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A Caribbean History Spotlight on the Schooner Men

The last of Anguilla’s famous schooners is still sailing the Caribbean but only on the back of the East Caribbean five dollar bill. The vessel, Warspite, was chosen to adorn the region’s money certainly for her grace and beauty but also for the legends she created while transporting cane workers to and from the Dominican Republic.

Early in the last century, the flat, dry island of Anguilla was an unlikely place to build a boat. Without forests or secure harbors, it had little going except for industrious citizens and their need to fish and trade. Boat building, born of necessity, produced dozens of schooners and sloops constructed on the beach. Each was an amazing vessel and the men who captained and crewed them were even more extraordinary.

On a visit to Anguilla I set out to find those old salts, to hear first hand their momentous stories. My quest began at a local bar where, simply by mentioning Warspite, I had names, directions, and more than enough advice. There were, according to my sources, a handful of schooner men. Now in their 70s, 80s, even 90s, they were no longer sailing but still willing and able to talk boats.

I clambered up a goat path to the home of Captain James Edward Hall, known throughout the region as Capt’n Hall. He’s wise, 78 years young, and has an astonishingly accurate memory. Hall built his last boat, Faithful Counselor, in 1983 in Dominica using bits from a hurricane victim. He sailed the boat hard hauling inter-island cargo for almost 20 years until she, too, was taken by a storm.

Sitting with him in his modest home, surrounded by salvaged gear, Capt’n Hall recounted how his interest in boats began. “My father was a brilliant man, the captain of Festidor, built in Carriacou.”

As a child Capt’n Hall said he hung around with the shipwrights and at 18, set sail as crew aboard the 75ft Adelaina. “We would get coals and wood from Dominica and St. Lucia, also copra. We took it all to Barbados ’cause that was cane country.”

In Barbados the boat loaded 600 bags of sugar, each weighing 250lb and sailed it to Dominica for a lime juice producer. Room and board was a hammock and salt fish embellished with ground provisions. “No money back then,” said Capt’n Hall, “we was workin’ for EC$12 a month.”

Next in his life was Lady Laurel, an Anguilla schooner launched in 1952. “We rig her out, sail from here to St. Kitt’s for registration. We left with the name Blue Bell F but in St. Kitts they changed the name.” For three years he worked aboard in the Virgin Islands hauling cement, food, furniture.  Chuckling, he added, “The trip home from St. Croix took eleven days! She was not fast but she was lucky.”

Like women he’d loved, he named a string of other vessels that had occupied a time in his life. “This island built the strongest vessels,” he explained. “Carriacou built the prettiest. They more clever sailors than us.”

One can only imagine how many miles Capt’n Hall logged, most without an engine. But he did have ‘safety gear’ as required by the Grenadian government that consisted of two anchors, a palm, thread, a few yards of canvas, extra food, flour and safety belts. He recounts mischievously, “I borrow belts from another capt’n then sneak ’em back after the official leave.”

Even after an illustrious career, he’s still dreaming boats. “I’m thinkin’ on one right now,” he told me. “Thinkin’ of getting a boat right now.”

After that history lesson I pushed on to the home of octogenarian Freddie Hughes, who described his introduction to the sea. “There was nothing else to do. I was learning shipwright, but I wasn’t fast enough. My father was the captain of Atlantic. Well, I was there as apprentice; no engine, all sail. As I grow up I decided to own my own boat.”

That boat, the Antiguan-built War Risk, started Mr Hughes trading.

“We haul cement, fuel for the rum still, sometimes cows,” said Mr Hughes. “All was a kind of a challenge.”  He said his wife and family had challenges, too, since he was sometimes gone for nine months at a stretch. “I would cable from Antigua and sometimes reach home before it.”

Forecasting weather by simply looking at the sky led to many sea stories. The worst blow for Mr Hughes happened on Seagull, the 80ft sloop he built. “We sail through a storm, loose a mast, went through the hatch. The boom broke and went to the bottom.” Other storms broke other masts, sails blew out, all traumatic events to modern sailors but to men like Mr Hughes, it was just part of the job.

During his 54 years at sea, Freddie Hughes helped create the rich legend of Anguilla boats and men. He, along with Capt’n Hall and others, sailed through a time in history that will only come our way again through the pages of a book.

Janet Hein and her husband, artist Bruce Smith, divide their time between the Caribbean the Pacific Northwest with a boat and a life at each end. www.brucesmithsart.com

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