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A Caribbean Legacy: Wooden Sailing Workboats

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Fifty years ago, traditional wooden workboats would ply the waters of the Caribbean under sail. It was part of the charm of the islands and a necessary component of inter-island commerce. As recently as 35 years ago when I first came to Tortola, I can well remember a small sloop departing from Nanny Cay loaded with fruit and vegetables, and sometimes a cow, lashed to the mast. At the dock in Road Town wooden vessels could be seen regularly discharging all manner of goods.

In the Grenadines at the Carenage in Georgetown there was always a hive of activity involving locally-built wooden boats, many sailing right up to the bulkhead. The Friendship Rose, a Bequia built schooner, would carry freight and passengers from St Vincent to Bequia.  In Roseau, Dominica, inter-island craft would load mangoes and bananas for sale at the water front in Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas and Christiansted, St Croix. Today that part of island life has largely disappeared.

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Thus it was a real pleasure to attend a slide show and book signing ceremony at Aragorn’s Craft Centre in Trellis Bay, Tortola, explaining and highlighting the resurgence in wooden boat building on the island of Carriacou in the Grenadines, once the predominant centre for construction of sailing work boats in the eastern Caribbean.

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Alexis Andrews, a professional photographer, has chronicled this vanishing breed of sailing craft over the last eleven years. His voyage of discovery began in 1997 when he resurrected a wooden sloop raised from the depths of Falmouth Harbour, Antigua and sailed her back to her birthplace at ‘Windward’ in Carriacou.  During the next decade, with camera in hand, Andrews recorded the unique boat building methods and techniques, the lifestyles of fishing and racing, and the culture of these seafaring folk.

His interest became so fired up that in 2003 he got together with the Enoe family of boat builders in Carriacou and commissioned the boat of his dreams. With their traditional skills and simple tools, and a village with a tradition of involvement, a fine Carriacou sloop emerged. Genesis was launched in 2005. When the project began, a decade had passed since a boat had been built in Windward and the local workboats had been depleted by neglect, tropical storms and hurricanes. Alexis’ aspiration breathed new life into a community of fading tradition and vanishing ways.

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Andrews’ two books, photographic essays, are wonderful portraits of a vanishing way of life. The first book is a general depiction of island life where the building and sailing of engineless workboats is the significant theme. Not many years ago the boats would race to the fishing grounds or race to the market to be first – first meant more fish and a better sale. Then there was a time when smuggling was key and boats had to be fast enough to escape the revenue cutter. Speed was of the essence and friendly rivalry developed into an annual regatta – one that becomes more popular every year.

The book, “Vanishing Ways,” also shows and describes a people of diverse backgrounds and the images capture the life and times of these island people and their boats. Scottish shipwrights intermingled with Creole and African people to produce a community today tightly knit by a maritime heritage—and an anecdote or historical snippet complements the pictorial essay.

The second book in the package is titled “Genesis” and subtitled “Building a Traditional Carriacou Sloop.” It involves every aspect of the project from the half model – there are no plans or drawings – to selecting the wood, battling hurricanes, searching for a mast in the forests of Grenada, and finally the launching. Genesis has now attended four Antigua Classics and has captured every trophy available to her.

Caribbean Racing On the Beach with the Workboat Regatta

The inspiring conclusion of all this is that Alexis’ adventure and successful completion of his boat has created enormous interest in traditional wooden boats. There is now a fleet of island-built wooden boats at every Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. The chisels, hammers and caulking mallets are ringing again on the beach at Windward in Carriacou.

In the BVI, a Tortola sloop is taking shape in Jost van Dyke. Built to a design approximating traditional Tortola sloops, this particular project is using modern epoxy sheathing and fiberglass covered plywood decks, “to avoid the necessity of regular caulking, replacement of rotten planks, etc. where there are no longer skilled shipwrights,” explains Foxy Callwood whose inspiration it was.

In Trellis Bay Aragorn of the Trellis Bay Art Center has announced that construction of an island sloop will soon begin there. Aragorn was the driving force behind the Dominica-built Carib Canoe, Gli Gli, a traditional craft of the Carib people and a landmark classic vessel throughout the islands of the Caribbean.

This revival of wooden boat building in the Caribbean is an important part of reclaiming a peoples’ heritage. It may also prove to be the rebirth of a trading, and fishing lifestyle. In these days of spiraling fuel prices and environmental awareness, the need to harness the wind should elevate the wooden sailboat to its rightful place.

Julian Putley is the author of “The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI” and “Sunfun Calypso.”

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Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.

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