If we’ve met in person over the past few months, I’ve probably told you about my trips out on the bay. And I’ve probably said that I’ve seen more of Santander in the past year than I have in the past two decades. Writing about the city is one of the reasons and rowing an old style boat in the bay is another.
I recommend both as a way of really getting to know a place. Of course, if you can plan it properly, you’ll go out rowing on a sunny day and blog about the city on a wet one! Let me show you why I think rowing is such a great activity here.
There’s nothing quite like being on the bay with 13 other people for a few hours. In between strokes you not only get to see a bit of countryside and wildlife on the water but you see the city from a completely different angle as well. And you learn a lot from the others on the boat about the area too. Do you want to see the city through these new eyes? Let me tell you a bit about rowing in the North of Spain.
A Bit of Background
No prizes for guessing that the trainera (pronounced ‘try-nera’ if you’re an English speaker) was made for fishing. Its design – dating back to the middle of the 18th century – meant it was strong enough and large enough to take a decent catch of sardines or anchovies and light enough to be able to return to the port quickly – to sell the goods at the best price. The oarsmen were only paid when the rent for the boat and the fishing net were deducted – so it was in their interest to get a decent catch and take it back into port quickly.
At some point along the way these boats started being used for recreational purposes as well. Rowing races were incorporated into village fiestas. By the mid-19th century, the regattas come on the scene. Bandera de la Concha in San Sebastian is probably the best known and most prestigious trainera race today but the oldest regatta (continuously run since its inception) is the Bandera de Santander Race. First held in 1859, it benefitted hugely from the presence of Queen Isabel II in 1861. By this time, rowing was an extremely acceptable sport especially among the upper classes in Britain. The Oxford Cambridge race first took place in 1829 and the Henley Royal Regatta began in 1839. In 1869, the sliding seat was invented and its increased speed led to its immediate acceptance among recreational rowers. By 1900 this modern strand of rowing was included in the Olympic Games and fixed seat rowing, as a sport, was in a precarious place.
Yet somehow it has survived in Spain and elsewhere. Regattas were held. And the fishing also continued. The royals also continued their association with the traineras. I read about Queen Maria Cristina who helped organise a regatta in 1901 in Santoña (a centre for anchovy processing located between Santander and Bilbao) to raise funds for families in hardship following a crew’s drowning. King Alfonso XIII obviously inherited his mother’s and grandmother’s interest and peronally attended trainera regattas handing out the winning flag at the Bandera de la Concha. Franco saw some benefit and took up the tradition in San Sebastian as well. If you’d like to see some old footage of the boats in action – you can watch a bit of the Bandera de Santander in 1946 from the NODO archives here. (Click on ‘deportes’ and fast forward to min 03:05)
So here we are in 2014 and traineras are still being made and maintained. It’s a special event (and a very expensive one) when a new boat is baptised. Throughout the Summer months, there are rowing fixtures all across the Cantabrian coast. It’s hugely popular in the Basque Country. I went to see a competition in Mundaka a few years ago and with my new club, we saw la creme de la creme (no, I’m not referring to us) competing in Orio, just outside San Sebastian, earlier this year. In a few hours time, we’re off to the Basque waters again – to Algorta near Bilbao for Corpus Christi – where we are being treated to grilled sardines after a row around the old port.
I should explain that it’s not the first time for me to clasp an oar. My grandfather kept a boat on the lakes at Fossa, Killarney – which has a great tradition of fixed-seat rowing and I remember going to one of the regattas there as a child. It’s probably the reason I joined the Rowing Club at the University of Limerick for a year. Now while Limerick City has a wonderful tradition in rowing, in the 1990s the college club had to beg, borrow and steal, and make do with the likes of a very unfit me. In case you think I’m joking, myself and my three rowing partners were told after our first (and my only) university race in Cork that we’d need a calendar rather than a stopwatch to time ourselves. Thankfully, those days were pre-mobile phones and nobody thought to take a camera along. Everything’s changed now and – the UL club has seven boats, a jetty, an indoor rowing tank with waves plus an array of rowing medals.
Two decades on – I’m out again on the water. Different location. My motivations before I hopped into the boat were to get a bit of exercise and enjoy the views of the bay. On my maiden row I did that and much more. It was last September and I needed to lie down for an hour afterwards so I ticked the exercise box straight away. And the views of the bay? Amazing. I think I even swam in the water after landing at the Puntal beach for a break. The sense of freedom – being out on the bay – was exhilarating. I challenge anybody to feel otherwise. I don’t get out as often as I’d like to but each time is as good or better than the previous. Have a look at some pics of this great tradition taken in Santander bay.
Before you start looking for me on one of the boats, I’m not rowing. It’s tricky enough just concentrating on rowing properly without having to take photos as well. So I went out on the Zodiac two weeks ago to capture some oar action with my camera. I better start by explaining the event. It was the Bahiana – an open day on the bay for oar-propelled boats of all shapes and sizes. We took out all of our boats from the club, and had lots of company from other clubs in the region and beyond. And what an afternoon it was! Let me introduce some of our visitors first…
The Big ‘Uns
I’m not sure I should have a favourite really but I do love the trainera. It originally came with a sail as well but that’s well in the past. The first time I saw it I was in awe. And I am still really. I’m also amazed at how easy it is to just hop in and row. (Of course, perfection is another thing altogether.) I’ve taken a few friends and family out and they’ve agreed – although most would have a bit of experience on the water. It feels a lot easier or more intuitive than on smaller boats. Maybe it’s the ‘safety in numbers’ thing.
In case you can’t tell from the pictures, it’s big and it’s long. I haven’t actually taken out the measuring tape but they usually measure about 12m long (almost 40 ft), between one and two metres wide and weigh between 200-230kg. They cannot weigh less than 200kg for competing. As you can imagine, it’s a bit of a brute to turn over – which I haven’t had to do on too many occasions – thankfully. We have a cart to take it from the clubhouse to the water but when we take it out of town, it involves a few turnovers alright.
Along with turning it over, the biggest challenge for me has been the fixed seat. In Ireland, I rowed with a sliding seat – like the ergometers you find in gyms. What’s the difference? Let’s just say that after a few hours stuck onto a wooden plank, you’re not feeling that comfy. It got a bit easier when I re-gained a bit of muscle in the stomach area (the three pregnancies had done for my abs) and the bit of extra foam we put down on the boards before travelling to Orio a few months ago is improving matters.
The other challenges? Keeping in time – when there are seven rows in a boat – it’s easy to get out of sync. The weather also presents its own challenges. We don’t row when the wind is strong but when you are out for a few hours, it’s easy to find yourself dealing with a change in direction you hadn’t quite bargained on.
As you’d expect with any boat, space is a bit tight at the front and the back bench has only room for one person (called the proel) who sits up quite high. I haven’t tried that position yet but I get the sense that you need to row downwards. Each position in the boat definitely has its own quirks and responsibilities.
The person in charge of the crew is the ‘patron’ or cox. Duties include keeping time and order, marking the pace and steering the boat. And to do this last part, the patron’s oar is much longer and heavier than the others. It’s usually 5 metres long compared to between 3 and 4 metres. The patron’s skills really come into play when weather conditions change (you don’t want to be too far from base when that happens as a novice). It’s not easy trying to time a change of direction (called a ciaboga – watch it being done here in a regatta) between high waves. I stood in as ‘patron’ for a few minutes one day when the water was very calm and enjoyed the gondola-like feeling of standing up on the boat. You’d need to have a good sense of balance alright – and nerves of steel on the open sea.
Does That Come in a Small?
We don’t just row traineras. When there are more than 14 people or indeed when there are just a handful we mix and match with these other boats. And we always have a few canoes in our midst too.
Where Do We Row?
All over is the short answer. When it’s warm outside we go over to the Puntal sandbank and park up to have a swim. When it’s cold – it’s a hot coffee before we go – a fast row with our fleeces on – and a coffee again to warm up on dry land. The destination is determined by the wind and the weather rather than anything else. Some days we are adventurous and pack a picnic and head off for a few miles up river to the Rio Cubas. (When I say picnic, you should read banquet fit for a king.)
If you want to see more of the bay and the boats (and you don’t live here) try to see Seve – The Movie being released this month in the UK. It was directed by John-Paul Davidson and produced by Stephen Frears who are pretty big names in the game. It’s about the life of golfer Seve Ballesteros who grew up and sadly passed away in Pedreña in 2011 – where we row to from time to time. Keep an eye out for the scenes with Seve’s father rowing – that was our club’s trainera. Two of the Catalan production team came out with us for a row last Autumn before filming started and went off with a few blisters and a fondness for the boat. I haven’t seen the film yet myself but I’m hoping the rowing scenes didn’t end up on the editing floor. Let me know what it’s like if you get there before me. It’s supposed to be quite like the Senna movie with a mix of news reels, documentaries and acting.
A Few Parting Shots?
I took a few hundred snaps and (almost) each one means something special to me. Here’s a few I just really like looking back over…
If You’ve Gotten This Far…
Rowing is one of the nicest ways of getting about while doing some exercise. If you are in any way curious about traineras or rowing in general, I recommend you look up rowing clubs in your area.
And if you are reading this in Santander, why not come along some day? Although we did row in a competition earlier this year, we usually row for the pure pleasure of it – happy in the knowledge that we are preserving old traditions and skills – with a smartphone or two close to hand! I came across the club through Chepe Sáiz Cuesta – who spends his days plotting and planning ways to bring Santanderinos closer to the water. Whether he reels you in while talking about old skills and boats or wins you around with the ‘pan de barco’ crackers – he’ll encourage you onto the water alright. And the enthusiasm and friendliness of the rest of the crew will ensure you come back, again and again. Check out the club Facebook page, get in touch and come along and introduce yourself.
Me? I hope to be rowing for many more years to come and plan on dragging a new generation into this lark as well. Wish me luck!