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Puerto Rico’s Famous Chalanas

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They are a highly competitive one-design. At 75-plus strong, they are one of the largest classes in Puerto Rico with a history that stretches back more than half a century. And, local crowds follow weekend regattas, and the winners, like groupies chasing rock concerts. What are these boats? Chalanas.

The history of Chalanas starts in the sugar era, says Carlos Marrero, president of the Puerto Rico Chalana Association. “Workers use to transport the sugar cane cut from the fields along the south coast to the refinery by boat. They used flat-bottomed boats that could be sailed right up to the beach to make the off-loading of the cane easier.”

A few decades later, in the 1960s, Marrero continues, “Many of the poorer neighborhood fishermen used boats with sails because they could not afford outboard engines. Sails were made from whatever type of cloth the fishermen had at hand. After a while, by the early 1970s, the fishermen started to compete for fun on the weekends. Crowds would gather to watch and cheer their favorites. Over the years, the mayors of all the south coast towns which had beaches included chalana competition as part of their carnival or fiestas patronales.”

Today, there are over 75 chalanas in Puerto Rico, 50 that actively sail and about 25 that race at any one time. There are different classes of chalanas, such as 16-footers, 20-footers, 24-footers and 28-footers, however the 24-footers are most common and most active as a group, Marrero says.

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“We race every month. We’ll do windward-leeward courses in the Discover the Caribbean Series and in the Heineken Culebra International Regatta. But otherwise, we do a course that has four marks – windward, leeward, a 90-degree reaching mark and center mark so that the spectators on the beach can get a good view of the action,” Marrero says.

Chalanas are still backyard-built rather than factory-fabricated. “A group of guys gets together to build a chalana. One maybe contributes the money, another the knowledge of how to build it and another the actual work,” Marrero says.

Chalanas are wide boats that narrow at the bottom, have no ballast, use crew on a trapeze for balance and are constructed totally of wood. Long ago, it was native trees that formed the base. Today, it’s plywood. Used materials also go into these craft that cost about $6,000 to build from scratch and get regatta-ready. In fact, the 24-footers competing in the Heineken Culebra International Regatta all flew second-hand Melges 24 sails.

“None of us are designers and there are no hard fast rules of what a chalana should be,” Marrero says. “Rather, we design from our sailing experience and re-design our boats from our desire to win and make the boats more hydrodynamic. For example, if you put a 30-foot mast on a 24-foot chalana and it works, then everyone will start to share that innovation.”

He adds, “We share ideas with each other on land, but once we leave the beach and are out on the water, we are like lions chasing each other. Although all the boats are a little different, we all finish within seconds of each other. It’s that competitive.”

Chalana sailors typically get their start in sailing on these native craft rather than on production boats. However, many of these sailors learned about wind and wave action as young children playing with self-built toy boats. “I grew up in Patillas sailing coconut boats. We’d cut the coconut in three parts, use a stick for the mast, seagrape leaves for sails and a crushed soda can for a rudder. We’d wade out in the water and sail them downwind. This taught us how the winds would go, which side was faster,” says Marrero, whose father was a chalana sailor and grandfather a fisherman.

Lastly, chalanas are native to Puerto Rico, but are not to be confused with native boats. “The native boats have a V-shaped hull, use sandbags for ballast and are popular in the rougher waters near Fajardo,” Marrero says.

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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