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Whaling boat


Whaling boats - or scoops - feature on the coats-of-arms of the towns of Hondarribia, Bermeo and Biarritz, dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, some indication of how long the history of Basque whaling stretches back. The Basques used harpoons, requiring them to get within a few metres of the whales – evidence not only of the bravery and skill of the crew, but also of the speed and manoeuvrability of the vessel. Thanks to the sixteenth-century Basque whaling boats in Red Bay, we now have detailed information on the vessels that played a central role in one of the most heroic episodes in Basque maritime history. These txalupas were multi-purpose vessels, and were also used for fishing for sardine, with a gillnet, and cod, in the North Atlantic.

Types of whaling boat. Basque, 16th century. New Bedford,
18th century. Azores, 19th century.
Types of whaling boat. Basque, 16th century. New Bedford, 18th century. Azores, 19th century. © José Lopez
Cod from Red Bay.
Cod from Red Bay. © José Lopez

Beothuk is a replica of the Red Bay whaling boat, built by the Albaola maritime heritage association at the Ontziola Traditional Vessel Research and Construction Centre in Pasaia. This vessel, made to plans provided by Parks Canada, was put to the test in an experimental archaeological voyage off the coast of Newfoundland in 2006; she travelled over 2,000 kilometres, from Quebec down the St Lawrence estuary to Red Bay and proved herself to be an excellent sailor. In the seventeenth century, the French explorer Champlain used these vessels extensively to explore the rivers of Canada. They are also known to have been used habitually by some of the native American tribes of Newfoundland and New England. © José Lopez
Beothuk is a replica of the Red Bay whaling boat, built by the Albaola maritime heritage association at the Ontziola Traditional Vessel Research and Construction Centre in Pasaia. This vessel, made to plans provided by Parks Canada, was put to the test in an experimental archaeological voyage off the coast of Newfoundland in 2006; she travelled over 2,000 kilometres, from Quebec down the St Lawrence estuary to Red Bay and proved herself to be an excellent sailor. In the seventeenth century, the French explorer Champlain used these vessels extensively to explore the rivers of Canada. They are also known to have been used habitually by some of the native American tribes of Newfoundland and New England. © José Lopez
Reproduction of the coat-of-arms of Hondarribia, 1266.
The coats-of-arms of Bermeo and Biarritz depict similar scenes,
and can be seen to include the same type of vessel; the ends are
narrow and sharp and above the water line the hull is clinkerbuilt.
Until the mid-sixteenth century this vessel was known as
a galleon. From then on, perhaps coinciding with the adoption
of carvelled planking below the water line, it began to be called
a "chalupa" (txalupa).
Reproduction of the coat-of-arms of Hondarribia, 1266. The coats-of-arms of Bermeo and Biarritz depict similar scenes, and can be seen to include the same type of vessel; the ends are narrow and sharp and above the water line the hull is clinkerbuilt. Until the mid-sixteenth century this vessel was known as a galleon. From then on, perhaps coinciding with the adoption of carvelled planking below the water line, it began to be called a "chalupa" (txalupa). © José Lopez


The right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is also known as the free
whale, Basque whale, Biscayan whale and whale of the Basques.
Here it is depicted to the same scale as the “chalupas”.
The right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is also known as the free whale, Basque whale, Biscayan whale and whale of the Basques. Here it is depicted to the same scale as the “chalupas”. © José Lopez
Lintel of a house in Calle Azara in Zarautz with another whale
hunting scene. The relief shows a very similar chalupa to the one
found in Red Bay; the two upper strakes in the hull, above the
waterline, can be seen to be lapped, whereas the underwater part
is flush-laid. Detail of the lintels clearly showing the whale harpooned
from the txalupa.
Lintel of a house in Calle Azara in Zarautz with another whale hunting scene. The relief shows a very similar chalupa to the one found in Red Bay; the two upper strakes in the hull, above the waterline, can be seen to be lapped, whereas the underwater part is flush-laid. Detail of the lintels clearly showing the whale harpooned from the txalupa. © José Lopez

By the sixteenth century, the Basque whaling boat had already
reached a very high degree of design sophistication. In later centuries
it was adopted by other seafaring cultures, who maintained
and adapted the principal features. Once such example was the
New Bedford whaling boat, made famous throughout the world by
Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. The American boat was in
turn adapted locally in the Azores for hunting whales, and continued
to be used into the twentieth century. It is still used as a racing
vessel. Basque whaling boat from the sixteenth century, recovered at
Red Bay, Labrador by archaeologists from Parks Canada, inunderwater excavations of the Pasai Donibane nao, sunk in 1565.
This is the oldest whaling boat known and is in the Basque whaling
museum at the National Historic Site at Red Bay. She is eight metres
in length and two in the beam. She is built primarily of oak,
and the most striking feature of her design is that it combines the
two systems: clinker-built above the waterline and carvelled below
it. She sported a fore mast and main mast, and had a crew of six
oarsmen (included the harpooner) and a captain.
By the sixteenth century, the Basque whaling boat had already reached a very high degree of design sophistication. In later centuries it was adopted by other seafaring cultures, who maintained and adapted the principal features. Once such example was the New Bedford whaling boat, made famous throughout the world by Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. The American boat was in turn adapted locally in the Azores for hunting whales, and continued to be used into the twentieth century. It is still used as a racing vessel. Basque whaling boat from the sixteenth century, recovered at Red Bay, Labrador by archaeologists from Parks Canada, inunderwater excavations of the Pasai Donibane nao, sunk in 1565. This is the oldest whaling boat known and is in the Basque whaling museum at the National Historic Site at Red Bay. She is eight metres in length and two in the beam. She is built primarily of oak, and the most striking feature of her design is that it combines the two systems: clinker-built above the waterline and carvelled below it. She sported a fore mast and main mast, and had a crew of six oarsmen (included the harpooner) and a captain. © José Lopez

Shoal of sardines. The Red Bay “chalupa” was designed for whaling but it would
be wrong to think that this was its sole function. The Basques sent
expeditions to these same waters to fish for cod with long lines and
even the whalers fished for cod during off seasons. Along the Basque
coast, the chalupa was used not only for whaling but also for netting
sardines and probably also for other forms of fishing.
Shoal of sardines. The Red Bay “chalupa” was designed for whaling but it would be wrong to think that this was its sole function. The Basques sent expeditions to these same waters to fish for cod with long lines and even the whalers fished for cod during off seasons. Along the Basque coast, the chalupa was used not only for whaling but also for netting sardines and probably also for other forms of fishing. © José Lopez

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