By Kira Córdova
The Spanish sail training ship Atyla continues balancing tradition and innovation, honoring its late builder Esteban Vicente and the Basque explorer whose radical voyage Vicente built it to replicate. The crew dreams of completing the circumnavigation of the world Vicente envisioned.
Having worked on Atyla and met Vicente before his passing, I deeply believe in the value of Atyla’s mission and the specialness of potentially completing a circumnavigation for both the Atyla foundation and Vicente’s family, although I believe it’s important to acknowledge the colonial undertones of the original voyage.
Last December, trailblazing Spanish canoeist, climber, helicopter pilot, and sailor Esteban Vicente Jiménez (1953-2022) passed away following a prolonged battle with neurodegenerative disease.
Despite battling chronic illness, he continued to add onto his breathtaking hand-built wooden house in Picos de Europa national park while watching his nephew found and run the Atyla Foundation, continuing the legacy of the traditional wooden sailing vessel he built back in the 1980s.
The idea of Atyla
As a young man, Vicente first gained acclaim as an Olympic-level canoeist before expanding into climbing. With little climbing experience, he put up several shocking first ascents, including the first solo ascent of Naranjo de Bulnes, which he completed during the winter. But he didn’t rest there:
“A person a restless and innovative as Esteban couldn’t be content with just canoeing or climbing. One day, from his canoe, he contemplated a big sailing ship. It stuck with him, and he decided to build one himself. He didn’t have sailing experience or money, but, logically, for someone like him, that wasn’t a problem. He got a group of friends together and explained his idea for the project to them, and together, they started to build a large sailing ship (31 meters long and more than 120 tons),” his family remembers in an article announcing his passing.
Building the ship
Esteban had limited engineering experience, but his woodworking skills and spatial awareness propelled the boatbuilding process to completion. And he wasn’t alone — his wife at the time, Ines Zalba, went all-in on the idea and project, too.
Over the course of five years, Vicente, Zalba, and a handful of friends lived in the shell of the boat they were constructing. Rodrigo de la Serna Vicente (De la Serna), Vicente’s nephew and current captain of the ship, recalls his uncle telling him they frequently had to choose between buying food or building materials.
Vicente, born and raised in Soria (a landlocked region in Spain), started the project at home. With a group of friends and volunteers, he started harvesting wood and carving the first parts of the ship in the town of Vinuesa in 1979.
In 1982, they carted the pieces and remaining raw material to Lekeitio, a town on the coast of the Spanish Basque Country. The group allegedly needed six large trucks to transport everything to a small traditional shipyard on the banks of the tidal river Lea, where they finished the hull.
A revolutionary project
From the start, the project picked up press. De la Serna says that came in handy for his uncle, who he remembers, in addition to his drive and energy, for being incredibly lucky.
When Vicente designed the ship, he based his sketches off of boats from the beginning of the 19th century. Before he could finish it, he needed the approval of a naval engineer, and since they had already started the project, he was nervous he wouldn’t get it.
De la Serna says that when he arrived at the office of Francisco Lasa Etxarri, though, the naval engineer had several news articles about the infant ship hung up in his office and was thrilled to help Vicente perfect his design and approve it.
In the beginning, Vicente and Zalba imagined living on the boat and traveling the world; they wanted to use the boat to transport them and their relatives to new places to climb and canoe. But they quickly realized the need to monetize the project in order to recoup the cost of building and maintaining the ship.
By the time they moved the construction to Lekeitio, they had a new plan for the boat — one that still involved traveling the world: circumnavigating the world following the route of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition.
Afterward, Vicente wanted to use the boat as a sail training vessel. The idea of using tall ships as floating classrooms, originally for naval officers and later for youth and adults, wasn’t a new idea in the 1980s, but it wasn’t widely practiced in the civilian world, especially in Spain.
The boat and his plans for it earned Esteban an Honorable Mention at the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 1984, the same year they launched the hull.
A Step Towards Reconciliation
Spain, which was under fascist control between the end of its civil war in 1939 and the death of its dictator in 1975, has a number of distinct cultures, like the Basque, a group native to the North of Spain and the South of France with their own unique culture and language.
Cultural groups like the Basque faced harsh oppression and violence during the dictatorship, and several responded by forming regional terrorist groups.
Esteban, Ines, and their friends maintained a close relationship with the local Basque community while constructing the ship, which was revolutionary for the time given Vicente and the group, who were from central Spain and not Basque, showed up in Lekeitio at the height of a violent time in the Basque Country.
ETA, a Basque terrorist group that was founded in 1959, operated until 2011. The 1980s were particularly bloody, and the group targeted Spanish military officers, judges, and officials and Basque people they accused of helping the Spanish government. In response, Spanish security forces targeted Basque people they suspected of being ETA members.
Vicente and his friends risked their safety by choosing to construct the ship in the Basque Country, but their idea for the boat propelled them to seek a close bond with the Basque community; after Magellan died in the Philippines, the man who actually completed the circumnavigation was his Basque first mate Elcano.
Throughout Spain, Elcano is widely recognized as the real protagonist of the voyage, and Esteban wanted to connect the project with Elcano’s homeland and the rich maritime tradition in the Basque country. Plus, the north coast of Spain was the closest ocean access to where he started the project in Soria.
The boatbuilding group’s close bond with the local community served as an example of reconciliation between folks who identified as Spanish and the Basque community.
On May 15, 1984, Vicente and Co. launched the hull of the ship. The shipyard was upriver of a low bridge that separated the boat from the ocean, though, so they motored the hull to the nearby city of Bilbao, where they installed the masts.
While putting the finishing touches on the boat and adding sails, they started serious preparations for the circumnavigation.
The idea was to replicate explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s well-known circumnavigation of the world. However, many widely accepted facts about the voyage may not be completely accurate, and Magellan was never actually the first person to complete a full circumnavigation of the Earth.
On Magellan: The truth behind the legendary exploration effort
To begin, Magellan’s name is not Magellan. He was born Fernão de Magalhães to a noble Portuguese family around 1480. Ferdinand Magellan is an anglicization. Secondly, the story of his most famous (and last) voyage actually has three protagonists: Magellan, a Basque sailor named Juan Sebastian Elcano, and an enslaved man named Enrique.
Magellan learned his trade as a sailor on Portuguese expeditions to Asia, but the Portuguese crown had no interest in financing his proposed circumnavigation, so he took the idea to Spain.
In exchange for a ten-year monopoly of any trade routes he discovered and a fifth of whatever he brought back, the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire King Charles V funded a five-ship expedition to sail around the world for the first time in 1519.
Juan Sebastian Elcano, a Basque mariner born in 1487, didn’t want to be a part of the expedition. He accrued a lot of debt as a young man, though, and an Italian shipping company demanded his ship as payment.
What he didn’t know at the time was that it was illegal in Spain to give the company his ship to pay off his debt. When he asked King Charles V for a pardon, the monarch agreed but made him join Magellan’s expedition.
Magellan underestimated the size of the Earth and said the trip would take a maximum of two years. As a result, the Spanish crown provided supplies and food to last the crew of 237 for two years, which would prove inadequate.
Additionally, there was conflict between the Spanish crew members and their Portuguese commander from the start.
Also known as the Armada de Molucca, the five ships left Seville on Aug. 10, 1519, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. While searching for a strait through South America in November and waiting for better weather, the crew mutinied, and Magellan barely regained control, killing and torturing some mutineers and forcing others into hard labor as punishment.
Elcano was one of the mutineers, and Magellan sentenced him to hard labor. By the time the failed mutiny occurred, one of the five ships had sunk. After the mutiny, another snuck off and returned to Spain. Elcano became the captain of one of the remaining three boats.
In November of 1521, a full year after the armada first crossed the Atlantic, the remaining three ships reached the Philippines. Enrique, an enslaved man forced to come on the expedition, fluently spoke the Indigenous language, and the crew discovered that he had been raised in the Philippines before he was enslaved and brought to Europe, making him the first person to ever circumnavigate the globe.
Magellan demanded that the people in the Philippines convert to Christianity and submit to Spanish rule. He later died in April after becoming involved in a rivalry between two local chieftains, leaving Elcano in charge of the expedition and the two remaining ships (they lost another one between Argentina and the Philippines).
The remaining crew decided to scuttle one of the remaining three boats and return to Spain on the other two: the Trinidad and the Victoria. The pair made it to the Spice Islands, once again reaching familiar territory for the Europeans.
However, shortly after they left to complete the circumnavigation, the Trinidad had to turn back to the Spice Islands when it started leaking and eventually sank. By this time, Elcano was captain of the Victoria, which was being pursued by the Portuguese navy, who didn’t want a Spanish ship to complete the first circumnavigation of the Earth.
By the time Elcano and the Victoria made it back to Spain in September of 1522, only 18 of the original 237 crew members remained. Many died or deserted, and others were left behind along the way. The final crew of 22 included four people who had joined the expedition in Asia.
Just three years after completing the circumnavigation, Elcano was chosen as navigator for another voyage around the world. He later died of malnutrition while crossing the Pacific in 1526.
Hitting roadblocks and rerouting
While Esteban Vicente’s planned circumnavigation in 1984 thankfully wasn’t as fatal as Magellan and Elcano’s early expeditions, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In the end, the challenges proved insurmountable, and it never came to fruition.
In the final stages of its construction, Spanish oil and gas company Petronor sponsored the boat’s finishing touches and promised to finance the circumnavigation. The ship was actually launched with the name ITSASO – PETRONOR (ITSASO is the Basque name for the company).
However, shortly after beginning a promotional tour around the Basque coast to raise awareness and funds for the voyage, Petronor pulled out, leaving Esteban Vicente and the boat in limbo.
Thousands of dollars in debt from the construction of the boat and still saddled with its costly maintenance, he decided to sail to the Caribbean and run trips for tourists to raise money.
They later departed on their quest in 1986, but while they were moored in the Canary Islands, the ship was completely looted. Unable to cross the Atlantic with no money and a looted boat, Vicente and the crew, who included his then brother-in-law (De La Serna’s father), figured they could make money running daytrips for tourists there, too, which is exactly what they did for almost two decades.
The business allowed Vicente to recover his losses and save up to begin his next project: hand-building his dream house in the Liebana Valley in Picos de Europa, a national park where he had already completed revolutionary first ascents as a climber.
The ship has always been a family affair. De la Serna says he spent every summer onboard the boat while his parents were working, and Vicente put him to work, proposing challenges and teaching him to sail the boat.
In the early 2000s, the ship, then going by the name Marea Errota (a name the Lekeitio community picked before Petronol stepped in), moved and underwent a makeover. It became the Cantabria Infinita and the official tall ship of the province of Cantabria (in the North of Spain) in 2005.
When that contract ended, they renamed the ship Atyla after Vicente’s beloved pet dog, and De la Serna took over as captain in 2013. That summer, the ship entered Sail Training International’s Mediterranean Tall Ships Regatta, a leg of Sail Training International’s annual Tall Ship Races, a race between international tall ships to promote awareness for sail training and youth maritime education.
De la Serna says the experience in 2013, in which the Atyla was surrounded by sail training vessels, reminded him of his uncle’s idea to turn the Atyla into a training ship after the circumnavigation.
And so he created a sail training program onboard. Since then, Atyla has completed an average of 22 training trips for hundreds of participants over an average of 8500 nautical miles and 8 countries a year.
In 2016, De La Serna founded the non-profit Atyla Ship Foundation to support the sail training mission. In 2017, the ship crossed the Atlantic for the first time to visit Canada, the United States, and Bermuda.
With the exception of the captain, mate, engineer, and cook, the ship is run by volunteer watch leaders, whose role includes liaising between participants and the officers, teaching lessons on sailing, and facilitating challenges posed by the coach onboard designed to develop life skills like communication and resilience.
In 2022, I was a watch leader and the coach onboard for three months during the Summer sailing season. I’ve worked as a deckhand educator on sail training tall ships in the United States, and, when I found Atyla while studying abroad in the Basque Country, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be a part of her evolving story.
Over the years, Atyla has changed names and her rigging; originally launched without square topsails, she’s now a two-mast square topsail schooner, meaning she has sails that run both perpendicular and parallel to her center line.
As of last year, she’s also the first historical sail training vessel sailing under the Spanish flag. She can accommodate 80 passengers for day trips and 24 trainees for longer voyages.
As of October, her home port is now Portugalete in the Spanish Basque Country, a small port town now part of the greater Bilbao area.
Will Atyla ever complete Vicente’s dream of circumnavigating the world? The Atyla Ship Foundation doesn’t have concrete plans, but don’t rule it out.
“We are sure that one day we’ll finally complete Esteban’s dream, and we’ll circumnavigate the earth promoting life skills and sharing our passion for adventure,” De la Serna writes on the ship’s website.
A circumnavigation could also raise awareness for the ship and its mission and funds for its maintenance, relieving some of the burden of caring for the ship and its programs.
As part of the crew, I worked closely with Rodrigo and even got to meet Esteban at the end of the season. Every participant I worked with expressed the value of the experience, and it’s also clear that it’s an astronomical amount of work for Rodrigo and the Atyla Foundation to maintain Atyla.
Tall ships require regular expensive repairs, and Rogrigo and the foundation are constantly looking for new sources of support, which such a voyage could potentially generate. Atyla wouldn’t be the first traditional sailing vessel to tackle the challenge of a circumnavigation in modern times.
Other circumnavigations of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries include the tall ship Picton Castle, which first completed a circumnavigation in 1997-1998 and is currently completing another, and the Norwegian tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl, which circumnavigated the globe in 2021 over the course of 19 months to raise awareness for ocean conservation.
Revisiting the first circumnavigation
Atyla would be the first to explicitly follow Magellan’s route, though, which poses the question: is Magellan’s voyage something to be celebrated?
The expedition brought European colonialism to the Pacific and opened the floodgates to many more explorers, merchants, and missionaries who would perpetuate considerable violence in the region.
It’s also important to remember that the Armada de Molucca didn’t discover anywhere they visited; they were the first Europeans to visit many places with rich pre-existing histories.
This is especially true in the Philippines, where Magellan died.
In an article about Magellan’s arrival in the Philippines, Ambeth Ocampo, historian and former chairman of the Republic of the Philippines’ national historical commission, emphasizes, “For the Indigenous people encountered by Magellan and his crew, the explorer’s arrival heralded a new age of conquest, Christianization, and colonization.”
“Magellan should not be seen as the beginning of Philippine history but one event [in] a history that still has to be written and rewritten for a new generation,” he summarizes.
It’s also important to remember that Magellan’s voyage was never about scientific discovery or mapping the world — it was about facilitating trade and acquiring riches.
In a Q&A with historian Antonio Feros in 2022, 500 years after Magellan’s circumnavigation, Feros emphasizes the role of the Treaty of Tordesillas and similar pacts. In the treaty, signed in 1494, the European powers of the time divided self-imposed control over the rest of the world.
To avoid war, they agreed that Spain would control trade and colonization in the Americas and Portugal would control the already-established route to Asia around Africa. Essentially, Spain would sail West, and Portugal would sail east.
It was never that simple, though. Firstly, the line of longitude they chose to divide East and West was flawed (they didn’t yet have a way to measure longitude besides dead reckoning), which allowed Portugal to colonize Brazil while still following the treaty.
Spain wanted their own loophole, and they hoped that, by sending Magellan West to Asia, they could find a way to legally get in on the trade in the region around the Portuguese.
“It is in this context that Magellan offered a plan that, respecting the agreement, would give Spain the right to trade and settlement in areas that, until that moment, were controlled by the Portuguese. His proposal was simply to cross the Americas and get to Asia through the back door.
The Spanish ruler was evidently happy to hear this, because it would allow his subjects, merchants, and sailors to become players in the wealthiest economic center of the world,” explains Feros.
He continues, “The real consequences of his voyage were economic and commercial: It allowed the Spanish to establish commercial routes between its colonies in the Americas and the territories they ended controlling in Asia—like the commercial route between the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico, ‘the Manila Galleons,’ which lasted for more than two centuries. It also accelerated the connections between the various regions of the world.”
There’s a false narrative that the voyage was the first contact between communities in the Pacific and the outside world. Magellan didn’t bring trade to the region though; many communities already frequently traded with the various political powers of Asia.
“The century prior to Magellan’s arrival, in particular, saw an increase of involvement from the Sultanate of Brunei, Ming China, and Muslims from Malacca and Johore across the country,” says an article from Esquire Philippines.
A circumnavigation on Atyla would hopefully challenge that narrative. Today, sail training programs onboard aim to develop eight life skills: teamwork, leadership, responsibility, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, courage, resilience, and intercultural communication.
The boat frequently wins awards at tall ship races and festivals for having the most diverse international crew, and the Atyla Ship Foundation hopes to be a positive ambassador for Spain in the modern global world.
A circumnavigation could also raise awareness and much needed funds for the ship and its mission. De la Serna hopes to find a less precarious way to continue to finance the ship’s mission.
As an educational non-profit with no institutional support and crucial, and very costly, maintenance it has to complete annually, the foundation has to constantly fundraise. De la Serna also hopes to be able to take a step back, like his uncle did, without worrying about the future of the boat and its mission.
Marc García, a former watch leader and photographer on board from Barcelona, is a filmmaker and envisions making a documentary about the voyage should Atyla complete the circumnavigation.
The goal would be to share Esteban’s story, the story of Atyla, and the story of Elcano and hopefully generate the support to make Atyla’s mission more financially sustainable moving forward.
When asked what he wants people to know about Esteban and the ship, Rodrigo says, “despite how beautiful it is, it’s difficult and requires a lot of sacrifice to keep Atyla going. We’ve never had institutional support, and we need a change in how we operate the boat so that it’s financially viable.”
Overall, though, he emphasizes, “we have an incredible tool made by an incredible person.”