On his return to Lisbon after discovering the sea route to India in 1498, Vasco da Gama proclaimed “Somos a gente do mar” (We are the people of the sea). Using small, light, high-powered caravel sailing ships based on an ancient Mediterranean design, 15th and 16th-century Portuguese explorers voyaged the world and Portugal became the greatest maritime nation on earth.
A generation later, Portugal lost its superior position, but numerous seafaring traditions were still in place, and as Portugal retreated into centuries of introspection, the boat-building techniques and traditions left by ancient mariners were retained. Best known are the flat-bottomed, square-rigged barcos rabelos, which are a familiar sight in Porto.
In traditional barcos rabelo building, the hull’s shell is laid first, then the ribs are placed. This is the Nordic ‘clinker building’ method which may be a direct Viking legacy. A comparison between the bare hull of a rabelo and that of a reconstructed longboat in Oslo’s Viking Museum, shows striking similarities. Other features of the rabelo’s design evolved in the 17th century, the nascent period of the trade in port wine. Ever since then, the grapes of port have been grown in the upper reaches of the Douro valley, from where the wine is transported to Vita Nova de Gaia for shipment abroad.
The adapted indigenous boats of the Douro were constructed in large numbers and put to this use on the treacherous river, stacked with cases of wine. Flat bottoms were needed to shoot the rapids, negotiate the shallows, and achieve high loading ratios. A small platform at the stern gave the helmsman a clear view over the rows of casks, and a huge steering oar, or espadela – effectively a rudder – was needed to change course rapidly. This also had to be capable of being levered out of the water to avoid smashing in the rapids and rocky shallows. Intrepid boatman slept and ate on board, suspending cauldrons from a beam and boiling their traditional dishes of bacalhau (dried cod).
The damming of the Douro for hydroelectric power bought an end to the rabelo’s interdependence with the port trade, but although port now makes the journey from the Upper Douro by road, the rabelo has proved an irrepressible symbol of the product. Boats are still constructed, at great expense, to compete in the annual race of rabelos owned by the port-shipping firms. The regatta, enthusiastically contested, is held on June 24, the festival of São João (Porto’s patron saint), when the city erupts in revelry. Boats set off from the mouth of the Douro, with the race climaxing at the Dom Luís bridge.
The set of rules ensuring that the rabelos are constructed precisely according to the specifications evolved during their heyday is taken very seriously. The craft have to be built in yards along the Douro, with the hull constructed from maritime pine, and laid down by the ‘clinker building’ technique. The largest rabelos are around 24 metres (80ft) long by 5.5 metres (18ft) wide with 80 sq metres (860 sq ft) of sail billowing in the wind, and need at least a dozen crew members. Payloads are up to 65 casks, each holding 522 litres (138 gallons) of port.
The regatta proves that the boats are more than advertisements for their owners’ wares and should you be in Portugal or planning a trip to Portugal, try to be in Porto for the regatta – it is something you will never forget!!