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.


Chris Partridge said...

Absolutely fascinating. I can't visualise the rowing technique so please get your pics on quick! Why can't the camera makers install Bluetooth?

Ben said...

Chris, I was wondering if you’d see this post. It is a fascinating technique and judging by many fruitless google searches relatively undocumented. The pics aren’t that brill, the camera’s barely adequate and the light was uneven. They should go up some time over the weekend…