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A “Catraia” Under

By 25 de February, 2024April 29th, 2024No Comments

Chatting with master Benjamim Moreira

What a beautiful “catraia”, Master Benjamim Moreira! In Vila Chã, a fishing village, this small, sturdy and curved, disused fishing boat was born from hands that have mastered wooden shipbuilding. Destined to preserve centuries-old knowledge and unite memories of the sea in northern and southern Europe, it will be finished in Norway, one of the sponsoring countries of CdAN. So let’s get to know the “catraia” and its builder, guardian of an ancient art.

There were many “catraias” on the north coast of Portugal until the 20th century, but Vila Chã, in Vila do Conde, is proud to have its own model, created by Master Lourenço, Benjamim Moreira’s great-grandfather. At the age of 74, his great-grandson is keeping this heritage alive, the fruit of know-how accumulated over centuries. For example, the construction method of this “catraia” is based on the “graminho” –- a way of scratching the framing (the boat’s frames structure) – described by priest Fernando Oliveira at the end of the 16th century for the great ships of the Carreira da Índia (Portuguese maritime route to India).

On our visit to the workshop where it is being built, the “catraia” was already showing its shapes, with the various body parts joined together. Screws are not part of the process. It’s a complex job, yet the master builder insists that “it’s not difficult”. He doesn’t follow drawings, he doesn’t make the so-called “risco” (method of designing the boat); he does it using the technique he has learned and perfected.

When designing the frames, “I use my shapes, I’ve had them for a long time. From these, I draw according to the dimensions of the vessel that they ask me for. And everything works out”.

Not even the breasthook, which binds all the parts of the boat together, ensuring its strength, needs to be scratched. “I used to scratch it, but now I sit on a stump and dig it out and shape it by hand, without measurements. It’s quicker than following the line”.

Empirically, he defends the local culture and the family legacy, but don’t ask him to “make copies of drawings”. And so we have a catraia that, although from Vila Chã, bears the mark of Benjamim Moreira, for whom wooden shipbuilding was love at first sight.

A life of art and character

Benjamim Moreira lost count of the boats he built. There were many. He didn’t know his great-grandfather Lourenço, but he learned the trade from his great-uncle Caseiro, a renowned master builder. As a child, “I went to his shipyard whenever I could. My father wanted me to be a fisherman, like him, and when I had time off from school I would accompany him, but I liked building boats”.

He built his first boat when he was 14 or 15. “I was already looking at the girls, who invited me for a ride… I’d go boating with them. At one point, my father got angry with me and broke the boat. It cost me a lot, but that’s how it was…”

He grew up, did his military service in Guinea and emigrated to Germany, where he became a carpenter in a furniture factory. “As soon as April 25 (the revolution that ended the dictatorship in Portugal in 1974) happened, I returned to my homeland.” He wanted to build boats, but times weren’t easy in the industry. He was preparing to return to Germany when he was asked to fix two frames for a boat. From then on, the requests added up. “And here I stayed.”

He kept his tools in his father-in-law’s house and worked on the beach. More and more boat orders came in, so he bought a plot of land and set up his shipyard. He made boats for the entire Portuguese coast, France and Angola. The only reason he didn’t take his skills to Guinea, which remained in his heart, was because of the various coups d’état in that country.

“When there was little to do, I didn’t ask for subsidies, I decided to invest in the restaurant business [he owns Restaurante Estaleiro]. I’ve always been independent and I’ve passed that on to my children,” he says.

At the age of 55, he closed the shipyard. The master, who had always kept up with developments in the sector (he even adapted to building fiberglass boats), didn’t accept the technical requirements that were now being demanded of shipbuilders. “They started putting pressure on me; I had to have the boat designed by an engineer, which was more expensive than the boat itself. So I quit for good.”

As well as the restaurant business, he was president of the Vila Chã Parish Council for 12 years, “always elected by a majority”. As for building wooden boats, he’s kept at it at his own pace, without pressure. Eleven years ago, also as part of an initiative with Norway, he made a “catraia” – in his own way, without following a blueprint – which he hasn’t given up. He lends it out for exhibitions, it’s a well-traveled vessel. And it’s a genuine Vila Chã “catraia”, one of many he has made, similar to the one shown here.

As he puts it, “I inherited knowledge, I follow it. What I learned in my uncle’s shipyard is what I am today. This art is inside me. And it’s not about money, it’s about friendship. The boat owners were amazed by my work, we remained friends.”

Benjamim Moreira wants to keep this art alive. That’s why he embraces the offers made to him, like this one from CdAN, and is available to teach what he knows. Come along if anybody’s interested.

What is a “catraia”?

Between four and eight meters long and carrying up to five crew members, it is an “open mouth” boat (without a cover) powered by oars (two larger and two smaller) and/or a triangular bastard sail. The original steering system was by rudder post. The water lines are shell-shaped, with V-shaped ends.

Made for drifting ashore (running aground on the sand), the “catraia” was widely used for fishing sardines, pout and other fish from the Portuguese sea. Its use began to decline in the 1950s and by the 1990s it had almost ceased to be made of wood. In addition to being made of fiberglass, it underwent changes: the stern was cutted to fit an engine.

The “rare” catraias built today are no longer used for fishing, but rather to keep alive their memory and the culture of wooden shipbuilding.

According to the architect, ethnographer and archaeologist Octávio Lixa Felgueiras (1922-96), this type of boat has Nordic origins, although it was built using Mediterranean processes. This aspect will allow us to establish an interesting bridge with Norway, a country that also has a tradition of building wooden boats.

Is there a new boat? Let the traditions come

The importance of a name. It’s tradition for a boat to have a name and a baptism. Benjamim Moreira named almost all the boats he built. “There are still boats around Vila Chã and other places, like Angeiras, with the name I suggested,” he says, giving “God guide me” as an example.

The lowering of a boat. Or baptism. The priest may or may not be present, “but it’s the shipbuilders who do the baptizing,” says the master. The ceremony begins in the shipyard, with champagne, and continues on the beach, “with food and drink inside the boat. People walk around it and everyone socializes”.

Does a bottle break against the boat? Of course. “The builders say a prayer and bless the boat with red wine. Almost always, the fishermen want to drink from that bottle, which has to be the wine that tints the boat,” says Benjamim Moreira.