- Posted by Julia Burns
- On December 4, 2021
- Basque, Ship-building, Xabier Agote
By Jules Stewart
Basque seafarer and ship builder Xabier Agote has come up with a unique project for cultivating closer ties between Spain and the United Kingdom, building a patache.
Agote has, tongue-in-cheek, declared this payback time for English piracy. From Sir Francis Drake’s infamous raids on Spanish ships and ports in the 16th century to the capture of Jamaica in 1655, English buccaneers were the scourge of Spanish shipping, most notably the galleons returning to Spain laden with plunder from the New World colonies.
Agote, who trained as a shipwright in the US state of Maine, is the curator of the Albaola Museum in San Sebastián’s port of Pasaia (albaola.com/en). He heads a team that is reconstructing the San Juan, a Basque whaling ship that went down in a ferocious storm off the coast of Labrador in 1565.
Agote founded Albaola in 1997 as a not-for-profit cultural enterprise. Together with a team of carpenters, he has set up temporary headquarters in a small shipyard in Pasaia, the port a few miles from San Sebastián. The objective was to build chalupasand traineras to sail around the coast of Galicia, Ireland or Bretagne. The trainera is a long boat, today they used mainly for racing competitions, which in the past brought in the day’s catch of anchovies and sardines from sea to market.
The patache (the word may derive from the English dispatch<) is a twin-masted, 50-foot sailing vessel with eighteen oarsmen for light-wind conditions and much-esteemed by Basque corsairs for local piracy and general brigandry. It is similar to a lugger-type vessel, used in the 19th century as working craft, particularly off the coasts of France, England, Ireland and Scotland. ‘Our aim is to reconstruct historical vessels and launch them as examples of traditional shipbuilding techniques,’ Agote says. The regional government of Guipúzcoa offered him a large disused dry dock at the extreme end of the port, which today is the site of the Albaola Shipyard-Museum.
While work continues apace on the San Juan, Agote recently devised the idea of reconstructing with a strong historical heritage and endow them with a practical objective,’ says Agote. ‘With regard to the patache, we intend sailing it to London bearing gifts instead of swords.’
The Basque coast for many years served as a haven for pirates. Innumerable mariners set sail from San Sebastián and other ports carrying a patente de corso, literally an official permit for attacking ships and ports of enemy powers. The patache was a much-feared sight off the shores of the Basque Country and gave rise to many colourful tales. San Sebastián was a breeding ground for this profitable business and there were also women who took part in this legal piracy. Juanita Larando, a 17th century innkeeper, owned a tavern that served as a refuge and meeting place for pirates who could indulge their thirst on credit, until they returned from an excursion with booty to disperse.
Agote is well aware of the environmental damage done to the oceans and their wildlife by seaborne trade. Since 1980, the deadweight tonnage of container ships has grown from 11 million metric tons annually to around 275 million today, representing some 80 per cent of all cargo transported around the world. Next year, he will sail the patache as a cargo vessel, to underscore the ability of ships to carry goods without burning coal or oil. Until the 18th century, a common trade route was for Basque mariners carrying shipments of wine to England. Agote is determined to revive this tradition by sailing his patache to Bordeaux, where he will collect a shipment of wine to deliver to the Tower of London in exchange, it is hoped, for a consignment of English gin. For centuries, the Basques were the principal merchants in shipping Bordeaux wine to England.
‘I take a great deal of delight in this enterprise,’ he says. ‘My objective is to strengthen relations with the UK and Spain and promote cultural links between the two countries, a crucial mission at this moment in history.’ The patache will be on view next year at the Pasaia Maritime Festival (pasaiaitsasfestibala.org/en), which will be held from 26th to 29th May.