How the Basque build
Placentia native assists Spaniards on replica of 16th century ship
Jerome Canning got his start building boats as a boy growing up in Placentia, where he fished with his father and brothers.
Now a master boat builder himself, Canning recently had the opportunity to help out a group in Spain building a replica of a 16th century Basque galleon that was shipwrecked in Labrador in 1565 — the San Juan.
“For me as a builder to see a boat from that time — early 1500s to mid-1500s — was very important, in particular with our own history,” said Canning, who works at the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador in Winterton as a master builder and boatbuilding instructor. “It’s a tremendous project.” Canning met Xabier Agote at the 2013 Wooden Boat Conference in Glovertown, where the latter gave a presentation on the San Juan project — an effort greatly enriched by Parks Canada’s years of archaeology work at the site of the shipwreck in Red Bay.
With funding from the Wooden Boat Museum and the Department of Business, Tourism, Culture and Rural Development, Canning was recently able to spend six weeks in Pasaia, Spain. There, four master boat builders are working with eight qualified builders to recreate the 30-metre ship. The group spearheading the project is called Albaola Fakoria.
“They’re using the same wood and everything,” explains Canning. “For the most part, they’re using traditional tools.”
In terms of historical significance, Canning credits Basque boat builders with introducing the frame-first approach, which involves placing the boat’s frame down before the plank.
“It was really good to see how this was done, especially with the research that Parks Canada had done and those guys over there then replicating that.”
In relation to his own hometown, it was Basque mariners who first named Placentia in the 16th century, calling it ‘Plazencia.’
Some of the old tools in use were ones Canning himself had not encountered in years, and he enjoyed getting reacquainted with them. Canning offered help and advice where he could, but he generally looked at the experience as an opportunity to learn.
“If we were to ever approach a large boat again, especially an old time boat, that’s a really good history that I learned — how it was connected and how it was designed too.”
It’s a massive and expensive undertaking. Canning notes Al- baola Faktoria also employs six office workers, and it’s still working to secure the necessary funds needed to complete the project.
When that might happen is up for debate. Canning said the original plan was to have the boat ready for 2017 and Canada’s 150th birthday, with an appearance in Red Bay expected. While he says that might still be possible, Canning notes the group did experience a one-year delay in work due to a funding issue.
“These guys on the floor are working hard,” he said, adding there are workers on site daily. Canning hopes to go back there once or twice over the next couple of years if he can manage it.
“It’s really nice to know that these people are very, very prideful. They’re really proud of their maritime history, that’s for sure, and what they’re doing in terms of replicating is really phenomenal.”
Historical advisor Sabino Laucirica, left, and Jerome Canning at the work site in Pasaia, Spain, where a dozen workers are building a replica of the 16th century whaling ship the San Juan. The vessel was shipwrecked in Red Bay, Labrador, in 1565.