Iconic Ships 14: The San Juan, 1563

March 2022

The San Juan was a basque whaling ship that sank in Labrador in 1565, and was rediscovered in 1978.

In the autumn of 1565 several Basque whaling ships were anchored in a remote bay of Labrador, opposite the island of Newfoundland. It was the end of the whaling season, and hundreds of sailors were hurrying up to complete their ships’ cargo of oil barrels. Some were flensing the blubber off the dead whales, some working in the rendering ovens while others were taking the oil barrels on board. All that frantic industrial activity was happening in the wilderness, decades before any Europeans would establish the first colonies of the country that we now call Canada.

In October a fierce storm hit that unprotected, barren coast. Under the strain of the hurricane-force wind, the anchor cables of one of the ships, the 200-tonne San Juan, gave in. To the despair of her crew members, the ship went adrift and ran aground on the small island that closed the bay. We can imagine the titanic efforts the crew members undertook in order to save the ships; nevertheless, the San Juan started sinking very near the shore, at about 10 m depth. The captain ordered to save as many victuals as possible and as much of the ship’s gear, and the crew members managed to save their belongings before the ship sank with nearly one thousand oil barrels on board.

The ship and its associated artefacts were rediscovered in 1978 and subsequently excavated, and have transformed what we know about seafaring in general and of course whaling in particular in that hugely important era where European seafarers were just beginning to stretch their reach across the Atlantic. The San Juan is now being recreated by hand and with the utmost care and attention to historical accuracy in the northern Spanish port of Pasaia. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Saul Hoffmann, an Italian shipwright who has worked on the ship, and Cindy Gibbons, the Cultural Resource Management Advisor of the Western Newfoundland and Labrador Field Unit, and a qualified witness of the impact in Red Bay of the discovery of the San Juan.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we continue with our iconic ships sub series. If you haven’t come across any of these episodes before do please check out our brilliant back catalogue. We have to date I think covered 13 different episodes, in which we explore the fascinating history of a ship that we might consider iconic, Shackleton’s Endurance, Nelson’s HMS Victory, Brunel’s SS Great Britain, the Mayflower, the Cutty Sark, the Ark royal, the Mauritania, the Titanic. It’s a fabulous menu of the most delicious maritime morsels. They’re so good that I want to listen to them all again, even though I know what in those brilliant episodes. To go with these episodes are also a number of brilliant videos that we’ve created, so be sure to check those out on the Mariners Mirror podcasts YouTube page. They include a phenomenally clever animation of a very complicated original ship plan of HMS Warrior and a 3D animated model of the Titanic built from the ship’s original plans, as well as a host of other frankly brilliant material. Today we are looking at the history of the San Juan, certainly a vessel that deserves to be called iconic. She was a Basque whaling ship that sank in Labrador in 1565. And then was rediscovered in 1978. That’s 413 years later, the ship and its associated artefacts have transformed what we know about seafaring in general, and of course whaling in the 16th century in particular. In that hugely important era, where European seafarers were just beginning to stretch their reach across the Atlantic. And quite brilliantly the San Juan is now being recreated by hand and with the utmost care and attention to historical accuracy in northern Spain. To find out more, I got in touch with Saul Hoffmann, an Italian shipwright, who has worked on the recreation of the ship, and Cindy Gibbons, the cultural resource management advisor of the Western Newfoundland and Labrador field unit, A qualified witness of the impact in Red Bay of the discovery of the San Juan. Both of them have helped me put together this episode. In the autumn of 1565, several Basque whaling ships were anchored in a remote bay of Labrador opposite the island of Newfoundland. It was the end of the whaling season, and hundreds of sailors were hurrying up to complete their ships cargo of oil barrels. Some were flensing the blubber off the dead whales, some working in the rendering ovens, while others were taking the oil barrels on board. All that frantic industrial activity was happening in the wilderness decades before any Europeans would establish the first colonies of the country that we now called Canada. In October, a fierce storm hit that unprotected, barren coast. Under the strain of the hurricane force wind the anchor cables of one of the ships the 200 tonnes San Juan gave in, To the despair of her crew members, the ship went to adrift and ran aground on the small island that enclosed the bay. We can imagine the titanic efforts the crew members undertook in order to save the ships. Nevertheless, the San Juan started sinking very near the shore at about 10 metres of depth. The captain ordered to save as many vittles’ as possible and as much of the ship’s gear and the crew members managed to save their belongings, before the ship sank with nearly 1000 oil barrels on board. It was a disaster for everyone from her master and ship owner Ramos de Arrieta to the ships last boy. All that year’s profit was now underwater. They returned home on board the other Basque whaling ships moored in the same bay. And once in the Basque Country, the ship outfitters claimed the insurance.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Many European cod fishermen used to frequent the coast of what we now call Canada. It was Newfoundland for them or the Coast of Cod. However, it is documented that very early in the 16th century Basques were not only fishing cod but also whaling, an activity they had been carrying out during the Middle Ages off the Basque coast. By the 1540s, several whaling ships sailed to the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador every year, and by the time of the San Juan in 1565, it’s estimated that about 20 Basque whale ships sailed for the whaling season. In 1571, the Basque fishing fleet in Newfoundland comprised nearly 100 vessels 25 to 30 of them being whale ships manned by close to 4000 fishermen. But now let’s leap into the 20th century. In the 1970s, an Anglo Canadian researcher Selma Barkham, finds documents in Basque archives that mentioned the sinking of the San Juan in a place that is later identified as Red Bay in southern Labrador. In those documents, she learned the names of the master and ship-owner, the ship’s outfitters, some of the crew members and the basic facts of what happened on that stormy day on a lonely barren Bay in today’s Canada. In 1978, following the information gathered by Selma Barkham, the Department of underwater archaeology of Parks Canada, led by Robert Grenier, found in Red Bay the remains of a shipwreck that is believed to be the San Juan. During the archaeological research carried out in subsequent years, it became clear that the shipwreck fitted in with the events described in the documents. At the same time, a team of archaeologists from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, under the direction of James Tuck discovered plentiful evidence of Basque whalers presence on the shores of Red Bay. After several years of intensive digging, both onshore and underwater, it became evident that Red Bay was visited by seasonal Basque whalers for many decades of the 16th century. The findings include shelters, cooperage, workshops, blubber rendering ovens, several shipwrecks, and even a cemetery, where more than 140 corpses of Basque sailors give testimony of their presence in Red Bay each year, probably from June to the end of autumn.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Very early during the underwater excavation of the San Juan, the archaeologists realised that the whole structure of the ship was present, at least up to the first deck a fact, uncommon among shipwrecks of that time. Thanks to that, for the first time ever, it was possible to get to know exactly the shape of the hull. This is important because this was a period before the invention of the illustrated ship plan. At that time, no plans were drawn prior to the building of a ship, every timber was painstakingly recovered and studied in great detail. The result was that they were able to recreate the exact shape of the hull and the way in which she was built. The research even gave an insight into the advanced forestry techniques developed in the 16th century in the Basque Country. The San Juan was a galleon type three masted ship of about 200 tonnes burden. She had three decks, a forecastle and a Stern Castle, with an estimated crew of about 60 and she could carry nearly 1000 barrels of whale oil. It was believed that she was armed, although most of the ordinance was recovered by her crew after the sinking. ships like the San Juan were not only used in whaling expeditions, they constituted the core of the Carrera de Indias or the Route to the Indies. A yearly convoy organised by the Spanish crown to supply its colonies in the American continent, and to carry treasure back from South America to Spain. So although the San Juan was a Basque whale ship, she also was the better known representative of the ocean going ships of the Age of Discovery. The discovery of a San Juan has had a significant impact on the town of Red Bay, Cindy Gibbons, a local resident, an expert in the area told me more about it. Cindy is the cultural resource management advisor of the Western Newfoundland and Labrador field unit, and a qualified witness of the impact in Red Bay of the discovery of the San Juan. I recently spoke with Cindy to find out about the impact of the discovery. She told me that when the remains of whale oil processing stations and the wreck of the 16th century Galleon that they believe to be the San Juan were found in the late 70s, the community of Red Bay was in its heyday. A flourishing fish plant was processing cod, salmon, and herring, which along with the harvesting of the fish ensued, the practically everyone in town had a job. If truth be told, she said, most residents of Red Bay barely notice that something extraordinary was taking place. The tiny local newspaper carried the story about the discovery of the wreck of the end of September, with far less enthusiasm than media in other parts of the country where no one had ever heard of Red Bay. The archaeological discoveries at Red Bay did have an impact on the young people of Red Bay many found some employment working with either the Parks Canada underwater archaeology team, or the Memorial University archaeology team which was excavating the shore stations associated with the 16th century Basque whaling industry. In fact, Cindy’s first job was providing support for the team in the Parks Canada field laboratory. It was an experience that went on to guide her professional life. A whole new world suddenly opened up as she worked alongside archaeologists, historians and other professionals and students. Many of Red Bay’s youth of the 1970s and 80s have followed paths that they would never have trodden, had the wreck and other archaeological sites not been found. Good times in Red Bay would not last however, through the 1980s, a variety of factors were on a collision course that would lead to the collapse of the cod, and other fish stocks, and eventually to the closure of the fisheries that had brought the ancestors of the good folk of Red Bay to Labrador, a century and a half ago, not unlike events leading to the decline and eventual end of the whaling industry over four centuries ago. By a happy coincidence, the cod fishery collapse of the early 1990s coincided with Parks Canada’s planned development of Red Bay as a National Historic Site. The archaeological discoveries at Red Bay had already led to the beginnings of a tourism industry in southern Labrador, accommodation, food services, and other sectors of the hospitality industry were improving, and the people of the region were exploring ways to capitalise on the Basque whaling history, as well as other aspects of the vast cultural heritage of the area. Presentation of Red Bay to visitors as a site of interest and importance began during the early 1980s. As the archaeological teams displayed artefacts and photographs of the excavations, the visitors to field laboratories that supported the work of both Parks Canada and Memorial University. For a time during the 1990s, the town of Red Bay developed and operated an interpretation centre that focused on the ongoing terrestrial archaeology at Red Bay. As that works scaled down, Parks Canada began extensive work at Red Bay to fully interpret the story of 16th century Basque whaling in Canada. And since that time, the number of visitors per season has increased to around 10,000 per year. In 2013, the Red Bay Basque whaling station achieved the pinnacle of international recognition when it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because it represents one of the best preserved and most extensive examples of a large scale pre industrial commercial whaling operation anywhere in the world. While it is generally recognised that the growing tourism industry in the region will never replace the lost fisheries, the potential represented by Red Bay National Historic Site and the Red Bay Basque whaling station World Heritage site has prevented this community and others in the region from succumbing to the fate of many rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The impact of the discovery of the San Juan has also reached the other side of the Atlantic more specifically in the Spanish Basque port of Pasaia, where Albaola works. Albaola is a Basque not for profit association, with the aim of promoting and developing Basque maritime heritage. When Albaola learned that the shipwreck of a Basque whaling Galleon had been found in research, they decided to build a replica. The huge amount of detailed information gathered by Parks Canada about the San Juan was by far the best existing source of information about best shipbuilding techniques. In 2011, Parks Canada handed over the results of nearly 30 years of research to Albaola on the condition that the building of the replica would be as close to the original ship as possible. Albaola assume the concept of commemorative integrity that Parks Canada applies to all of their re-enactment projects, and the construction of the new San Juan began in 2014. Being aware of the potential of the building project, Albaola decided to create a shipyard Museum in which visitors could witness the building of the replica Albaola, The Sea Factory of the Basques. The shipyard museum familiarly known as the factory is located in Pasaia, the very port from which the original San Juan sailed five centuries ago. Its location right next to the city of San Sebastian makes it easy to reach for visitors from all over the country. Nowadays, the staff in Albaolo work hard not only to build the San Juan, but to become an international reference of Basque maritime culture. Since its opening in 2014, more than a quarter of a million visitors have visited the building of the San Juan. Thus becoming aware of the leading role developed by 16th century Basque shipbuilders, and seafarers and their contribution to world maritime history. The building of a 16th century ship offers many challenges, one of them being how to source suitable oak. The structural timbers and planks of the original San Juan show that the building of Basque galleons started in the forest where the trees were trained into shape to provide the exact shapes needed for the pieces of hull structure. However, in the 21st century, nobody grows oaks this way, so finding the proper timber has been difficult. Another challenge has been putting in practice the ancient building method known as ‘floating futtock’, in which the ship is built from deck to deck as if they were the floors of a house. As the building progresses, more futtocks or short ribs are added, their ends are sandwiched between the structure of the deck and the planking. Facing those technical challenges and solving the problems that arise, demands the use of both experimental archaeology and archival research. In 2015, the resulting quality of the building process was awarded with a patronage of UNESCO. By the winter of 2021, the structure of the ship was almost complete, and the outer planking also nearly completed. But let’s look at another aspect of this amazing project, who is actually building the San Juan?  It’s not a trivial question, as it’s not easy to find accomplished boat builders that can not only build a big ship, but also do it using boat building techniques five centuries old. When they started in 2014, they had to specially train a small team of boat builders. Alongside them they had many volunteers not only from the Basque Country, but from all over the world contributing enormously to the building of the replica. However, Arb was aware of the difficulty of finding qualified boat builders. In the Basque coast, there aren’t any boat builders making wooden boats, let alone boat building schools. So Albaolo decided that the situation should change. And with that in mind, in 2017, they created Aprendiztegi, an international boat building school. Saul Hoffman, a previous apprentice of the school, told me more about the Aprendiztegi, and his experience. Here’s Saul.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Saul thank you very much for joining me today.

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    My pleasure, Sam.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s start. just tell me about life at the school.

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    It’s weird to call it a school because there are no lessons. We don’t use books, there is no theory. We just get there and start working until we finish the day.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Do you work with wood from the moment you turn up? Is it very hands on?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    Yes, indeed. Since there are no requirements for the new students. You don’t need any previous knowledge in boatbuilding or your you don’t need to have any skills in woodworking. So it could happen we usually have an introduction the first month where we explain how the machines work. The wood is sawn, stuff like that, some safety instructions. But after that, we usually divide the students into groups, and each group has their own project and it’s what they do all day long.

     

    Sam Willis 

    How many students are there in total?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    It’s usually six apprentices each year, for a total of three years. I think at the moment, we are only 15 though

     

    Sam Willis 

    And they are they from all over the world ?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    Yes,  we have a guy from the United States. We used to have a guy from Brazil. I’m from Italy myself. We have of course the majority come from Spain or France, which is the closest country but we have we have had people from Belgium we have people from Germany, Austria, Greece, mostly Europe for visa reasons.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What do you need to be a good boat builder? What skills do you need?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    I think you need to be motivated. You need a strong will to learn the trade. It’s not that difficult. I mean, it’s it’s crazy what you can do if you just try it. Wood is not a difficult material to work. I mean, of course you need to learn about it. But I don’t think you will be so proficient in coding or physics after only a few months that you try. Whereas with boat building you can you can get some pretty decent results after the first year.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Can you describe the school because as I understand it there, you’re all working on this old vessel but being watched by people, being watched by visitors? Is that is that awkward? Is it difficult?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    We always make a joke that we should hang a sign that says don’t feed the carpenters.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Very good.

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    But yes, it’s the environment is a bit weird, because it’s a school but at the same time, it’s a shipyard and a museum open to the public. So the main attraction, let’s call it is the replica of the San Juan, obviously. But at the same time, the school works in, in, in a space open to the public as well. So we have minor projects, smaller boats, and restorations that also are carried on in front of the public in order that people understand what’s going on. And they did they don’t just see the boat, they’re more in some port, that they actually see the wood being bought, the kind of tools we’re using.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Can you give us a sense of scale of the San Juan, how big is it? And how far down the build are you guys?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    It’s always looks smaller than it really is. It’s way taller than two buses because it’s got three decks plus the castles, the fore and a aft castle. But it’s actually a pretty tiny boat for its age. At the time, it was not the biggest boat sailing into Newfoundland. It looks very big if you step into it, but it looks quite tiny if  you see where it is now, outside of the water inside the shed. No makes it look kind of tiny.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And what stage of construction are you guys at the minute?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    We are actually planking at the moment. We’re like halfway through the planking. But there are many more finishing touches to be done in the interior. And actually, the boat is not it’s too big to fit into the shed. The top of the stern castle doesn’t fit. So that will be finished once it’s launched. And of course the rigging will be installed the masts and rigging will be installed afterwards as well.

     

    Sam Willis 

    When is it due to be completed?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    That’s the question every single visitor asks. And I don’t know. It really depends on how many people are working on it. Last year the project kind of stops stopped because of Coronavirus. The museum closed down. We went into minimal I don’t know how to say

     

    Sam Willis 

    minimal construction.

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    Yes. smaller things just with the school there was no there were no carpenters everybody was at home. It really depends on how many people get to work on it. We are open to volunteers. So many times we get actually we have had some quite skilled people working on it during the summer especially. But during the year we have a few carpenters that work on it plus a couple teams of students. So there will be six to eight students in divided into groups. You can see the difference if you if you visit the place every six months, you can tell there has been you can see there is a difference. If you just think of the sheer amount of work is still missing. It’s kind of overwhelming.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Why do you think all of this matters? Why is it important that we build ships from the past Do you think?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    Well, the San Juan is I think a very interesting story that it has also huge meaning for the community. It’s, it came from, you probably know, the Basque Country is kind of a very proud region of Spain, which are very proud of their past, also of the present, but especially if they’re maritime past, and rightly so because they, I mean, in the 15/16 century, they were already hunting whales in Canada, which is I didn’t know that when I came here. It’s something I recently discovered. And I think many of the people living here don’t even know about that. Basque country has always been a people of shepherds and fishermen. But not all of the Basques today know that their ancestors used to whale to hunt whales in, in Newfoundland. So that’s one thing, heritage, in general. And the other thing is, to prove that you can still build boats out of wood, you don’t need to make them out of fibreglass or plastic. I think that’s important as well. I think it’s also important as a project for people like me, that are still quite young and wants to learn this trade. I mean, most of the my father’s generation, which was the generation that had the opportunity to learn the trade, from their parents, and ancestors didn’t want to anymore because wood, wooden boat building was not required anymore. And so we keep the generation and now it’s up to us to try to save whatever, whatever it’s left. And I think the projects like the, like the replica of the San Juan in Albaola are important for the creation of this new generation of boat builders, which, hopefully we’ll be able to grasp something of what’s what was about to be lost forever.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. Where are you from in Italy?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    I come from the north of Italy, close to Milan. Before moving here, I lived for a few years well five years in Venice. That’s where I started to love boats, obviously.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Ah, I wondered where it’s from. So you’re from inland Italy, not by the coast.

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    No, not at all. Milan is in the middle of the plains surrounded by fog. The only water you see is that in rice fields, but you cannot. You cannot sail on them.

     

    Sam Willis 

    But then you went to Venice and you kind of absorb the wonderful maritime history, maritime history there. It’s interesting that say the Venetians got a lot of their timber from Istria. From just the other side of the, of the sea of the sea there. It’s a beautiful kind of area, a very, very wooded, which is where they’re where they got their timber. It just makes me wonder where did you get the timber from the San Juan from?

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    Mostly comes from close by? It’s we could say locally sourced. It comes from the Basque Country from Nevaro, which is the region that right next to it, and I believe some of it has come from France, which is like 15 kilometres from here. We’re really close to the border.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And what bit Have you most enjoyed working on? What was the most satisfying bit to do

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    on the San Juan? The most satisfying as well, with my team, we’ve, we’ve built the so called beak which is the sort of the real tip of the bow. The San Juan has a very specific piece at the very end of it, which is pointed as an arrow. We’ve been working on that on that part, which I mean, I’m sure when I will see it from the from land, sailing. I will, I will say yeah, I’ve been working on that.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, I think that’s part of the joy of being a boat builder. And I very much can’t wait to see this vessel at sea. Well done for all of your hard work. And may it continue. And thank you very much for talking to me today.

     

    Saul Hoffman 

    Thank you very much for having me.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening Do please remember to find the Mariners Mirror podcast on YouTube to see the fabulous videos we’ve been creating. Especially make sure you look at the one where we use artificial animation to make ships figureheads come alive, it really is brilliant. Please also leave us a review, especially if you’re listening to this on iTunes. It’s really easy to scroll down, hit five stars. Tell us what you think. And we’ll read your review out. This is hugely important, as it helps us climb the ladder of podcasts. So quite simply, more people find out about us. And we can change the way that more people think about the maritime past. And that of course, is our mission to bring the world of maritime history to as many people as possible and we cannot do it without your help. So please don’t just be a passive listener, please do what you can to help us. Please also follow the Society for Nautical Research on social media. And please join the Society for Nautical Research. It really doesn’t cost very much your annual subscription helps support this podcast. It helps publish the quarterly mariners mirror journal, it helps support the preservation of our maritime heritage and it allows you to come to our annual dinner on board HMS Victory. There is simply no better way to spend your spare money and to feel good about yourself at the same Time.

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