Race of the Barcos Rabelos

Once on the north side of the river, Graham’s rapidly overtook Cockburn’s and others

Every year the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, the Brotherhood of Port Wine, sponsors a race of the barcos rabelos, replicas of the boats that traditionally brought young port down river from the vineyards every spring to Vila Nova de Gaia.  The 2012 race was an exciting one.  In addition to the Graham’s boat, Symington Family Estates was represented by three more of our top Port brands:  Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s.

After a few weeks of unseasonably cool and occasionally overcast weather, we had a brilliant sunny hot day – summer finally arrived over the São João weekend, and even better there was a good wind, although a little more northerly than ideal.  The barcos are nearly flat-bottomed, with no keels and even the steering rudder is little more than an oar, so we haven’t the leverage to sail close to the wind, unlike most sailboats.

The Symington fleet were among the first to be towed out to the mouth of the river, where we dropped anchor and enjoyed a light meal before the race was due to begin at 17:00.  Graham’s drew unlucky position 13 – unlucky because it is near the end of the line on the Gaia side where the riverbank angles sharply north just in front of the starting line, causing a bottleneck at the start.  Dow’s boat, the Rio Torto II, fared slightly better in position 10, and Warre’s and Cockburn’s were in positions 6 and 5 respectively.

With four boats in the race, naturally there was a bit of good natured competition between brands.  Paul Symington was aboard Dow’s this year with this wife and daughter, Rupert Symington and his son Hugh were on the Cockburn’s boat, and Charles Symington sailed aboard Graham’s.  Oddly… there was no Symington on the winning Warre’s.  Perhaps it was the presence of Fonseca, of the Graham’s harvest winery team, that brought them their luck this year!  Graham’s was also heavily represented on the Cockburn’s boat – in addition to Rupert and Hugh, the crew included the blogger, our viticulturist Alexandre Mariz, and Raul from the Graham’s Lodge.

When the flag went up to signal the start of the race, Cockburn’s made the best start, with the sail rapidly hauled aloft and immediately filled with wind.  Dow’s and Warre’s struggled a bit, catching the wind at first on the wrong side of the sail, and took a few minutes to get well underway.  Graham’s had a fair start, but their southerly position forced them to spend the first 10 minutes or more of the race just trying to get clear of the new docks at Afurada and beat against the wind over to the northern side and position themselves for a clear shot up river.

Graham’s and Dow’s at the start of the race

By the time we reached the Arrábida Bridge, Warre’s had pulled in front and was among the leaders of the entire fleet.  Of the SFE boats, Cockburn’s was second, Dow’s third and Graham’s fourth.  From Arrábida to the finish line these three boats jockeyed and traded positions, but none of us caught up to Warre’s again.

Unlike last year, when variable winds made for slow and confused progress, this year the wind was quite steady, and the race remarkably rapid – less than 40 minutes from the starting flag until Warre’s triumphantly swept across the finish line in First place, followed closely by Ferreira and third place Rozès.

Both sides of the river from the starting line all the way to the Ponte Dom Luis were lined with crowds cheering us on all along the way, which was wonderful to see and hear – thank you to everyone who came out, it was great to recognise friends and family on shore!

When next you are on the riverfront at Gaia, look for the white Campeão – Champion – banner flying from the Warre’s barco rabelo, the Quinta da Cavadinha.

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