Digital Library

Mestre João Bezerra’s saveiro

In 1996 Lev Smarcevski published a beautiful book titled A alma do saveiro, with a preface by Jorge Amado, which presents an extensive description of these boats and their rigging, based on the method to build a saveiro used by a shipwright named João Bezerra, from Taperoá, a village situated 18 Km upstream of Valença (Smarcevski 1996).  Although in the introduction to the theme the author presents a theory for the origin of this construction method that has been proven unfounded, his book is also largely based on interviews with shipwrights, and presents a different look into the reality described by Sarsfield, and as such it both sheds light and raises new questions on the rich cultural world of the Baía boat builders and the maritime landscape of the area – the Recôncavo, as the interland area around Baía de Todos os Santos, is known.

Smarcevski’s book detailed the anatomy of a saveiro from Taperoá, its component timbers, and presented a tábua (graminho) belonging to shipwright João Bezerra.  Although this tábua contains a graminho for the design of the vessel’s turn-of-the-bilge curve, the author focuses on a different problem faced by the shipwright: the definition of the vessel’s scantlings.  The sizes and sections of the timbers that compose a boat or a ship have to be large enough to make it strong and durable, but light enough to make it swift and cheap.  Adjusting the sizes of each component of such a complex artifact and keeping the dimensional relationships between them harmonious and functional is not a trivial thing.  Scantlings and assemblage patterns are as important parts of the thought process that makes a vessel possible as the definition of its shape and size.  Again, proportions are an important part of the cognitive process and the ideas of proportion, clearly spelled out in numerous Renaissance texts on shipbuilding, seem to run through each tool, aid, and gesture involved in the construction of a saveiro.

In mestre João Bezerra’s graminho the size of the tábua was that of the keel section, and in it were traced the sections of the most important timbers of a saveiro.  According to Smarcevski, in Taperoá shipwrights used a particular set of units to build their ships and boats: the inch (polegada = 2.5 cm), the key (chave = 10 cm) and the palm (palmo = 20 cm).  He also mentions a less obvious application of these units, in which the size of the inch, key, and palm vary in proportion to the boat’s overall length.

Most dimensions of mestre Bezerra’s saveiro were thus defined in palmos and polegadas, although here we will describe them in centimeters.  The keel of a boat 100 palmos long (20 m) should have a molded dimension of one-fiftieth of the boat’s length (40 cm), and a sided dimension of half of that (20 cm).

As in mestre Waltinho’s method, the Taperoá saveiro should have a beam equal to one-third of its length, and the entries and runs should occupy one-fourth of the boat’s length fore and aft.  This left space for pre-designed frames to be set on a central portion of the keel that was equal to half of the boat’s length.  Smarcevski states that the vessel’s owner knew that such a hull would have a capacity of 50 toneladas, as each 2 palmos of length were equivalent to 1 tonelada of capacity.

The boats described by Smarcevski were similar to the ones described by Sarsfield, but although Smarcevski’s saveiro was decked in the traditional way, as mentioned above its main hatch was covered with a roof structure called tijupá in the region.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Smarcevski’s book is the tracing of mestre Bezerra’s graminho:

a) The tábua is divided vertically into four parts;

b) Then horizontally, also into four parts;

c) Then the quarter of circle AB is traced;

d) The quarter of circle is then divided into four parts;

e) The divisions of the arc of circle are extended horizontally into the vertical lines;

d) Curve AC is traced;

e) The entire process is repeated on a smaller rectangle (¾ x ¾ of the original) generating the arc of circle DE and the curve DF.

Although Smarcevski did not detail this part of the process, curves AC and DF result from a besta, or mezzaluna, like the ones used in Valença, and may somehow define the narrowing and rising of the turn-of-the-bilge curve, as explained by mestre Waltinho in 2013, who called it linha de armação, presumably the turn of the bilge line, although Smarcevski calls it the narrowing of the caprail line (corrimão).  In that case, the rising and narrowing are 20 cm, distributed over 10 frames, assuming there were two master frames with no rising and narrowing.  These values are consistent with those observed in Valença, although we need to sample more vessels before a clear pattern is perceived.

This particular graminho is so far unique, because the remaining lines in the tábua correspond to the scantlings of the boat’s main timbers, as well as the dimensions of masts holes.  At this point we don’t fully understand Smarcevski’s explanation for the tracing of the smaller rectangle, but we are planning a visit to Taperoá, to clarify that and other interesting aspects of this particular graminho.