It's one of those hot, still, lazy summer afternoons that seem to stretch on forever, and the children of Jost Van Dyke are amusing themselves by jumping off the Great Harbor Customs dock
and paddling. This summer looks exactly like last summer, except that in between cannonballs and back flips, the children are paddling about in homemade tin and wood canoes. For the first time in about twenty years on Jost Van Dyke, island youth are paddling these small, roughly constructed boats, better known as bateaux, as part of an activity organized by the Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society with assistance from the BVI's National Commission for UNESCO, and carried out by JVD islanders to revive a dying cultural tradition.
There may be few generalities you can make about Jost Van Dykians that most islanders will agree with, but one thing is certain: Jost Van Dykians love the sea. An island of just three square miles, residents have had a close relationship with the water ever since the first Amerindian inhabitants paddled to these shores in giant dugout canoes made of Silk Cotton trees and lived on a diet probably dominated by food harvested from the sea.
Fishing and boating have played an important role on Jost Van Dyke, providing islanders with a means for transportation, food, commerce and recreation. For recreation, model toy boats were constructed made of local woods or coconut shells. Starting sometime in the 1940s, islanders recall youths paddling in these bateaux – the French word for boat, which may have been associated with the community of fishermen of French descent on St. Thomas, USVI, where similar vessels were constructed.
Around the time that galvanized roofing material was imported to the Virgin Islands (circa World War II), residents began making bateaux by pounding sheets of old galvanized tin into flat panels. Scrap wood would then be used to fashion a transom, bow piece and rails. "We were too poor to buy boats like they have today," recalls island resident Dean Callwood waving his hand towards a line of dinghies and kayaks lining Great Harbor Beach. He fondly remembers paddling out to greet visitors on the first yachts visiting the BVI.
"Those days were hard but they were fun," recalls another resident as he catalogues a list of chores associated with farming, fishing and livestock tenure that would make most grown men sweat. In their precious spare time, instead of enjoying imported toys, children in Jost Van Dyke found recreation by making items out of natural materials or recycled goods.
"Man, we were brave! That was dangerous back then!" exclaims Gerald Chinnery, explaining how they would create makeshift paddles out of anything, such as the metal lids of Export Soda Cracker tins and how hungry Barracuda would dart at the shiny metal lids at the possible expense of the bateau paddler's fingers.
"We used to get all cut up and go home covered in tar," recalls an islander with a smile. Patching these small boats was an essential part of the experience.
Windy Callwood has a hard time containing his laughter when he describes the tar that all residents remember gathering from around the Great Harbour rocks. "In school," he says, "our teachers used to tell us it was whale dung!" The tar balls, believed to be from oil spills from passing tankers, were indeed an environmental calamity, however, Jost Van Dykians demonstrated traditional island resourcefulness, finding alternative uses for the tar such as patching bateaux and even their homes.
In May, 2010, after several island residents helped lend a hand to teach the youngsters how to once again build the bateaux, four craft took to the water for races during the annual Foxy's Wooden Boat Regatta. The bateaux, all named and captained by Jost Van Dyke primary school students, bear names that pay homage to Jost Van Dyke's unique culture and natural environment. The boat Holy Cow pays tribute to the island's historic livestock economy; Red Hind Rocket honors the island's legacy as a fishing community; Cutlass Cruiser hints at the communities prowess as bushmen, and Man-O-War is the local name for the Magnificent Frigate Bird, which roosts on nearby Great Tobago National Park.
On a hot Sunday afternoon in July, I found myself crawling into the Red Hind Rocket with 11 year old Edeisha Chinnery and we weaved our way in and out of the Great Harbour anchorage with homemade paddles. Edeisha's father, Eddie had told me tales of paddling bateaux that initially piqued my interest and I still wondered if his daughter enjoyed them or if she would prefer to be paddling a fancier vessel. "Why buy a boat?" she asked, waving a hand towards other kayaks on the beach. "A little galvanized, a little wood, some paint. There you go." I hope that one day her son or daughter is able to paddle through Great Harbour in a bateau. Time marches forward but some things don't need to change.
Susan Zaluski lives in Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke. She is the director of the Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society, a local non-profit agency dedicated to the preservation of the history, culture and natural environment of Jost Van Dyke.