Sailing Through The Memory Of Canarian Fishing Boats

“Navegando por la memoria” (Sailing Through Memory) is an impressive exhibition of fishing boat models, currently being shown in Arrecife, that you will not want to miss.

It’s organised by the Patrimonio Histórico of the Cabildo de Lanzarote and its aim is to protect the island’s history and heritage.

Entrance is free and it can be seen Monday to Friday from 9h to 14h and on Saturdays from 10h to 14h in Casa Fajardo on Calle Fajardo, 5.

If for whatever reason you can’t visit the exhibition or you want to get a feel for it, you can check out this virtual visit:

Marcial Cabrera Reyes, known as “Chalo,” created these models to scale. The fishing navigation of the islands has a large history.

The trips to Africa began in the early 15th century, towards the Windward Sea (barlovento) in front of the islands, to reach later, the Bahía de Arguín, beyond Cabo Blanco. The islanders used to fish around the Salvajes Islands, at the Banco de las Sondas (2 miles from La Graciosa), Jandía, and along the other islands’ coasts.

The role of Lanzarote in relation to fishing reached relevance from the late 19th century, when it became a base port for coastal fishing. This kind of navigation experienced a development until the late 20th century. This evolution is what Chalo’s scale models depict.

These centuries of navigation endowed Canarian sailors with extraordinary knowledge not only about climatology, ocean currents, navigation methods, and shipbuilding techniques but also about the African coast or the behaviors of different marine species. A cultural heritage transmitted to their successors, ensuring the survival of their knowledge, so that knowledge would not be forgotten.

Nautical Knowledge

The island fishermen can recognize by looking at the sky, if a storm is approaching; they know about tide times, are familiar with shallow areas and the different types of seabed. They refer to flat rocky bottoms as “tableros” and sandy bottoms as “limpios”; recognizing accurately the mountains and coves of the African coast naming most of capes, bays and coves along the entire coastline. This tradition remains until today.


They know by heart the route that takes them to the fishing grounds, being necessary to get there by following an itinerary. When the place on the coast is identified, the course is changed until reaching the fishing ground. The journey from Arrecife to Rio de Oro lasted approximately one week.

To return home, the boats have to sail close-hauled and tack against the winds, seeking the north, taking advantage of the coastal winds. When the point on the coast to reach the Canary Islands is recognized, the course is changed until arrival.

Navigation Instruments

Canarian skippers did not use more navigation instruments than a compass; near the coast, they also used the sounding lead and the lead line. With knowledge, passed from generation to generation, they could know fairly accurately where they were, distance from the coast, depth, the type of seabed…

Boats and Shipbuilding

The general design of this kind of boat will mainly respond to the needs to fulfill as the geographical / climatic conditions of the area assigned or planned to sail. In the Canary Islands, many of the models originate from other lands. However, their gradual specialization and adaptation to local navigation will give rise to a specific Canarian design.

The way shipwrights built did not rely on scientific knowledge but on practical experience and oral tradition acquired over the years. The same applied to other specialized jobs, such as caulking or making sails, anchors and nets.

Their workspaces were spread throughout the coastline of Arrecife: Muelle de la pescadería, Islote del Francés, la Puntilla, Islote del Quebrado y Puerto Naos.

Shipbuilding in Lanzarote was developed from the 19th century when Arrecife Port became the main base for fishing in Africa.

It began with the construction of some schooners and brigantines, growing in the 20th century with the construction of smaller tonnage vessels, rigged to make them faster: topsail schooners, ketches, and yawls, as well as numerous small draft vessels: skiffs, launches, barges, twins, seine boats, dinghies, etc.

In the 1940s, many boats were built and adapted for coastal fishing. Some were new smaller vessels, such as “cachuchos” (small yawls), while others were old barges rigged with yawls adapted for deep-sea fishing. It was the heyday of Lanzarote’s fishing navigation and its shipbuilding industry, which will last until the introduction of motors in navigation.

Life on Board

A fishing vessel was practically devoid of any element that was not necessary for work, evident in the compartmentalization of the ship.

The fishermen’s accommodation is at the stern, a space shared with water barrels and other gear, on which the bunks are placed. At the bow is the captain’s cabin, which shares space with the food provisions for the entire crew. The central area of the boat is designated for cargo storage. The galley is on deck, near the main mast. On deck, there are also many other necessary gear for fishing and navigation: anchors, boats, oars, cables and ropes, buoys, nets, etc.

Before heading out to sea, it is necessary to prepare the boat. Salt must be loaded for preservation and supplies for the crew. Each fisherman must bring their own gear: lines, hooks, knives, rods.

During the voyage, the main task is to assist in the manoeuvres of sailing navigation. On these journeys, if possible, all sails are used. Sailors stand watch in eight-hour shifts. During fishing seasons, there is practically no free time. Fishing starts at dawn. Afterward, the fish must be salted, and the work ends at nightfall. Meals are eaten after completing the tasks. The little free time left is often spent on repairs for their families, which the boat’s earnings support on each trip.

Fishing Seasons

Fishing campaigns are known as “zafras”. The duration of each one depended on various factors such as the distance to the fishing grounds, the tonnage, the speed of the boat, the quantity of fish, and, as long as sailing navigation existed, the wind direction.

Along the African coast, fish abound throughout the year. However, each species has its area and season to be caught. It is essential to know the fishing ground and the fishing method to be used.

The season for big game fishing: The most important one. It lasted about 6 months and took place in the Bahía del Galgo and the Banco de Arguín. It was dedicated to catching grouper and dentex.

The season for small game fishing: It took place in the Mar de Barlovento and lasted about 3 months. The catch included various species such as bream, sama fish, trumpetfish, horse mackerel, black seabream, sardines, cephalopods, etc.

Mixed season: In many cases, fishing was done in both seasons. These lasted between 4 – 9 months, with several trips per campaign. Once the season was finished, the boats returned to the island for repairs and maintenance. This time could be used for small-scale fishing along the coasts of Lanzarote.

Fish farming: In the Mar de Barlovento, fresh fish captures were also possible by using the same vessels: topsail schooners, ketches, and yawls, equipped with compartments where seawater enters to keep the fish alive. These were the fish farming boats, for shorter journeys, lasting about 15 days.

Coastal fishing: The majority of fresh fish consumed comes from catches in the waters around the islands. Small fishing boats, rowed or sailed, weighing less than three tons, which go in and out of port daily.

Fish preservation: After the catches, the fish is prepared for preservation. Mostly salting or codfish techniques are used. To a lesser extent, it is preserved in brine, adding salt and oil.

The need to preserve fish will lead to the emergence of numerous salt flats along the entire coast of Lanzarote.

In the second half of the 20th century, the loss of the salted fish market will drive the transformation towards sardine and tuna canning, creating the island’s first major industrial fabric, which will force the acquisition of specialized boats such as “sardinales” and “bermeanos”, motorized vessels.

End: The development of motorized navigation irreversibly changed sailing navigation. Initially, a large part of the artisanal fleet fitted motors to compete with refrigerated ships, but then mainly new motorized boats were purchased.

Furthermore, successive fishing restrictions in the “Banco Canario Sahariano” forced the gradual mooring of the fleet and its gradual disappearance. During those years, Arrecife was the main centre for exchanging knowledge about boats, nautical and fishing practices among all fleets operating on the African coast.


Juana Hernández
The baladra, slightly smaller than the schooner, is one of the most traditional boats. With a wooden hull and straight bow, it has two masts that hoist cangreja sails, cuchillo and foques. Is a light, maneuverable and very fast boat. The Juana Hernández, as about 20 meters long, carries 80 tons. Its underwater part is covered with copper plates, accompanied by a lateen sail auxiliary.

Built in Santa Pola, it was owned by Tomás Toledo for coastal work, making about 3 trips a year with around 20 crew members. In 1953, due to a storm, it was dragged and suffered some damage.

The Rosario balandra is a vessel with two puyas (bows) dedicated to small-scale fishing, making 4 annual trips to the Coast, off the Islands, with a crew of 7 men. A boat is not just a means of livelihood. It’s a significant part of the lives of its men who spent a great deal of their lives there, relating and sharing experiences, opinions, fears, dreams, and desires. It’s a “slice” of their life.

The most beloved model for “Chalo” was the Rosario. It wasn’t the best boat, nor the biggest, nor the fastest but the family’s grandfather’s boat. Chalo´s grandfather, father, uncles, brothers and himself worked on it. Chalo also became the skipper of the Rosario after obtaining his title in 1952.

The Bacalao was a wooden boat, known as a double-ended boat because both ends were similar. It’s an open vessel, equipped with benches in its central area, sharp bow and a convex stern, with a tiller handle. For propulsion, it uses oars, operated with a small crew.

These small boats were primarily used in inshore fishing, conducted near Islands Coasts. They made daily trips capturing fresh fish. The fishing gear used includes hooks, rods, longlines, drift nets, and traps.

Wooden-hulled motor vessel, with a rounded stern and a sharp, fan-shaped bow. The arrival of the engine will definitively transform the fishing nautical world. Improvements in navigation and in the preservation of catches will determine the gradual modernization of fleets, with the incorporation of engines into existing ships and the acquisition of new boats.

For tuna seasons, one of the important activities in the Canary Islands, a model that replicates the forms of the Cantabrian tuna vessel will prevail. In the islands, these fishermen were known as “bermeanos”.

The “pailebot” is a schooner but without gaff sails. Made of wood, it has a violin-shaped bow and two masts rigged with gaff, topsail, and jib sails. It was very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a very stable, fast boat that sails well on all courses. It requires 6 to 12 crew members for its maneuvering, has a large cargo capacity, with the fish hold extending from the foremast to the mainmast. The Vicente was owned by the shipowner Tomás Toledo, and used for fishing in Africa. Due to a storm, the boat sunk in Puerto Naos.

The coastal launch
A small wooden boat, without a deck. Constructed using the butt joint assembly system, it features a violin-shaped bow and a transom stern equipped with a tiller. It is propelled by oars. This type of vessel performs various support tasks in coastal fishing. Used to assist in exploring coastlines and shallows, seek out fishing grounds, aid in anchoring and maneuvering nets, catching or approaching the shore to obtain water and supplies.

The Canarian balandro is a boat native to the islands. It’s like a small schooner with more refined lines. It has a single mast that raises a gaff sail, a topsail, and several jibs. Built on the islands, forming the core of the artisanal fleet of Arrecife. Due to their nautical capabilities, were primarily used for coastal fishing, but also served for inter-island traffic and even transatlantic voyages. The Delfín, owned by Tomás Pérez Duchemin, was 12.50 meters long, 4.18 meters wide and 1.89 meters deep. It was seized in 1960.

The Rosarito schooner was one of the sailing vessels belonging to the large fishing fleet of Lanzarote. It was dedicated to fishing with lines and traps during the fishing seasons carried out on the African coast. With sleek bow and stern, its hull is covered with rectangular copper plates as protection for the wooden hull of the boat. The ship’s steering is carried out by a tiller.

As an indispensable aid to fishing tasks, the boats were accompanied by small auxiliary boats, as they offer greater maneuverability than the larger vessel. Used to distribute themselves across the fishing grounds catching fish and returning in the evening to the larger vessel to salt the catches.

Everything that a fishing boat carries is indispensable for navigating and fishing. Nothing is useless. In this model of La Carlota, Chalo reproduces all the equipment it carried, even representing the tar that waterproofs the boat in those black lines of caulking. It covers its hull with copper plates that protect the wood from marine corrosion. Additionally, it is accompanied by its auxiliary vessel, a boat with a sharp bow and a transom stern, with a lateen sail, which can also be propelled by oars. This pailebote was built by Rodolfo Alonso Lamberti.

Although these vessels were born for fishing, throughout their lives they were used for other jobs. Some of them, after the appearance of engines, were dedicated to inter-island transportation and even some to the transfer of Canarian emigrants to America.

Balandro for the transportation of live fish. The boat is equipped, between the mast and the stern cabin, with a tank where seawater enters. The fish are transported there until reaching port and kept alive at the bottom of the bay, inside cages. This method of fishing favored the development of facilities and adapted boats for the transportation of catches to land, where they are sold daily.

Since it is a more delicate commodity, these vessels usually fish in the area of the coast located in front of the islands, the Barlovento Sea, making round trips after completing the load. This balandro, which belonged to Miguel Rosales, had an auxiliary boat with a sharp bow and a transom stern, propelled by oars.

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