Currachs in Santander Bay

Many of you will already know I don’t get out on the trainera much these days, but for the past year, I’ve been part of the team behind a new rowing fixture in Santander Bay called Navigatio. Inspired by the hugely successful Ocean to City race which attracts 650 competitors into Cork Harbour each year – we got in touch with the organisers Meitheal Mara, a community-based boatyard in Cork, who were more than happy to offer us advice on establishing a similar event in Northern Spain. In addition to visiting us in Santander in March, they spread the word about Navigatio, and in no time, we had confirmation that Naomhoga Chorcai would send over currachs and crew to take part in our pilot event in July.

That’s how myself and Chepe Saiz found ourselves in Puertochico on one of those days of the heatwave at the start of July – scanning the horizon for the five tar-clad beauties that had left Cork’s Ringaskiddy on board the Brittany Ferries ‘Connemara’. We found them easily enough and ushered them into Gamazo – the currachs’ home for the next four nights (before they continued on to Galicia). An enormous ‘muchas gracias’ to the gang from Cork and everybody else involved in the event. Here’s what happened when the currachs arrived into Santander Bay…

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Just landed – the five currachs and six of the Irish crew (Miriam, Alan, Shane, Eamonn, John and Jack) straight off the Connemara ferry from Cork, pictured with Chepe, at Gamazo. The other 13 (hope I calculated that right) made it here directly by plane or a combo of plane, bus, bike and buggy.

The Rowing

The main event was the open-sea row departing from Gamazo to Cabo Menor and back into Puertochico before finishing at Gamazo again. I was on board one of the support boats with my zoom lens (thanks to skipper Stephano and crew) and had great views of the action. I even got my first taste of a loudspeaker to cheer the Irish and local crews on; not that they needed much encouragement – everybody here was very experienced as you can see…

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The all-female crew from Cork on board the ‘Ron Dubh’ skippered by Collette – were looking very much at home, with the Puntal beach in the distance

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Mouro Lighthouse is in sight for the mixed crew on board the ‘Dluth Taca’ skippered by Susanne. The waves can sometimes be pretty high out here but the day was extremely calm and the mixed-crew was taking it in their stride

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The ‘Dluth Taca’ leaving the Magdalena Peninsula behind

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The ‘Ri na Laoi’ captained by Ciara, turning around at the half-way mark by Cabo Menor with the Cabo Mayor lighthouse in the distance

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Pushing through – it’s ‘An Damhan Alla’ captained by Martin

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Homeward bound for ‘Ri na Laoi’ and Chepe, captain of the Tremolina’ and the Magdalena Palace in the distance

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Turning around to see what’s looming ahead of the ‘Ron Dubh’

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Chepe and crew at Mouro. Check out these pics from March last year to see what it looks like here when the conditions aren’t so favourable

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Oars in action this time  – the Tremolina cutting through the water…

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I barely pictured these guys from Pedreña as they zipped through the course – which is no surprise as they come from a townland that excels in professional rowing

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The ‘Ron Dubh’ looking great with the Astillero dockyards in the background

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A break for the crews before heading back into Puertochico. That’s the Hotel Real up in the distance

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Taking a breather by the Observatory at the Magdalena – it’s the Brittany Ferries trainera captained by Juan-Carlos with many of the crew that rowed the Ocean to City back in 2018

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The ‘Ron Dubh’ passing by the Puntal on the return leg…

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Two traineras and two currachs leading into Puertochico

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The familiar faces of Ana, Vicky and Maty on board one of the support boats – enjoying the sight of the currachs in Puertochico

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Final row around towards Gamazo. Here’s a sense of the traffic in the shipping channel. The race course didn’t cross into the channel but runs alongside it for quite a stretch – giving lovely contrasting shots like this one…

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The four colourful currachs making their way back on land at Gamazo

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A rounding up of some of the rowers from Navigatio – celebrating the morning, back on terra firma

After the boats were brought back in, the crews and volunteers were treated to a ‘marmita’ (a fish stew made from tuna, onion, potatoes, peppers and smoked paprika) and drinks plus dessert, prepared by La Mulata (Jaime Ruigómez made sure it was 4-star-service). A massive thanks to the Port Authority who not only gave us space on Gamazo to access the water and store the boats but they also very kindly sponsored the meal!

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Jaime hopped off the Brittany Ferries trainera and started serving the ‘marmita’. Pity I didn’t stick the camera over one of the pots because it looked as good as it tasted! And all the crews and volunteers were happily fed!

After refuelling, it was time for a siesta or a swim. I chose the siesta and put the camera batteries on recharge also.

Later that afternoon, we all met up in the Tetuan neighbourhood of the city for the fiestas de San Fermin and the Farmers’ Market (established by Jaime earlier this year) and the Navigatio medal-ceremony. The Happys kicked off the music for the evening and had everybody up on their feet. After their set, the DJ took over and the fiestas carried on into the early hours.

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Enjoying the local produce at the newly opened Farmers’ Market at Tetuan – with the San Fermin scarves on to celebrate the neighbourhood’s patron saint. The Cork rowers went from stand to stand learning about and tasting the best from the region’s artisan food producers

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It’s always great to have a ramble and a sample at the Farmers’ Market where you’ll find everything from cured meats, cheeses, wines and gourmet crisps

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The crew of ‘An Damhan Alla’ getting their medals!

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Formalities over – it’s time to relax. The O’Sullivan family pictured with Jaime & Chepe

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Chepe with the ‘Tremolina’ crew after the medal ceremony

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Not only Navigatio rowers but many of the local crews have been to Cork to take part in the Ocean to City too

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The Ocean to City was indeed visible on the day. In addition to us handing out flyers, here’s Julio, who rowed the race in 2018, doing a bit of unofficial promotion while enjoying the band…

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High-speed spinning courtesy of the Irish crew encouraged by the music from the Happys

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The band managed to strike a chord with the Irish and Spanish crews

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The Irish might have had the upper-edge on the dance-floor but the Spanish side proved to be unbeatable when it came to ‘futbolin’ at the fiestas – much to their delight!

The Camino Voyage Screening at Centro Botin

The three-day programme was full of wonderful moments both on and off the water. One that really stands out for me is the screening of the Camino Voyage, directed by Irish filmmaker Donal O Ceilleachair. The documentary tracks the journey of five Irishmen who rowed 2,500km by currach from Ireland to Galicia. I’d read an article about this voyage when they set off in 2014 and I quickly offered the local rowers’ services here when they were passing through Santander. Unfortunately, poor weather conditions in Castro Urdiales meant the crew were short on time and only touched land very briefly in Santander at the Playa de los Bikinis before continuing onto Suances to rest up. Disappointed not to see the currach and meet its occupants, I was very keen to see the film and after quite a few emails with the director and the IFI, I was absolutely thrilled to receive confirmation that we could screen the documentary the evening before the Navigatio race. You can see the trailer here if you’d like to get a sense of the film and check out the director’s website for future screenings.

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Here’s the poet Danny Sheehy – one of the Irish rowers – talking to camera in the documentary. You’d want to be made of stone not to be affected by the journey these rowers made from Ireland to Santiago and beyond. Having the Camino Voyage screening take place on the waterfront by Centro Botin added an extra dimension to the atmosphere!

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You can just make out the fifth Camino Voyage rower, Glen Hansard, performing his ‘Leave a Light’ track which is on his latest album, This Wild Willing. You can watch Hansard & Friends perform it here

Anybody running a fledging event will know that keeping costs low is vital – so it was wonderful that the IFI, Culture Ireland and the Arts Council of Ireland covered the film’s screening costs and Santander’s iconic Centro Botin very kindly hosted the screening (huge thanks to Eleanor in Dublin and Maria Gomez Quevedo here). If you’ve ever cast an eye over this blog before, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of this space which was always going to be the perfect location to screen this documentary. The attendees, the film and the building all seemed to gel together on the night. It was wonderful that the Cork rowers came along in force to accompany the Spanish audience. Many of them had already seen the film but I think it was hard not be to charmed all over again by experiencing it alongside the Spanish rowers beside the water. Leisure & Pleasure very kindly agreed to assist with the formalities before the screening and to film the atmosphere so get in touch if you’d like to see how it was received here.

Swapping Seats from the Currach to the Trainera (and Vice Versa)

Another special moment came on the day after the race, when the Irish rowers tried rowing the traineras and the Spanish crews sampled the currachs. I managed to hop into a currach myself and loved the experience. Because the currach’s oar doesn’t have a blade, it’s a question of focusing on the timing and the rhythm although with two oars rather than one in the trainera, you need to focus on your own coordination. The other difference is the feeling of being more cocooned in the currach whereas you feel like you can be turfed out on the water from the trainera as you sit much higher up. The third difference I noticed is that the captain also rows in a currach and has to look behind to ensure nothing is in the way – whereas the trainera’s captain is facing forwards and therefore always on the lookout. The biggest similarity would be the method of turning the boat when it’s out of the water – which we did at Pedrena at the end of the day. I learned it’s called turning the boat ‘in the air’. That took place after our picnic on the Puntal beach featuring lots of local staples brought along by the local crew with wine from Pico Cuadro winery in the Ribera del Duero – these guys are no strangers to the trainera – or Ireland – having rowed in the Ocean to City with Chepe in 2018.

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The instant connection between Irish and Spanish rowers (both on the currach and off) was a joy to see – and experience myself too. Here’s to more of this for many years to come…

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What a co-incidence that the Brittany Ferries ‘Connemara’ was heading back to Cork that morning

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A pit-stop on El Puntal beach after the currach rowing and half way through the trainera row

Swapping boats was always going to be interesting – but I was delighted to partner with Irish rower Alan MacNamidhe who you can read about here when he became the first blind rower to participate in the Ocean to City race in 2018. Alan is an experienced rower who always marks the pace when out on the currach. It was a challenging crossing on trainera that day with lots of movement in the water from other boats, but not a bother to Alan who calmly adjusted himself to the new rowing position, the oar, the height, his access into the water, and of course, the directions from the skipper in Spanish.

I’ve always felt that rowing is such as tactile experience; and rowing beside Alan brought that home to me in a really powerful way. I don’t have any photos of us because I’d packed away my camera to focus on the row. Needless to say, I’ll remember that experience every time I go out on the water.

Cork & Santander – The Best Partners in Crime

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The Cork rowers were pretty good at getting to see the city but we did arrange a whistle-stop walkabout to key landmarks such as the Plaza de la Esperanza market

The Cork crews were such a great addition of energy to the bay. Of course, ever since the direct ferry connection started in 2018, those of us who have travelled on board have realised how much in common Cork and Santander have: including gorgeous harbours/bays, historic and authentic city-run food markets, our combined love of the water and sense of fun; and from an organisational point of view, the joint objective of getting people of all walks of life out on the water in traditional rowing boats. 

Santander has a long way to go before it can aspire to hold an event of the size and calibre of the Ocean to City in Cork or the Great River Race in London (230 crews and 330 crews respectively) but the pilot event I’ve taken part in here is great start and Chepe tells me he has received international registrations for Navigatio 2020 already! The feedback from the rowers and volunteers from this year together with the support of the relevant authorities here in Santander, means there’s no reason why this event can’t blossom into a major traditional rowing event for amateur rowers in Europe.

If you’ve been reading this and are encouraged to try rowing here in Santander, check out the Navigatio Facebook page and Twitter profile. You can also get in touch by emailing navigatiosantander@gmail.com. Remember, it’s never too late (or too early as the Cork crew showed us) to hit the water.

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10 comments

  1. insiderioja · · Reply

    Great read, Pam!

    1. Thanks Tom – glad you liked it : )

  2. Pam, wonderful article. The images and references to tasty foods all reinforce my desire to return to Spain and walk the Norte this Spring…

    1. Thanks Darren – do give me a heads up before you get to Santander – would be great to meet up again!

  3. NAVIGATIO · · Reply

    Tal como fue.
    CHEPE

    1. Gracias Chepe : )

  4. John Tynan · · Reply

    Fantastic summary of a fantastic visit to Santander, Pamela. Huge thanks again for your hospitality. Your adopted city has so much to offer and Navigatio has the potential to become another of its big attractions.

    1. Thanks John – was so great to have you guys there for the pilot. Hope to see you back again on the water in Santander in the coming years

  5. Really enjoyed the screening of Camino Voyage at the Centro Botin and meeting some of the Cork crew. Well done on creating what will hopefully become a successful annual event. No doubt with you behind it, it will.

    1. Hi Ken – it was brilliant you made the screening. Thanks so much for your kind words of support

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