Where They’ve Been, What They’ve Seen
One of the many things I love about Cartagena is the constant activity in the harbour.
As has been the case for thousands of years ships of all shapes and sizes come and go day and night.
There’s always something new to see.
The same questions cross my mind every time I see a new ship come in.
Where have they been? What have they seen?
Two of Cartagena’s most recent visitors have a lot to tell.
The minute I saw her four towering masts coming through the breakwaters I knew I was looking at something special.
What I didn’t realise until later was that those masts belonged to one of the worlds greatest historic sailing ships ‘Creoula’.
She was launched in 1937 from the CUF shipyards in Lisbon Portugal where she was built for the Parceria Gerald de Pesetas fishing company. A steel-hulled four-masted schooner she carried 54 fishermen and their dories, 10 deckhands, 2 cooks, 5 officers and the captain. She sailed for 37 years as part of what came to be know as the ‘Portuguese White Fleet’. The fleet comprised some 60-70 ships and nearly 5000 men.
Every year they would depart from ports along the Portuguese coasts on what was known as “The Campaign”. We visited some of these places as we sailed ‘Gleda’ south in 2015. Figueira da Foz, Aveiro and of course Lisboa. ‘The Campaign’ was an annual 6 or 7-month voyage to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to fish for cod. The Portuguese had been doing it for nearly 500 years.
‘Creoula’ was just one of many similar mother ships that carried hundreds of one-man dories across the Atlantic to spend their days catching cod on longlines.
It was the hardest of lives. The dories would be launched at dawn, not returning until late afternoon. After a meal, the fish had to be cleaned and salted before the 20-hour workday ended. The dangers of spending days at sea in small dories were obvious. The Grand Banks have a reputation for fog and sudden changes in weather. Some who drifted too far away from the mother ship were lost. Just being at sea was danger enough. In 1938, the ocean swept four men off the deck of Creoula. They were never seen again.
There were occasional breaks during the six-month campaign. St Johns in Newfoundland became a second home for thousands of fishermen. The harbour would become a forest of masts. There would be ”fado” music in the streets. Portuguese married Newfie.
At the start of World War II Portugal was ruled by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. He cannily kept Portugal neutral whilst at the same time letting the Allies use the strategically important Azores and supplying Tungsten to Nazi Germany.
All through the war ‘Creoula’ and the fleet kept fishing. They painted their ships white (hence the fleet name) and put the Portuguese flag and vessel name in big letters on the hullsides so that German U-boats wouldn’t mistake them for the enemy.
For centuries The Grand Banks had been fished sustainably but by the start of the 60’s new super-trawlers were pulling huge quantities of cod out of the water. The catch peaked in 1968 with a tonnage 3 times that of any pre-trawler year. The stocks started collapsing.
Creoula made her last fishing trip in 1973.
A Google or YouTube search for ‘Portuguese White Fleet’ will produce much of interest but I particularly liked this short story from a St John’s pilot. It’s an entertaining five minutes.
By 1986 the cod had virtually disappeared and after nearly 500 years of friendship and cooperation, the Canadian government banned Portuguese fishing vessels from Newfoundland ports. The annual visit of the fishermen was over.
After being laid up it looked like Creoula’s time at sea had ended. She was bought by the Portuguese Fishing Ministry who planned to turn her into a floating museum. It’s testament to the yard that built her that despite 40 years of sailing one of the worlds harshest oceans she was in such good condition that the Portuguese Navy took her on as a sail training ship for young people and future fishermen.
She was re-commissioned in 1987 and has sailed another 100,000 nautical miles to date.
Where she’s been. What she’s seen.
You can read more about the White Fleet and Creoula HERE
I often walk along the waterfront towards the town. The old quayside is now operated by the RCRC (Real Club Regattas Cartagena) as a berth for yachts in transit. As I said, there’s always something interesting to see.
There was no missing ‘Eilean’. Her perfect lines and gleaming varnish posed a striking contrast to the ugly white plastic floating condominium moored astern of her.
Born in 1936 a year before Creoula, she was destined for an entirely different purpose. She was a rich man’s plaything.
Designed and built by the renowned William Fife & Son shipyard in Glasgow her first owners the Fulton brothers were in the steel business and used her to cruise the West Coast of Scotland.
She passed through ownership by a handful of others including Sir Hartley Shawcross who was the Chief Prosecutor for the U.K. at the Nuremberg Trials after WWII.
In 1974 she was purchased by an architect named John Shearer. He lived permanently aboard and based himself in English Harbour, Antigua running her as a charter boat.
During 1982 ‘Eilean’ got a lot of media coverage. Some of us might recall a British pop band by the name of Duran Duran. They recorded a video for their hit single ‘Rio’. It featured the lead singer Simon LeBon straddled across the bowsprit of a classic sailing yacht screaming along under sail. That yacht was ‘Eilean’.
In 1984 after 14 Atlantic crossings, ‘Eilean’ was in Malaga when a Moroccan ferry lost control in the harbour. She was seriously damaged and all but lost her mizzen mast. Mr Shearer wasn’t about to give up on her though. He patched her up, crossed the Atlantic back to Antigua and set about doing the repairs himself.
For years he worked heroically. He even salvaged a sunken tug to use as a work platform. But the tropical climate, termites, ill health and host of other issues defeated him. Eileen ended up as not much more than a hulk moored to a rusting old tug.
Then in 2006, the CEO of luxury Italian watch company Panerai was in Antigua for a Classic Yacht Regatta. He spotted ‘Eilean’ half hidden in the mangrove bushes and immediately recognised her for what she was.
Signore Bonati was a man of action. He wanted her and he got her. With the aid of flotation bags, she was towed to Martinique and loaded onto a cargo ship bound for Genoa. Once there she was floated round to the beautifully named Cantiere Navale Francesco Del Carlo shipyard in Viareggio.
There a team of craftsmen took three years and 40,000 hours of work to bring ‘Eilean’ back to her former glory.
The slides below show what an amazing job they did.
She was re-launched in 2009. The grandson of her designer William Fife attended the ceremony as did John Shearer. Tears were shed.
‘Eilean’ started life as a rich man’s toy. It took rich men to bring her back to life. It’s refreshing to know that Signore Bonati and the owners of Panerai decided to make ‘Eilean’ available to non-profit organisations for “social initiatives where the sea can exercise its valuable therapeutic role”.
You can learn more about Eilean’s story HERE
‘Creoula’ and ‘Eilean’. Two magnificent ladies in their eighties. Still working. Still giving. Still living.
Where they’ve been. What they’ve seen.
Long may they continue.