During the recent FoNS visit to Albaola in the Basque country, we met up with another maritime heritage group whilst visiting the coastal town of Zumaia. We were introduced to Benat Ibaieta, the young chairman of Euskal BatelEroak Elkartea (the Society of Basque Batel Sailors)(EBE). The group highlight the fact that they are crazy for batels – traditional wooden-hulled, single-masted sailing vessels, between 4 and 6 meters in length and able to carry up to 12 crew. The sail is similar to ‘gaff-rigged’ and is known as Zapi Heren, as the yard is hoisted asymmetrically.
Benat showed us the group’s workshop where they are restoring a number of these boats and gave us a tour of the moorings where their completed vessels were secured. He was only able to give us their leaflet written in the Basque language – which has only now been translated by friends to allow us to publish this update.
Less than 200 years ago, the Basque coastline was filled with sailing vessels, men working their boats to fulfil their daily needs – fishing, transportation and trading. In the last 100 years, these boats have been absorbed into the leisure industry; have been updated to house engines, many now have no masts or sails at all. But their history goes back much further, as these sturdy vessels were used for fishing and whaling off Newfoundland – before the time of Columbus and the other explorers!
This group are determined to hold onto their heritage in case the batel is lost due to the carelessness of modern society – they are part of the greater maritime heritage movement across the Basque country, preserving their history and boat-building skills for future generations.
Would the Newport Medieval Ship have carried such boats? I would expect that the San Juan (or Red Bay Wreck) that Albaola is currently replicating (full scale at 27metres length overall) would have carried up to 6 of these for her whaling expeditions in Newfoundland in the 1560s.
At the Medieval Ship Centre we will proudly display the small flag that they gave us, to remind us of the determination of all maritime heritage groups to preserve their past.
I hope that FoNS and EBE continue to keep in touch, perhaps through our mutual friends at Albaola.
Come and visit us at the Newport Medieval Ship Centre – we are still open every Friday and Saturday until the end of October, and then Saturdays only until 10 December.