Wednesday, May 29, 2024

A Bequia Boat Builder

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As I sit in the small yard surrounded by picket fences and local chickens scrambling about for food, Arnold Hazell returns from his day’s occupation.  He is a fisherman, the job of at least 70% of both young and older men on the island of Bequia.  The largest of the Grenadines, Bequia is exactly nine square miles and its history has been deeply rooted with the sea for generations. Boat building, fishing and whaling are still evident on the island. Although Bequia depends on tourism, fishing remains one of its main sources of income.

Before the use of outboard engines, boats were manuevered using wooden oars and canvas sails. These boats were better known as double-enders. Double-ender, which means two bowed or double-ended, was introduced on the island in the late 18th century by Bequian William "Bill" Thomas Wallace for the purpose of whaling. The design was obtained from a Massachusetts whaling schooner, such as those in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In Bequia, these boats are use for dual purposes—whaling and racing.

Arnold Hazell has been rigging these boats for the past 20 years.  As he gazes over three of the island sisters, he recalls the days when he was an understudy of his great uncle Solomon "Solo" Hazell, a well known Bequia boatbuilder.  “There was not set design for the boats,” says Hazell, which made it very difficult to build them. As a young man, when free he spent most of his time visiting the building workshops, which usually were in yards or under some almond trees near the sea.

Although not having any intention of becoming a boat builder, Arnold’s interest was heightened by the sailing stories told by the old timers. And so, in a willing display, he took part in the shaping of the wood or even the sweeping of sawdust. Arnold began his trade building local speed boats or what he calls “a box with a sharp end.” But what intrigued him most were the double-enders which he considers more technical and a piece of art. These boats were the prologue to Bequia Easter Regattas, and still are the main feature year after year.

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And so he set off with ‘Trial is not a failure’ in mind, and made his very first double-ender, Harmony. It was rewarding and he continued from there on to build more boats whenever the task came around. About six years ago he decided to build a whaleboat, Perseverance. While using the boat to race, he used it as well to catch whales. Not only is Mr. Hazell instrumental in the boat building tradition, he is also actively involved in whale catching, which provides food for Bequians, and in preserving our culture.

Perseverance also became a success in the local regattas, extending its credit as far as Carriacou, Grenada. At times many double-ender owners would cut, rig or add something to their boats to make them win over Perseverance. There were many times when he lost races. “It’s not really just the shape of the boat, but the crew and the weather as well,” he says, as factors which cause him to lose some races. At times it was either a “sand bag” ballast or even a man over board, all in the sport. Does the shape of the boat affect its ability to win? He assures me that the boats have slight differences, for example the hull design and the size of the sail.

About three years ago he said that he could build a boat to beat Perseverance and the offer was taken up by an American couple who fell in love with the island, the art, and the passion of such boats. Mr. Hazell set to work, and within a few months, Cloudy Bay was launched in the waters off his home town, Paget Farm. That too became an instant success. What made it so successful? Learning from the errors he made on the other boats.

Arnold notes that every builder has his own style, and examples of that are the double-enders from Carriacou. Recently, Cloudy Bay, among other Bequia boats, took part In the Annual Carriacou regatta festival and obtained two thirds and one second.

Such boats are expensive to build; a 27-footer can cost as much as $25,000 or more. Smaller ones are less expensive and easier to build. Because of the high cost, not many boats are being built, and if it continues that way, soon these boats will become a thing of the past.

Although neither of his two sons is interested in boat building, he is making his contribution in keeping the tradition alive. Double-enders are a craft that arrived on our shores all the way from the United States and gained permanent citizenship here on the island of Bequia and in the hearts of its people over a century ago. Arnold Hazell says that he hopes the boats will be here for centuries to come.

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  1. I assisted Jay Hazell in the building of a Bequia 2 bow boat in the old steam plant in Baltimore. It was built as a life boat and ships gig for Pride of Baltimore in 1978. Jay built this with no drawings and was one of the best men Ive ever known. RIP Jay


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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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