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Carib Canoe Gli Gli at the Antigua Classics

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It turned out to be a most propitious encounter. A surprise
meeting on a bus trip in the Dominican countryside led to the building, launch
and subsequent expedition of traditional Carib canoe,
Gli Gli.

Virgin Islander, artist and sculptor Aragorn Dick Read was traveling through
Dominica when he met fellow artist, Carib Indian,
Jacob Frederick. Together they hatched the idea to construct a traditional
ocean-going canoe and sail her south to Carib
homelands in Venezuela and Guyana, stopping on the way at various islands to
promote and celebrate Carib culture. It is a tribute
to the Carib Indians that in this day and age the pre
Columbian canoe has endured and is still widely used in many islands in the
Caribbean’s Windwards as well as along the
northern coast of the South American continent.

island of Dominica is home to some 3,000 Carib
Indians, one of whom is master canoe builder Etien
Charles. ‘Chalo,’ as he is more commonly
known, was delighted to undertake the managing of the project and steered it
through the many stages of construction to completion. The work started with
the selection of the right size ‘gommier’
tree. Then the huge trunk was hollowed out, ‘opened’ with rocks,
fire and water, ‘boardage’ was added to
increase the height of the topsides and then frames were added for strength.
Finally rudder, mast, oars and thwarts were completed and Quantum Sails
generously supplied the sail.

project soon caught the attention of the world and New York film-maker
Eugene Jarecki undertook the production of a documentary
highlighting the building process, the historic voyage and finally tracing
roots and cementing links through etymology. The film was subsequently shown on
BBC television and there have been numerous newspaper and magazine feature
stories published internationally.

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The canoe
is at the heart of Carib culture. The building and
operating of a large canoe is very much a tribal occupation with many members
of a village required in the process from tree felling through building to
launching. Once the canoe is in the water, a team effort is needed to sail the
vessel efficiently – diligence and discipline are essential in keeping
the canoe balanced and preventing capsize. It is a tribute to the seamanship of
the Caribs that they managed to range far and wide in
the often rough seas between islands.

On April
20th the Classic Yacht Regatta in Antigua kicks off. This event has
slowly increased in size and stature since its inception in 1987. There will be
many traditional and classic yachts taking part in a number of different
categories, not only showing off their polished brass and gleaming varnish but
also their turn of speed around a race course. And although spectacular yachts
from around the world strut their stuff there has never been a purely
indigenous craft amongst the fleet. This will change in 2006 – Carlo
Falcone, owner of the marina in Falmouth harbour and host
of the Classic Yacht Regatta, has invited Gli Gli to take part. She will be sailed by
a crew of Carib Indians from Dominica and will
undoubtedly be conspicuous on the water. She is likely to come first in class
too since it is doubtful that any other contenders will be present. It is
interesting to note that in nearby Guadeloupe and Martinique canoe racing is a
popular and exciting sport. These vessels, called ‘Yoles,’
of similar design and rig as Gli Gli, are very fast and require hiking out on struts or
oars wedged into stringers where split second timing is essential. Perhaps Gli Gli will
inspire a new class in years to come.

It is
hoped that Gli Gli’s participation in the event
will highlight the contribution of Caribs to West
Indian culture. Besides canoe building, basketry, calabash carving, and
interesting art forms are all a part of Carib life.

October, to mark the ten-year anniversary of Gli Gli’s
launching, a second ocean going expedition will visit islands in the
Leewards, specifically St Kitts/Nevis, once a stronghold of
Carib Indians, St Barts and
St Martin before sailing back to home base in the British Virgin Islands. This
expedition is being planned to commemorate Carib
culture and spread awareness of the truly indigenous Caribbean
people throughout the region.

Note: ‘Gli Gli is a small, aggressive hawk revered by ancient Carib warriors
as a totemic symbol of bravery.

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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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