s new design is long and lean with a pleasing sheer and an even rocker that promises low drag and easy rowing. A rowing boat’s hull weight is proportional to its performance and the Julie, built from 6mm plywood, looks like a feather-weight despite packing sufficient buoyancy to make her seaworthy.

Easily and simply constructed using the stitch and glue method the Julie is not above the novice boatbuilder. As I found with Onawind Blue the only credential an aspiring builder actually needs beyond the basic tools is motivation.

I would be interested to see the two boats along side each other. Though of a similar length (the longest hull shape you can get from two butted sheets of ply) the Julie has a smaller design displacement that, despite her hard-chine shape, gives her
a smaller wetted area. Less water has to be moved out of the way with each oar stroke and, in principle, this combined with her light hull weight would make the Julie skiff the faster boat.

The Light Trow does hold one ace, though—in the hull. Those lines that gracefully converge to form the narrow transom make for a better rowing shape. Gav says that he plans to develop a sailing version with a smallish rig and possibly side decks, which should make the two boats more nearly equal in some ways though they are actually very different designs. While the Light Trow’s ancestors are the obscure workboats of the Fleet—the stretch of water protected by the long arm of Chesil Beach on England’s south coast, the Julie comes from the pedigree stables of traditional rowing skiffs.

As with the Light Trow Gavin has provided free plans and a useful essay on the design and construction—plenty of material for a pleasant evening poring over plans and more than enough to spark that motivation.

Monday 3 November 2008

Rough weather

Listening to the wind all night I expected to see enormous waves at first light but the sea was pinned down under by the weight of a force 7 or 8. Choking with rage it spat great gobs of yellowed foam up the beach. I leant into the blow in the early morning light and looked over heaps of confused white water to the where a smudge of rain erased the horizon.

This area hasn’t seen winds from the south hitting gale force in years and the effects combined with heavy rains were bound to be dramatic. Salou, where OB and I spent a night in March, registered a small tornado with winds of 160kmph, trees down, a sports pavilion destroyed and caravans flipped over in a campsite as well as severe flooding.

When the wind let up the unleashed sea rose, pouring through the gaps in the dunes to pile weed and sand in the streets. The salt and water laden air made photography impossible for most of the day but I managed to get a few pics as the wind and sun shifted west.

Though by then the sea had gone down.