28 Mar 2011

XVII Descenso del Oria - A Basque Rowing Regatta

We arrived in Orio late on a Friday night after seven hours on the road from Barcelona. As we drove slowly down the main street that runs parallel to the river, patrons of the outdoor bars and the strollers along the sidewalks paused to look at the odd boat we were towing on the trailer. Eventually someone recognised the boat and they shouted in Castilian, "the Catalans have arrived!" and there were cheers. Some more shouts followed, some of it in incomprehensible Euskara, the language of the Basques. We were in the Basque country for the XVII Descenso de Traineras del Oria, a pre-season regatta. The organisers had invited some Catalan clubs to the event. The two Iberian nations have many cultural differences, among them the rowing boats that Basques and Catalans race.

While the Catalans have been racing llaguts for about two decades, the Basque traineras have a history that goes back to the 19th century. The Catalans launch their tubby seaworthy llaguts, based on old fishing boats, through the beach surf along a stretch of Mediterranean coast that has few natural harbours. The 300 kg llaguts are manned by eight oarsmen, or oarswomen, seated side-by-side and a coxswain. The traineras, longer and lighter than the llaguts, are derived from whale chasers that darted out from harbours into the Bay of Biscay. The traineras seat 14 in an odd arrangement of seven rowers on port side and six on starboard side. Instead of a rudder the coxswain uses a steering oar over the port side. Whether rowing in an llagut or a trainera it is still hard-on-the-ass fixed seat rowing.

Orio a town of 5,000, and like many Basque coastal communities, has a splendid rowing tradition. The rowing club is very impressive, not only do the members row traineras they also race sliding-seat shells. The boathouse is filled with Empachers, Filippis and Hudsons. During the years of the Spanish dictatorship Orio hosted international regattas, including some in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that attracted Oxford and Cambridge. However, the Descenso del Orio is strictly a fixed-seat rowing event.

On race day Saturday it was overcast and raining. The main launch area for the visiting clubs and crews was down by the llotja where the Basque fishermen land their catches and repair nets. There were dozens of trailers and boats surrounded by crews preparing their boats. Spectators and supporters milled about examining the llaguts and traineras. The Basques and Catalans were keen to look over each other's boats. Since their respective languages are mutually incomprehensible the lingua franca was Castilian but there was not a single Spanish flag visible the length of Orio's waterfront.

The llaguts were all of fibreglass construction, heavy and stoutly built. Most of the trianeras were also fabricated with fibreglass but built with more finesse and greater economy of material. However, there were some traineras of wood construction made with the same craftsmanship as old wooden rowing shells. The varnished wood of one of the traineras that I examined reminded me of the wide-grained cedar used on Pocock racing shells of forty years ago. Most of the oars are made from carbon fibre.

The Descenso del Orio is organised like a head race four or six kilometres long depending on a crew´s category. As the race course is on an estuary, the start of the regatta is timed to coincide with slack water at high tide. Otherwise the upper reaches would be too shallow to row. The tide at Orio is an impressive four metres and it makes a big difference to the navigability of the river.

There were only three llaguts and as guests we were given the first three starting positions but there were 62 traineras entered. A couple of the Catalan clubs raced in borrowed traineras. They were handicapped by their unfamiliarity with the equipment. All of the boats milling about the start area reminded of the Head of the Charles in Boston. The Oria especially at the start is much narrower than the Charles. Even the damp weather felt like autumn in New England but the background on the Oria consisted of steep green mountains instead of Boston skyscrapers.

Like any rowing race one expects to hurt and the Descenso del Oria was no exception. Fixed-seat rowing is as hard as sliding-seat rowing. The first part of the course was narrow and meandering but the second half wider and more open to the head wind and rain that seemed to build during the course of the race. The last 800 metres of the course followed the Orio waterfront and there was a bridge just beyond the finish line. It seemed like the whole town was out to watch and the crowds on shore and on the bridge were very vocal in their appreciation of the crews' efforts. We bested the other llaguts and then drifted by the finish line to watch the traineras come across. With longer waterlines, narrower beams and larger crews the traineras are much faster than the llaguts. The traineras have an impressive ponderous grace as they move, their fine bows slicing neatly through the water. I thought that it would be interesting to row in one.

Later, many of the crews went for dinner at a sagardotekis, a traditional Basque cider house, high on a hill overlooking the river and valley. The Basque cuisine is said by many to be the best in Spain. We were served codfish omelets, huge thick beef steaks, and chunks of pungent cheese. We drank the strong apple cider poured directly from the huge barrels that lined the walls of the sagardotekis. Sitting a dozen to a table on bench seats, oarsmen and oarswomen talked about rowing and food. The table next to us was occupied by a group of Orio veterans who had there own rowing stories to share. It reminded me of long ago Saturday nights up at the Henley Island clubhouse on Martindale Pond but the Basque food was better.

(All photographs by Sergi, Carol and Blanca, Club Nautic de Premia, Premia de Mar)

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