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.

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