Graham’s is very pleased and proud to have come Second in this year’s race of the barcos rabelos. Whether it was our new sail or Paul’s god-son on board, we had terrific luck and a beautiful day, despite temperamental winds, and held our position from the start with only an occasional challenge from one other boat.
For those not familiar, a little background to the race: port wine was brought down river from the quintas in the spring by barcos rabelos until the railway mostly superseded them in the late 19th century. The Symington family continued to employ some boats between quintas in the Douro Superior and Pinhão right up until the 1960s. These double-ended flat bottomed wooden boats were rowed, poled or simply shot the rapids down river, laden with pipes of port wine which had wintered in the Douro and needed to come down to the cooler climate of Vila Nova de Gaia for further ageing and finally blending and bottling.
In 1983 the Race of the Barcos Rabelos was established as a bit of good natured fun on São João, and to keep the tradition somewhat alive. Most Port shippers have a boat, named after one of their quintas. Paul said the first few years no one seemed to know or care much about the race, so it was really encouraging to see the banks of the river lined with an audience yesterday and to be cheered on by well wishers all along the way. Thank you to everyone who turned out for us – it really was appreciated!
Because these boats were designed for the shallows and very rocky rapids of the Douro river, the boats are flat bottomed with no keel and the tiller is little more than a giant oar mounted at the stern of the boat. This makes them a bit of challenge to actually sail – you really are at the mercy of wind and currents. This year´s race began at 17:30 in order to take advantage of the incoming tide.
So, what is it like to be on this boat during the race? Click into the first photo in the gallery below and then use the hyperlinks at the foot of each photo to scroll back and forth through the gallery and follow the story of the race through photos taken from on board Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos.
The barcos rabelos are towed to the start near the mouth of the river. Our boatmen stayed alongside throughout the race, in the event of trouble. As an example, the spar on sister brand Cockburn’s boat snapped, and they had to be towed back into port.
Strategy meeting: Paul and António Serôdio, our captain, discussing the situation. Paul was on the phone later, passing along advice to our colleagues on the Warre’s, Dow’s and Cockburn’s boats. We have an incredible advantage: in addition to having been one of our winemakers for years, António is also an experienced ocean race sailor.
No Portuguese festivity is complete without food: we got to our starting position, dropped anchor, and enjoyed a variety of meat and fish croquettes, broa (cornmeal bread) and sliced choriço. We passed a plateful over the side to our boatmen, along with the bottle of wine and some beer.
A lesson in wine tasting from Paul Symington: if the wine is REALLY good, it doesn’t matter what glass you use! Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny tastes just fine from a plastic cup.
At the starting line just beyond Afurada (a part of Gaia near the mouth of the river): we are each assigned a position and drop anchor there until the race begins. Graham’s was well positioned on the Porto side, those on the Gaia side have to start by cutting hard towards Porto, lest they come ashore at the bend in the river at Afurada.
Elsa Rodrigues, our capa. Every boat must have a member of the Confraria do Vinho do Porto on board, otherwise they are disqualified. Not sure what the rules are when the capa goes overboard – we heard two did this year! Luckily Elsa remained at her station in the prow of the Graham’s boat throughout the race.
Anxiously awaiting the starting signal.
We made a strong start with a fair and following wind…
Which promptly died. The sail went flat and Paul peers out from underneath to see what’s happening up ahead.
The wind came back with a vengeance and we were away again. We can control the direction of the boat by managing the sail, pulling it hard to one side or another, as you can see here.
Four people hanging on hard to one corner of the sail, and a fifth out of sight managing the guy line. Note to crew: do NOT forget the gloves next year! We had some bad cases of rope burn.
The wind was maddeningly capricious. A few minutes later it dropped and almost seemed to come around 180º, which is not desirable, to say the least.
Paul managed one side of the sail throughout the race, and kept an eye ahead. The helmsmen cannot see ahead at all, so rely on Paul to advise them how to steer: Towards Porto! Towards Gaia! You’re fine, you’re fine!
Looking back, Warre’s had the bad luck to draw a starting position on the Gaia side, so first had to get towards the middle or Porto side before making much forward progress. Others who failed to do this were blown ashore in Afurada, and had a very difficult time disentangling themselves and getting away again. The river follows a roughly backward S shape over the course of the race.
These people are not relaxing! When the wind behaves badly, we have to fight to keep the sail forward – if it were to blow backwards and wrap the mast, we would have a rotten time disentangling the sail and all the guy lines to get it positioned properly again.
Fonseca quietly and calmly remained in the stern of the boat, managing the two guy lines which control the spar at the top of the sail. You may remember a Fonseca who is Henry’s right hand in the winery during harvest. This is his brother, who works at Warre’s Cavadinha during harvest. Both work in the SFE lodges throughout the year.
Pedro Sousa, left, and António Serôdio at the helm. It takes two very strong and determined men to manage that tiller and steer the barco rabelo. We were just coming into the final stretch here – look closely you can see the Graham’s lodge on the hill, at the left.
Celebration as we cross the finish line. We thought we were third – later we learned the boat immediately ahead of us had been towed, and was in fact out of the race, placing us in second.
Pedro and António look slightly stunned – all their hard work paid off however!
The Dow’s boat came in fourth place. This year the University of Porto was celebrating their 100th anniversary, and as part of the festivities, the Symingtons shared the Dow’s boat with them.
George Sandeman, centre with microphone, and colleagues from the Confraria do Vinho do Porto (The Brotherhood of Port Wine) announce the winners of the race.
Jubilation as Graham’s is confirmed second place winner! This is even more remarkable when you consider our boat is literally twice the size of any of the competition – it is a full size replica of a working barco rabelo, and could carry 40 pipes of port.
Paul meets the press – a reporter from Porto Canal interviews him about the race.
The winning crew (ok, second place… but still winning!)
Archive photo of a barco rabelo near Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos