Meet the Locals – Manel Zé

By Sílvia Carvalho d’Almeida

Burgau’s miniature boats cause sensation amongst British tourists.

Manuel Encarnação, or Manel Zé, as he prefers to be called, is well known in Burgau and already an attraction in the village. He creates some of the most exquisite miniature boats which are sold to all parts of the world, especially to British travellers and tourists who visit the region. 

Some of the models are made from a special kind of wood which he only finds in Ayamonte in Spain, and all the props come from there too. But most of the time, he recycles wood from fruit boxes for the smallest boats. A modest man, when told that I am to write an article about this, he exclaims: “This is just a hobby, something I do to spend time now I’m in retirement”, without giving it too much importance. But it is quite interesting when we consider that he started late in life, is completely self-taught, and the enormous popularity of his boats in the region and abroad. 

Where does this passion come from? 

Our interviewee confesses the sea is his greatest passion, that only those who were born and raised close to it can understand. It is no coincidence that still in his youth, before joining the army, he chose to be a fisherman, and went to Lisbon to take a specific course that would teach him this profession. Right after, he was sent to Greenland to fish cod, but life was too hard so he opted to return to the Algarve, where he worked as a fisherman for several years. He explains, “we used to sleep two or three hours a day because at the time we were there in Greenland, there were no nights. It was that time of the year when there was six months of continuous daylight, and we worked all the time. Besides which, we were paid very badly; the reality was different from the dream.” But his love for the sea remained intact; he now goes fishing for enjoyment, in autumn and winter.

When I ask if he ever thought of teaching his art, he says, “I never thought about that, but I wouldn’t mind. I did once have a young man as my apprentice for a while.” 

Manuel Zé builds every type of boat, but particularly trawlers and caravels, and he investigates online to do so. Whenever he wants to build a new model, he researches and prints a picture, and then he tries to reproduce it exactly as it is. A boat takes two to three months to build, and besides the wood, he uses glue and several kinds of special ink, and varnish, especially in the caravels. When we ask about the price he explains, “it depends, but the smallest boats never cost less than 60€, because the materials are expensive, and a caravel costs more than 100€.”

Besides creating models for Portuguese friends, Manuel has had a caravel in an exhibition in Faro marina, and he has already sold miniature boats to all corners of the world, but mainly to Germany and United Kingdom. As he proudly tells us, he has made several British friends because of his work, some of more than 30 years, and they frequently invite him to marriages and christenings, so he has travelled a lot to the UK lately. About the British, his opinion is that there are good and bad people everywhere, but that those he knows are very friendly, nice and polite. 

Manuel Zé is yet another example of a local who has a fascinating story to tell and who is living proof of the enduring anglo-Portuguese friendship.


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