St. John sailor Brion Morrisette can really tell a story, especially when it comes to talking about his boat. Built in Bequia in the traditional style, Sweet ‘Ting is 18 feet long and painted a traditional blue with a red bottom and yellow striping.
"I was searching for a traditional boat that would also sail well," Morrisette said, beginning his tale. The search led to a somewhat derelict boat owned by St. Thomas resident David Knight, who had put some effort into fixing it up but hadn’t completed the job.
Morrisette bought the boat, thought he had found someone to finish the repair work, but as things sometimes happen on St. John, the repair job languished. Eventually, on a brief vacation with his wife to Bequia, his search to find the right person to repair the boat led him to Bequia boat builder Arnold Hazel.
"I was so impressed with this salt of the earth man who spoke so gently and calmly," Morrisette, a lawyer by day, said. He asked Hazel to come north to fix the boat, but after Hazel told him he didn’t travel, Morrisette shipped the boat south on Silver Cloud. Owned by St. John resident Elliott Hooper, the 110-foot steel boat heads down island fairly often on shipping jobs. Hazel told Morrisette he could build him a new boat that would be larger and faster for the same price as fixing up the old one.
"I told him ‘go for it,’" Morrisette said. Before too long, the boat was done. Hazel tried her out in Bequia’s Easter Regatta, but Morrisette was busy and couldn’t make it.
"She did a horizon job on all the other boats," Morrisette said. A couple of months later, Morrisette and some friends headed south to see how she sailed.
"I fell head over heels in love with her when I first met her because she’s so beautiful. She sails so well," Morrisette recalled. A regatta was organized, with another seven Bequia boats vying to be the first across the finish line.
With Hazel at the helm, his son on the jib and moving the ballast from side to side, Morrisette got the job of "rail beef." The regatta had no apparent start line, which left Morrisette a bit puzzled, but he soon found out how Bequians begin their races.
"We’re all hunkered down in the boat. Another boat is coming at us – it’s like chicken. With a subtle nod of the head and a pointing of the finger, the boats turned on a dime and started the race," Morrisette said. By the time the boats reached Bequia’s tip, Morrisette’s boat was in the lead, but alas, they were nipped at the finish and placed second.
Silver Cloud brought the boat back to Coral Bay, where Morrisette and Sweet ‘Ting "killed the competition" at Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regatta, held Memorial Day weekend. He set sail in the Coral Bay Thanksgiving Regatta with his daughter Nicole, 14, and friend Ali Karn on board.
"It was very satisfying to sail with my daughter," he said. They smoked the competition in the traditional class on the first day of the race, but disaster struck on the second day.
"Two minutes into the start the mast broke," he said, adding that the mast was made out of recycled wood, not the new materials used in the rest of the boat. Sweet ‘Ting is currently sitting in her nest in Coral Bay, waiting for Bill Wilson to build a new mast. Morrisette hopes that Sweet ‘Ting’s presence in Coral Bay will spark a resurgence of the boat-building tradition that saw several Cowhorns built on Coral Bay beach back in the 1970s.
Bequia boats have a long history that has its roots in the Viking boats that plied Scandinavia. The traditional shape of those boats continued on to the New England boats that headed south to the Caribbean in search of whales.
"Bequia boats are direct descendents of those New England whale boats," Morrisette said. They’re designed to be light, maneuverable and very fast. They were used to pursue whales," he said. The New England whalers picked Bequia to serve as their Caribbean whaling station, hence the long tradition of building boats on Bequia that continues today.
"They’re sexy is what they are. They’re classic beauties. They’re Rita Hayworth," Morrisette said of boats built on Bequia.
Long time St. John, USVI resident Lynda Lohr lives in Coral Bay. A reporter by trade, she has written for numerous international, national, regional, and local publications as well as travel and news websites.