The late Egbert Connor was one of Anguilla’s most legendary boat builders. He possessed an innate sense for how a boat should be formed and shaped so that it would slice effortlessly through the seas. As well as understanding the elements of design, he wielded an adz, an auger, hatchet, saws and all the tools needed to build a boat from fancy to finish. His skills today would be considered extraordinary but in his day, it was merely a means to survive.
We know so often that these treasured talents die out, smothered in our modern mass-produced world. But not so in Anguilla. Boat building on that tiny island thrives, and among its most talented artisans is a handsome and thoughtful young man, Devon “Beggar” Daniels. Some might say that Beggar “comes by it naturally” since he is the grandson of Egbert Conner. Perhaps that’s why he began building model boats at the age of eleven. Not the kind that sit on shelves, their bits held together with gobs of smelly glue. His models were constructed strong and large to race against others in the island’s salt ponds.
Beside his house, several of the forty inch models sat in the yard nearly obscured by creeping vines. Through the green veil we could see the bow of Creep Up and Angel propped off the ground on their 4 ½ foot keels. Beggar explained how he built them and how they led him to build his first large boat at the age of nineteen. Lady Elvira, a 22 foot fishing boat, was the first but there was a beautifully designed fleet constructed after her, including a 46 foot long liner.
He uses a perfect blend of tradition and innovation in the creation of vessels that sail and work the reef-spattered waters around Anguilla. His own power boat, Kirtisha, 20 feet long and rigged for hauling fish traps, handles with ease the frequently rowdy seas. He builds his boats with a similar blend of old and new, using tools from his grandfather’s era along with high-tech equipment, modern wood composites and glue.
Luck introduced us to this man of many talents a few years ago during one of the local boat races. The Sandy Ground beach was alive with crew hauling ballast, masts, rudders, sails and gear from trucks to the boats tethered in shallow water. Beggar announced that he needed an extra hand on his Class B, 21-footer, so my husband, Bruce Smith, jumped aboard R.O.B.B. for an amazing ride.
Beggar’s talent as a sailor was apparent at the start of that race as he calmly directed from where he sat, tight to the tiller, nestled deep in the hull. Driving the boat by feel and with information relayed from his “eyes,” crewman Miller, it didn’t take long for R.O.B.B to find the lead and hold it. Heading around the leeward mark, Beggar used a fake out strategy to claim a bigger lead for the upwind leg. After several tacks, Miller yelled, “Split this wind. Nice, nice. Give us someting sweet. Beggar, hold dis for five more minutes and we be back at de truck drinkin beer. We be da first when dose udda fellas fightin da wind.” A bag of sand ballast was jettisoned for the final boost that took them past the pin … first.
R.O.B.B. was not always a Class B boat. She began her career as a Class C 28 footer, but when she stopped winning, Beggar put together an idea and some tools, then adeptly cut the vessel down. It was a revolutionary first for the race boats of Anguilla; a winning first.
Some time after that race, Beggar buzzed our cruising boat to invite us to his shop to see another race boat renovation. This time it involved his 28 footer, Blue Bird. With excitement he announced, “Come today. Today she cut. Tomorrow she back together.”
Anguillan race boats, all built of wood, are rebuilt almost as often as they’re sailed. Beggar, in an effort to gain more speed, had removed every frame and cut every plank seam. Blue Bird sat helplessly on her keel in the yard looking like a bony turkey carcass after a Thanksgiving feast. To explain the transformation, he pulled out line drawings and we could see where, frame by frame, the boat had undergone a metamorphosis. And not just one. It had been under the knife before.
The next day we returned, astonished to find a whole Blue Bird, planks glued up and the last frames being set in. With several helpers in and out, they had worked half the night like doctors in the E.R. Their patient, with a new coat of paint, would be good to go.
These days Beggar is doing what he does so well; bending, shaping and torquing wood into eye-pleasing, winning shapes. You can reach him on Anguilla at 264-497-6286.
Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean.