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Tortola Sloops – BVI Pride in Maritime History

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Sailors in the British Virgin Islands realize the importance of the locally built island sloops to BVI heritage. Used in the 19th century as the only means of transportation between the Virgin Islands, sloops were the backbone for BVI economy for over 100 years. There are now only two Tortola Sloops afloat, Moonbeam and Youth Instructor, but moves are underway to more than double that number with three Tortola Sloop construction projects underway in the BVI. The first is the construction of a 21st Century Island Sloop on Jost Van Dyke, Endeavor II. The second is the renovation of Vigilant, verifiably the oldest Island Sloop in the Caribbean and the third is a sloop recently built by Watson Wood on Anegada.

According to Captain Kevin Grey, coordinator of the Endeavor II project on JVD, funding for the sloop construction comes from a wide-variety of contributors. The West End Yacht Club has contributed entry fees from Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regatta since 1990. The H. Lavity Stoutt Community College (HLSCC) in Tortola, under the direction of President Dr. Michael O’ Neal, is also involved in bringing funds and awareness to sloop heritage. According to Geoff Brooks, Coordinator of the Island Sloops for HLSCC, “Since Tortola has the only Island Sloops left that still sail; we were contacted by the Ranger Denise Georges of the US National Park Service in St. John and asked if we would enter the BVI Island Sloops as part of the annual festival in St. John in celebration of Black History Month.

“Last year’s theme was Boatbuilding and Maritime Heritage; it was such a huge success that this year we took Youth Instructor, towed over by Captain Dave Smith on Vigilant II, the new multi-purpose boat belonging to the government of the BVI. We docked in Cruz Bay and set up a display that included some of the island sloop boat models made by inmates at HM Prison at Balsam Ghut in the BVI. Fortunately, the school children of both St. John and St. Thomas visited the exhibit which made it a great success in our eyes.”

“Mr. Callwood, of the BVI prison, has led the program in boat building, a great learning experience for the inmates. My co-worker, Al Frazer, and I took them drawings of our Island Sloops and they have now completed five models – one was pre-sold to a sloop lover, two were auctioned off at the Vigilant Fundraiser, held at Governor & Mrs. Macan’s home in February and the other two are being used in our Maritime Museum at the college. The productive thing about this is that some of the money from the sales goes back to the prisoners with other monies going to the museum.”

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Governor Thomas Macan, a sailor and wooden boat devotee, has spearheaded the drive to save Vigilant, opening the Governor’s Mansion for a most successful fundraiser which was held the same evening as the St. John exhibit and raised well over $8,000 through auctioning off the two sloops as well as other maritime heritage items including the valued Mt. Gay red hats from Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regattas of the past.

Vigilant was built by Mr. Willie Penn, of East End, Tortola, in 1882 and is best known historically for her transportation of goods and passengers between the islands of Tortola, St. Thomas, St. John and Jost Van Dyke twice a month. She was maintained by Osmond Davies at the HLSCC until his death several years ago. The Davies family was present at the fundraiser and delighted in the success of the event with Sam Davies buying the Vigilant model.

It is sincerely hoped by all of us that these events will continue and that Vigilant, as well as Moonbeam and Youth Instructor, will be kept in prime condition in the future thus leading the way, throughout the Caribbean, for the continued interest in the maritime history of all of our islands.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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