Boat Building is a Way of Life in Carriacou

Builder Nero McLawrence (left) discusses the project. Photo by Jan Hein
Builder Nero McLawrence (left) discusses the project. Photo by Jan Hein

From Carriacou’s main town of Hillsborough, fast moving buses wind their way up and over hills to a tiny hamlet, aptly named Windward. Depending on the collection and delivery of people and lunches, it takes anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour. On an island that’s a mere 13 square miles, the distance traveled is short, yet the trip, measured in years, is immense.

As the bus makes the final decent revealing a panorama of islands and reefs, I’m reminded of why I go again and again. There’s little there, save a few character-clad shops selling the usual –rum, tinned milk, bully beef and cocktail wieners. On occasion, a piece of fruit or veg finds its way to a shelf but mostly they lurk in cans. Fresh is scarce in Windward. 

The path past the disco leads to boatbuilding central. Photo by Jan Hein
The path past the disco leads to boatbuilding central. Photo by Jan Hein

The sole restaurant is packed with charm. Pizza Meh Heart bakes homemade pies, each named for one of the sailing vessels built nearby. A few tilting structures serve beer and rum and the bar near the school has food to go. There’s an incongruous disco, complete with dance floor and ceiling high speakers but mostly it serves the local crowd of fishermen and boat builders who habitually order an eighth of local rum before they order another. 

Cal Enoe during the construction of Free in St. Barths. Photo by Jan Hein
Cal Enoe during the construction of Free in St. Barths. Photo by Jan Hein

Beyond the bar, at the edge of the bay, a path leads to the spot where builders work on traditional vessels, the island’s claim to fame. These days, there’s a big one underway, 65 feet in length with a beam of 18 feet and a stern resembling a climbing wall. The vessel’s monstrous shape has grown over the last few years but according to builder, Nero McLawrence, they’re almost there. It has yet to be named, keeping with tradition of the launch day reveal and when fully rigged, this one will work hauling cargo.

The boat builders welcome visitors and will answer most questions ranging from obvious to the absurd. They’ve heard it all before yet willingly stop to explain the process, materials and ultimate purpose. My requests to photograph the progress are always granted and sometimes I get the bonus of a pose or smile. Like all working waterfront museums, there’s a donation box in the yard, to move the project forward and keep the crew hydrated.

Hope’s house, featured in the film, Vanishing Sail. Photo by Jan Hein
Hope’s house, featured in the film, Vanishing Sail. Photo by Jan Hein

Windward was the set for the acclaimed movie, Vanishing Sail. Several boat builders, their family members and an assortment of island legends were the main characters. The intricately woven story heads back in time detailing the history of boat building skill, brought to Carriacou generations ago by Scottish mariners. It is one of the last places in the Caribbean where boats are still built on the beach, done so on an island lacking in wood and tools. Movie director Alexis Andrews first sailed to Windward on a pilgrimage, returning his Carriacou sloop to her birthplace. Spellbound by the simplicity and kindness of the people, he returned many times until the idea of telling Windward’s story became a reality. Vanishing Sail chronicles Alwyn Enoe’s last build and the passing of those skills to his sons.

Everyone helps during a Windward boat launch. Photo by Jan Hein
Everyone helps during a Windward boat launch. Photo by Jan Hein

It is possible to sail into Watering Bay from the north but don’t expect to do so guided by buoys or lights. There’s a stick protruding from the reef, the locals will tell you. Leave it to starboard and after that hair-raising maneuver, eye and avoid the next spots of reef until comfortably anchored in deep water. The wrecked ship offshore is a bit disconcerting as is the absence of visiting yachts but there’s plenty of brightly painted vessels providing quality entertainment. There are small, oar powered boats that comb the reefs for food and larger ones that sail off daily, hoping to return with a full hold. 

Looking north across Watering Bay. Photo by Jan Hein
Looking north across Watering Bay. Photo by Jan Hein

The beauty of anchoring in Windward is just that. Facing the trades, the view is a blanket of variegated ribbons with every color of turquoise imaginable. From the right vantage point, you can see over a dozen islands. A walk onshore will take you through a neighborhood of old school, West Indian homes. Their fairytale structures, tricked out with fretwork, gingerbread and over grown blooms are lens worthy.

It won’t take long to ascertain that Windward is about family. The local school is the hub for activities that need a roof or wide open space. The annual Easter kite contest brings out half the island. Kids and families turn out with impressive examples of airborne engineering while the boat builders go straight for size and height. 

There isn’t much to do in Windward but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to leave. I usually delay the bus back to Hillsborough, hoping for one more encounter, another surprise. Once onboard, I crane my neck for another peek at that view and remember, I must go to come back.

 

Writer, photographer, sailor, Jan Hein calls the Caribbean home when she’s not on a boat in Washington State.