Sunday 28 December 2008

Rowing for pain

With arms lax and heavy, back warm and limber, snuggled into a favourite corner of the sofa with a book and a glass of wine it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open. But I’m trying to find references to galley slaves, something to give an idea of the suffering that someone tied to an oar for up to a month at a time must have experienced. I know I read somewhere that conditions were such that a galley could be smelt from many hundreds of yards downwind but I’m damned if I can find the reference. And the truth is that tonight I don’t really care. The post row glow is too pleasurable to be spent dwelling on those souls for whom it was utter misery.

Instead I look at one of my favourite rowing/sailing stories in search of another reference, this time one that sums up the feeling. The story is Un Viatge Frustrat by Josep Pla, literally ‘a frustrated journey’. Josep Pla (1897-1981) wrote brilliantly about the Catalan coast but unfortunately has not yet been translated into English.

Josep Pla on the right and l’Hermós

During the First World War Pla and his friend l’Hermós, an illiterate fisherman, took an engineless 18-foot fishing boat up to France. Pla’s account begins with l’Hermos proclaiming, “We must demonstrate that one can go to France under oars and sail alone. Now everybody has motorboats they have become brave and daring…we will do as we please.” (A phrase, I must admit, that inspired my trip this summer.)

Pla describes every detail as they travel up the coast from cove to cove stopping to eat and drink with a wealth of friends. But their plan to get to France and live it up in Port Vendres is frustrated when they see a distant patrol boat soon after passing the French border at Cape Cerbère. Lacking necessary ‘papers’ they turn back for Spain without having touched French soil. Fluky winds on their return call for hours at the oars and one evening after a long pull Pla, curling up in the boat, writes, “Rowing is a delicious sport; it never tires excessively and leaves the body just ready for rest.” Being ‘just ready for rest’ he finds the boat supremely comfortable and says, “Sleeping in the little boat is like returning, momentarily, to life in the womb; it’s agreeable but takes a bit of getting used to.”

Lines for the sort of boat called a ‘gussi’ that Pla row-sailed to France. The craft would have carried a lateen sailing rig.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Onawind Blue

The main topic of these pages has long been absent, and though she’s not the jealous kind all this ogling of polbeiros and currachs is not entirely healthly. To redress the balance here are some photos of the old girl one and a half years after her launch. Coincidently that makes it exactly two years since I began this blog. The idea was simply to document the build but here I am, still waffling on 730 days later. Look at the pictures and judge if I still have a boat worthy of web page or not.

Large autumnal seas pumping over the beach filled the wasteland behind the dunes. The area was originally a lagoon until some bright, considerate souls decided it would be better as a carpark and displaced the water and wildlife with builder’s rubble, since then others have found it an ideal spot for illicit rubbish dumping. Paddling with one oar from a standing position in the bows I enjoyed the area as it would have been. Though blissfully gliding over the shallows I gazed down into the modern underwater world of half bricks, broken tiles and, at one point, the gaping bowl of a toilet.

Then a backhoe digger appeared on the beach and dug a channel across the sand. The water drained out of the lagoon, land was prised from the fingers of the sea and order re-established. OB and I went home and are still waiting for a window between the successive southwesterly swells to let us launch onto our favourite playground.

Sunday 14 December 2008

More on the Currach

Narcis Fors of Belone, builder of skin on frame kayaks, has sent me some better photos of the Catalan currach. He says that the currach rows very well and that like all skin on frame craft the flexibility of the hull absorbs and dissipates the force of waves that might break violently against a stiffer vessel.

While I was building the Jim Michlak/Pete Culler oars for OB many of the folk that used to stroll through the Invisible Workshop giving advice told me that my oars would be too narrow, that, if my boat floated, I would need wider blades to get anywhere under oars. However, being familiar with currachs and their blade-less oars I felt justified in ignoring their pearls of wisdom.

Friday 12 December 2008

Battle site

Just to clarify the previous post here’s a map showing the location of the battle of Lepanto. The coastline of Greece has changed significantly since the battle. The fast flowing river Ahelóos bringing down silt by the ton day after day for 437 years has covered much of the area where the battle was fought, burying remains and turning the much of the site into a fertile alluvial plain.

Lepanto, the Italian name for the Greek city of Naupaktos, is a safe natural harbour on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth. The battle took place slightly further west in the bay of Patras.

Ver mapa más grande

Tuesday 9 December 2008

The Battle of Lepanto

The other rowing boat at Barcelona's maritime museum, in a different class to the humble polbeiro, was a reproduction of the fighting galley ‘La Real’.

In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire, spreading medieval death and destruction west across the Mediterranean, threatened Christianity and trade. No single country had the power to halt its advance and so a coalition between Spain, Venice, the Vatican, Naples and the Savoy called the Holy League formed. The 26 year old Don Juan de Austria, in the flagship ‘La Real’, led the Christian fleet against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Built in Barcelona in the very shed in which the reproduction is displayed, ‘La Real’ is a remarkable craft. A massively ornate stern with fine joinery, exotic wood, gold leaf and three huge lanterns rises high above the waterline, while at the other end a fine bow morphs into a long, long bowsprit and, teetering at the end, a golden figure mounted on a blazing dolphin. 240 rowers occupied the deck, four to each 30-foot oar. With long oar looms inboard of the locks the inner most rowers had to stand and walk backwards with their hands above their heads for the pull stroke and crouch for the return, gruelling work but the oarsmen were slaves and prisoners referred to as ‘chusma’ or scum and they didn’t evoke much pity.

Spare oars under the boat

Under oar power, on long waterlines galleys could really shift and, having the huge advantage over sailing craft of being able to head directly into the wind, they could be deadly. However, mounting their firepower only at the front and rear, they had a huge Achilles heel in their unprotected flanks. La Real mounts five canon on the foredeck, the largest, most central gun pointing straight at the gilt fellow on the bowsprit. Don Juan foresaw this problem and ordered the removal of all figureheads for the battle. But the Battle of Lepanto also saw a more significant innovation that would change the nature of naval warfare—the introduction of broadside-firing galleasses. Designed and developed in Venice the six new ships were the secret weapons that, being capable of pumping quantities of iron into galleys’ vulnerable sides, tipped the battle in favour of the Christian fleet.

Lepanto was a battle of rowing boats. There were more than 400 galleys involved in the battle and over 200,000 troops armed with arquebuses, bows, arrows and crossbows. And although, standing above that long deck, I can hear the clatter of oars, the thunder of canon, the shouts and screams, see the smoke and the raining arrows I am aware, from my cosy-armchair western viewpoint, that the imagination falls pitifully short.

One of the participants that might have detailed his experience was Miguel de Cervantes who embarked as a soldier aboard the galley La Marquesa. During the fray he was wounded twice in the chest and once in the left hand rendering it permanently useless and earning him the nickname ‘el manco de Lepanto’ the hand-less one of Lepanto.

Several years after the battle Cervantes, carrying a letter of recommendation from Don Juan de Austria, left Naples for Spain to pursue a military career. But it would be five years before he saw his native country. First a storm separated the small fleet of five galleys, then, near the Catalan coast they fell foul of Berber pirates. Cervantes was captured, taken to Algiers and, due to his glowing letter of recommendation, ransomed for 500 pieces of gold. Cervantes repeatedly tried to escape during his imprisonment until in 1581 monks of the Order of the Holy Trinity paid for his release.

When Cervantes turned his good hand to writing he didn’t in fact write about his impressions of Lepanto. His captivity, however, certainly inspired these lines from Don Quixote,

Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, life may and should be ventured; and on the other hand, captivity is the greatest evil that can fall to the lot of man.

Among the treasures concealed by the sea for centuries were the battle’s sunken remains. Here are some youtube links to a series of documentaries about an archaeological expedition to the site, which also takes a detailed look at the history leading up to the battle and at the dispute its self. One, two and three. The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese

Sunday 7 December 2008

More Polbeiro pics

Once again working hard to carve a wedge of free time from a relentless grind I was rewarded with another polbeiro, this time from Barcelona’s maritime museum. No prizes for photography I’m afraid, but at least we can see that huge rudder. A foil this large and so positioned must surely bring the centre of lateral resistance way aft, giving the boat massive lee helm and making it a handful when sailing off the wind. However, maybe the fairly deep hull compensates. Were this blog a source of income, I’d obviously drop everything, drive the 1000km to Galicia, find and sail a polbeiro and report back with a faithful account of its performance under sail and oars. For the moment though we’ll have to be content with supposition and hypothesis.

Monday 1 December 2008

A Catalan currach

The currach is a curious craft, tar-blacked skin stretched on a tied wooden frame, a light-weight open rowing boat indigenous to the wet, windswept coasts of western Ireland and Scotland; the long and lean cousin of the Welsh coracle.

Although the currach is not what many would consider especially seaworthy having no reserve buoyancy and being of flimsy build, it is possible that Saint Brendan the Navigator crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland in the 6th century aboard a similar craft. Tim Severin’s voyage of 1976 proved that such a journey was possible and that currachs are as at home on ocean waters as they are on the rivers Shannon, Lee and Spey. And Saint Beccan of Rum, in the late 7th century, wrote of another seafaring saint, Columba:

‘In scores of curraghs with an army of wretches he crossed the long-haired sea.
He crossed the wave-strewn wild region,
Foam flecked, seal-filled, savage, bounding, seething, white-tipped, pleasing, doleful.’

Though a far cry from the wild Atlantic coast Irish artist Mark Redden built a currach for contained seas of the Mediterranean. Working from a studio in Barcelona with essentially the same materials that he uses for constructing the supports for his paintings; wood and canvas, Mark adapted the currach for Mediterranean use. The typically raised bows, unnecessary with no Atlantic swells to cope with, were lowered and the materials were all sourced locally. Mark employed hazel switches from the north of Catalonia for the frames and steam bent white pine for the inwales and stringers.

He covered the boat with canvas but rather than painting it with tar, which he considered would melt in the summer heat, he gave it a few coats of a flexible plastic based paint.

Mark learned his skills in Cork and as well as having built currachs in Ireland and Scotland he has also built one in Australia. He says that even though he may move on he leaves the boat where it was built so that people can continue to enjoy it. On this build Mark was aided by Narcis Fors a young Catalan builder who studied boat building in Canada and specialises in skin on frame kayaks. Narcis, under the name Belone, builds high quality bespoke kayaks on the Costa Brava.

The currach was launched on St Patrick’s Day 2008 in Barcelona. The local TV station made a 13-minute documentary, which can be viewed here. Although Mark talks in English the Catalan commentary drowns him out, but the film may still be of interest for the archive shots of currachs, views of run down areas of Barcelona, the build, the launch and shots of the currach in action on the Costa Brava where it now lives, in Lloret de Mar.