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Puerto Rico’s Native Chalana Sailboats

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Grenada has its workboats, Martinique its yoles, and Tobago its bum-boats. Similarly, Puerto Rico’s native wooden sailboat is the Chalana.

Chalanas evolved from fishing boats and coastal traders. They were once used to supply larger vessels anchored in a bay or offshore as well as to transport sugarcane to Central America. Today, there’s a strong following of native boat racing enthusiasts.

“There are two types of Chalanas now being raced,” explains Gregg Fyffe, who is filming a documentary on Chalanas and has uploaded a trailer to YouTube titled ‘Chalanas Santa Isabel’, explains, “the 28-foot class, which is a more traditional fin keeled weighted boat built locally, and then there’s the 16, 18, 20 and 24-foot classes which are centreboard, crew ballasted boats with trapeze and hiking rails.”

There are no real firm design rules for Chalanas except for length to race in a particular class. However, in recent years, all designs are based on an Australian skiff type format with a plumb bow, wide open stern and about five or more trapeze. All construction is plywood covered with fibreglass reinforced with metal crossbars. The boats are constantly being refined and remade as they either break or some new technology or design scheme is seen by the owners and incorporated. Some have stepped hulls like powerboats, hard chine or soft chine, depending on the builder. Design plans range from being hand-drawn in beach sand to computer generated.

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Chalanas are traditionally raced between Ponce and Arroyo on the south/southeast coast of Puerto Rico, while two variations called Gambotines and Nativos are in greater concentration on the eastern coast. Gambotines are built with a traditional design but using fibreglassed plywood over frames. Nativos are traditional displacement hull vessels with a pronounced bow and full keel. Their design is much more traditional and a reflection of their plank and frame construction.

Carlos Marrero, who has raced Chalanas for many years, tells, “I am personally promoting a one design project consisting of a boat that you can buy in pieces to assemble in the backyard. We’ve already assembled the first one and interest from new people is good. It is a 17-foot Nativo. I used Google SketchUp to draw the design, and Carlos Bobonis from the Architecture Laboratory of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Ponce Campus, helped me with the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) technology. I just arrive at the University with the SketchUp file and a few plywood planks and the CNC router does everything. It’s magical and a huge step for sailboat building in Puerto Rico.”

Marrero’s next step is to promote a one-design 24-foot Chalana, for which he is receiving assistance from an architect in the structural analysis and other design details.

There are two ways visitors and locals alike can get involved in native boat sailing in Puerto Rico.

One is via regattas.

More than 20 traditional boat regattas take place annually. Most occur between the months of May and August. There are also invitational regattas, which push this number to 30 to 35 weekends per year with both Chalanas and Nativos in the water. Regattas are usually announced through social media such as Facebook and Twitter as well as in local newspapers. These events are staged off public beaches. True to tradition, all of the courses are laid out in consideration of the spectators on shore. This is what keeps the crowds growing at these regattas.

The second way is by taking sailing lessons. Robert Davis, whose father was stationed at Roosevelt Roads, has childhood memories of sailing on Chalanas. Today, his Sail Naguabo in Playa Naguabo (about ten miles southwest of Humacao) offers adult and youth, basic, intermediate and advanced classes aboard 15, 17 and 21-foot Nativos on Saturdays from 8am to Noon for $25 per person. Better yet, Davis holds a free Sunday open house from Noon to 3pm that features free rides, orientation and class registration.

For more information, call: (787) 988 –1387 or Email: mvcaribbeanblue@gmail.com.

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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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