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How the Caribbean Rediscovered the Caribs

Hundreds of boats pull into St Maarten each season, with this season’s stopovers including a solar powered catamaran, a Volvo Ocean Race winner, and the usual assortment of modest round the world cruisers and achingly expensive megayachts. Most are greeted with a raised glass from the St Maarten Yacht Club as they pass through the bridge, but otherwise it’s not the done thing to lose one’s sangfroid over a mere boat.

In the case of the Carib Gli Gli, however, local salts and marine veterans came over all starstruck, turning out en masse to catch a look at and have their photos taken with the first authentic Carib canoe to land on a St Maarten beach in over 300 years. The same scene had been repeated in Antigua, St Kitts, Nevis, and St Barths, and would continue in Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.

The 35’ long, 8’ wide canoe, built by the Kalinago Caribs from Dominica, was taking part in a 20-day tour of the Leeward Islands. The trip was part of 10th anniversary celebrations of the 1997 voyage from Dominica to Guyana, where crew linked up with descendants of the early Carib Indians scattered throughout the region.

Barely 250 years ago, Carib crews would set out from Dominica to raid the Leeward Islands, before they were finally overcome by European settlers. This tour was to remind post-millennial settlers of the Carib legacy and culture, with each stopover including lectures and exhibitions on indigenous skills and heritage.

The boat itself is carved out of the trunk of a giant Gommier tree, which is then opened out with hot rocks before being dragged down steep hills to the shore. While the 2007 version used contemporary sails, the original canoe had a palm tree weave. Not surprisingly, it’s bare, functional and fairly useless to windward.

“If there’s no wind, we row [paddle, not argue],” explained crew member John Francis over a Carib beer, “but the crossing was very good.” The longest passage on the voyage would be the crossing from Anguilla to Tortola, a similar challenge to the 1997 leg from Grenada to Trinidad. All twelve crewmembers have to stay awake; from one look at the canoe’s stark interior, it’s easy to see why. But the structure on board is more dramatic: “We have many skippers. We obey one another.”

The experience had been great, said Francis. “A lot of people didn’t know we still have our own reservation in Dominica.” For those who came out to see the boat on the beach and to meet the crew, it was both and educational and a humbling experience.  To find out more, visit www.gliglicaribcanoe.com

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