The entrance to the port of Pasaia on the Spanish coast of Biscay is one of Europe’s most picturesque. At both sides of the narrow channel, wooded heights rise and the sea breaks across the estuary. It is beautiful to observe. The fairway ends in a spacious harbour basin, perfectly protected and ringed by modern wharves. A few kilometres farther west, the city of San Sebastián, Donostia in Basque, is known as a popular sea bath.
The western shore of the entrance is partly occupied by the Albaola Shipyard, tightly squeezed into a niche below a steep precipice and recognisable as a shipbuilding centre at the very first glance. Several veterans are lying at rest on the hard. First and foremost, the bulky bucket dredger Jaizkibel of steam-era vintage, plus a retired rescue cruiser and some smaller units. The heart of the Albaola, however, beats in a large factory hall in which curious things take place.
Of course, ships are being built in it, as behooves a shipyard. But they are exclusively replicas of classical vessels, painstakingly executed copies of the originals. One of the latest such projects is the reconstruction of the Basque whaler San Juan, built at Pasaia in 1563 and lost two years later, on the Labrador coast. The entire crew had been ashore in the whaling settlement of Balea Baia on today’s Red Bay, when a storm drew up, tearing the anchored ship loose and casting it upon the rocks of nearby Saddle Island. The unmanned vessel sank within minutes in the raging sea. A heavy loss.
At 25 m length, 7 m berth and a loading capacity of 200 tonnes, not only was the San Juan the largest overseas vessel of her time, but she also carried the proceeds of a twoyear whale hunt which, today, would be worth some £7m. But the tragedy soon became cloaked by the fogs of obscurity. In 1978, the Parcs Canada Organization, in charge of protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the country, remembered the incident and dispatched a team of underwater archaeologists to the site. The divers quickly hit pay dirt. At only 10 m depth, they located the remains of the San Juan. She was astonishingly well preserved in the ice-cold water and practically offered herself on a silver platter for further investigation. This was duly accomplished over a period of no less than 30 years and 14,000 diving hours under Arctic conditions.
Naturally, news of the sensational find soon reached the land of the Basques and thus the Albaola Foundation, entrusted with maintaining the heritage of historical local shipping, which occupied a leading position in Europe at the time of the San Juan. In 2005, the Albaola Shipyard had already contrived to build a copy of a whaleboat of the type as had been lost with the sinking of the mothership in Red Bay. The boat, 8 m long, turned out so well, that the used materials and working methods served as blueprints for a reconstruction of the San Juan herself. Work commenced in 2014.
They are still at it, and the job may take until 2021. The rigging alone will require the whole year of 2020. Not due to “typical Spanish sloth”, because there is no such thing. There are other reasons, and good ones. For one, the model must conform in the tiniest of detail with the 450-yearold original to find mercy in the eyes of the supervising shipwrights. Starting with the selection of the timbers. As early as the Middle Ages, Basque shipbuilders proceeded with utter ecological caution in choosing trees whose formation of branches complied exactly with the intended employment.