The city’s shipyard has always been one of its spiritual hearts – creating as many myths and legends as boats.
At the Varadero Barcelona (Barcelona Naval Shipyard) on Venezuela and the River, the few carpenters who keep the tradition of building boats, stand upon their masterpieces and sand, brush, carve and shape the powerful beams that form the hulls and bodies of these floating wonders. They also patch and waterproof aging ships with tar to keep them ship-shape. One of them, taking a deserved break, is Héctor Huayamave.
Huayamave is a kind of relic here. Apart from building ships in what is historically a symbol of the city (the legendary Guayaquil shipyards), he is the son of one of the original founders of Barcelona Sporting Club – Guayaquil’s emblematic football team born in the historic streets of this very neighborhood, a migrants’ neighborhood.
¿Why migrants? It’s interesting to know that many of the people who first reached the city by way of the Guayas River decided not to venture inland and settled along the so-called ‘astillero’ (shipyard in Spanish). They set up their homes here and for generations have lived along the riverbank.
Galleons, galleys, merchant vessels, cargo and war ships of the highest quality set sail from Guayaquil
An ancient tradition
From the time the city of Guayaquil was appointed as an official shipyard for the Spanish Crown in 1610 until its Independence in October 1820, around 200 ships – weighing between 70 and 1,000 tonnes, some with up to 50 cannon – were built in the docks of the Guayas River. Galleons, galleys, merchant vessels, cargo and war ships of the highest quality set sail here in the service of the Spanish Crown and Royal Navy.
The shipyard’s reputation grew to such a degree that by the late eighteenth century Guayaquil almost became the Royal Dockyard of the Southern Seas (due to costs and distance, the initiative was abandoned). Chroniclers Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa describe a boat called “The Old Christ” of which “there was no memory of builders 80 years old or older that could have built it, yet the wood was still as healthy and fresh as if it had just come out of yard”.
The buoyancy, flexibility, size and durability of Guayaquil timber (among which we can name the endemic – and unmatched – Guachapelí, Guaiac and Balsa), and the region’s pre-Columbian shipbuilding tradition, explain Guayaquil’s reputation.
Although workshops continue to exist today, they are a shadow of the former industry which, at its height, could surely have erected the biblical Ark itself.
A star builder
One of the aspects of Guayaquil’s shipyards that most struck early visitors and clients was a certain illiterate Afro-American master builder. Historical writings of both Alessandro Malaspina, from his journey through South America in 1790, and Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, after their visit to the Spanish colonies in 1735 with La Condamine, speak of him in utter amazement, enraptured by the story of a character who, despite being both illiterate and of African descent, could be at the heart of the Guayaquil’s vessel production, which at that time was the most famous in the Eastern Pacific and among the finest in the world.
Was he the same master builder they both saw, young and old? Or were they two different master builders, perhaps next of kin?