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Basque Shipbuilding
San Sebastian's harbor and beaches, Spain
San Sebastian's harbor and beaches

Basques Build the Replica 16th Century Whale Ship SAN JUAN
How Basque Shipbuilding Changed My Understanding
Of the History of the Americas

Story and photographs by Richard Frisbie

was in San Sebastian, Spain, in May to help celebrate its being named the 2016 European Capital of Culture. I ate, very very well, as San Sebastian's restaurants have the highest concentration of Michelin stars in the world, drank the excellent local wine, visited many museums and enjoyed walking the charming old city as the festivities occurred.

museum director with a model of SAN JUAN
Museum director with a model of SAN JUAN

But I have to admit that the strangest thing was to travel to the Basque region of Spain to learn the truth about North America's early exploration, stranger still to explore where it all began: Albaola, the Sea Factory of the Basques, located at the entrance of the Bay of Pasaia, in San Sebastian. That is where they are building the replica of one of its most famous of Basque ships, the 16th century whale ship SAN JUAN.

When the British arrived in Newfoundland in 1610 they found ships of many nationalities anchored in the harbor, attracted there by the abundance of cod and whales. Nevertheless they had the hubris to claim the land for Great Britain. At that time all the fishermen in Newfoundland knew that only the Basques understood how to hunt the many whales congregating in these waters. Using ships built in San Sebastian, Spain, where the museum Albaola is located now, the Basque people explored the world, most notably the Outer Banks of the United States and the Canadian Maritimes. They brought home many barrels of whale oil and so much salted cod (the cod was salted and dried to preserve it for the long voyage) that Spain is still known for its cod dishes.

replica of the Basque ship San Juan under construction
The ribs and planks shape the outline of the replica SAN JUAN

The Basque fishermen were well-known to the Native Americans of both countries, so much so that Basque was the lingua franca of the New World. So much trading and interacting occurred between them in Basque that fishermen of other nationalities learned enough Basque to communicate, too. In fact, Basque fishermen were fishing in American waters when Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.

museum drawing of the oak harvesting and shaping
Drawing of the oak harvesting and shaping

In the converted ship factory Albaola, now a museum, the largest sailing ships of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were built. Using wood from a nearby oak forest, first just harvesting it, but later shaping the trees as they grew to provide the correct angles and curves, centuries of Basques earned a reputation as the best ship builders. The other Basque product, the widely drunk hard apple cider, was how the sailors avoided scurvy in their travels to and from distant fishing and trading grounds.

volunteers building a replica of the whale ship San Juan at the Albaola museum
The tedious and exacting hand work of ancient shipbuilding

In the 16th century the Basque whale ship SAN JUAN sank in Newfoundland. Its recent discovery, perfectly preserved in the frigid waters, gave archeologists the best look at the complex construction techniques and materials used by the early Basque shipbuilders. Beneath the hull they also found a complete whaling boat. Drawings and photos, along with exact measurements, are being used at Albaola to build a replica of each. The large open-room of the museum is a ship building showcase where volunteers use ancient hand tools to measure, cut and shape the oak ribs and planking for the replica.

By coincidence, I visited the museum on the 115th anniversary of the killing of the last whale by the Basques (the skeleton hangs in the nearby Aquarium) lending this visit more significance. I was one of nearly 100,000 visitors expected this year, all of whom will see the replica SAN JUAN being built, rib by rib and plank by plank, as ships were hand-built there for centuries. Many will learn a greater awareness of the Basque influence on the history of the Americas. I know I did.

For more information on this and other attractions of San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) during the European Capital of Culture year, please visit this website.

Related Articles:
A Food & Wine Tour of Alcala; Valencia, Spain is Burning Hot; The Land of Caballeros; Spain, Portugal, Morocco with Insight Vacations; Can't We All Just Get Along In Córdoba?

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Let Richard know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Hey Richard - another winning series of words, all put together in your usual brilliant, and very creative format. And hey, love those glorious photos - Wow, what scenery - looks like some sort of paradise. What a super life you lead!!!

--- John Clayton, Palos Verdes CA

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I want to go there!!!!!!! Mmmmm! Yes! Love the photos and your article, Richard! Have read the book, seen the play several times and now dream of seeing these historic places. I've been wanting to go to Spain for some time. Now at 12:30 a.m. I'm heading off to bed with songs from Man of La Mancha ringing in my mind. Thanks!

--- Betsy Tuel, Rosendale, NY

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You are fortunate to have Richard on your staff. Richard is a fantastic writer and a wonderful person. Congratulations to Richard and to you.

--- Denise Dubé, New England

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