Visitors to Carriacou can learn the history of local boatbuilding from a sign at the roadside or stroll along the beach of Watering Bay and see it first hand. There, a collection of vessels lie in a variety of sizes, shapes and states of seaworthiness. Some are at anchor, while others are hauled up for repairs. Frequently, you will find one or two under construction.
What is now a tradition began in the late 1800s when Scottish estate owners imported shipwrights to help fuel trade with Europe. The building of boats for inter-island trade sparked an industry that at its peak in the early 20th century produced as many as 129 trading sloops and schooners.
These days, the builder's art is small scale by comparison, yet each boat built is a big deal. The last boat to hit the water was built by one of the island's premier shipwrights Alwyn Enoe, with help from his sons Callistas, Terry and Christopher. That beauty, Zemi, 42 feet in length, was launched with all the customary fanfare necessary to segue a boat from shore to sea.
Enoe, 64, has been building and repairing boats most of his life. "I wanted to learn this since I was a little boy," he said, "but opportunity wasn't there. I had to go to work." Crewing on a motor vessel, Enoe traveled the Caribbean until, at the age of 27, he says he stopped sailing and started building.
Enoe's vast knowledge of what makes a vessel sweet and fast was gleaned on the beach, watching and working alongside shipwrights who passed along the talent and the tools. Using little more than a hatchet, adze, handsaw and hammer, Enoe first sculpted a boat for himself, followed by a string of vessels each constructed using models made by elder Jassie Compton. Those early boats, Lady Madrina, Summerwind, Misty Blue and Lazer were workhorses, built to fish or run cargo.
Building vessels of wood naturally led to repairing them. For several years Enoe worked at the Tyrell Bay Slipway on a myriad of projects. "I repair a lot of boats," he said. "A lot, a lot." Caulking and re-planking, replacing frames, every problem and fix imaginable.
The charter trade and recent demand for Carriacou Sloops in Antigua have brought Alwyn back to the drawing table. He makes his own models now, each new and different. Sitting beside two he explained, "I don't like to build two boats with the same looks. I do every model different; stem, frames … I want to see which one would be the fastest."
Speed is important because the newest boats are tested at Antigua's Classic Yacht Regatta and the Carriacou Regatta. "I think Genesis right now is the fastest. But I think this one, Zemi, she might be the fastest yet. She's longer. Different shape of the stem. She have a different shape of bottom."
Once Zemi is rigged, all eyes will be watching as she takes her first sail. "I like to stand on shore and see them sail," he said. "You could know exactly which would be the fastest."
One can only imagine the obstacles in building a boat on a tiny island. Some materials are available locally but most need to be shipped in at great cost and wait times. Once the vessel is complete, there's the issue of getting it into the water without a crane or travel lift.
Enoe assured me that it's not as difficult as it sounds. A smile on his face, he described the most recent launching, "Just takes a couple of hours. What really happen, we was preparing. We have to get rollers, ways, have to get tackle put out. We cut her down; put her on her side, into the water."
Alwyn and his wife of 40 years, Jacinta, cooked all the food. Pork, mutton, provision, stew peas, coucou and a lot of drinks lured a crowd of hundreds who were put into service to help push and pull. Tradition was woven in to the launch at every turn: a sheep was sacrificed, the deck was wetted with spirits and a priest blessed the boat. "Very exciting," said Alwyn. "Best launch I ever had. Smooth, no problems."
It is the deeply rooted tradition that keeps Enoe going. "It is the most important thing, this culture," he said. "It's being part of something that is good." By passing his knowledge to his sons, he has helped anchor an important piece of the past, insuring that hopefully it will repeat itself long into the future.
Glancing at the models, he said: "The boys want to build one themselves. I want them to choose one. I think they'll be doin' the work this time. I'll be advising." That should keep a man in his 60s busy, but not Enoe. Smiling, he said: "I'm gonna build another one, too."
Jan Hein and her husband, artist Bruce Smith, divide their time between the Caribbean the Pacific Northwest with a boat and a life at each end. Visit their new website: