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The Esmie, one of several boats owned by the H.L. Stoutt Community College sails in the Tortola Sloop Challenge at the BVI Spring Regatta.

A Seafaring Tradition Takes on New Life

The Tortola sloop, which once ruled local waters, has a long and storied history.

At one time the sight of men hammering and sawing boat frames was as common as the fast cargo carrying sloops they produced. But as fiberglass vessels became the norm over the last 50 years or so, the territory’s traditional boat building industry has mostly died out, and it is only recently that there has been renewed interest in this once vibrant trade.

Traditional boat builder, Edwe Hodge

In the mid-70s I met a traditional boat builder who had set up shop beneath a tamarind tree on Tortola’s West End where Big Ben’s Superette is now. I was fascinated by this aspect of Virgin Islands culture, which even then was fading into a footnote of history.

The boat builder’s name was Edwe Hodge, and at 41, he had been building boats at various West End locations for 20 years. Edwe learned his trade from his father when he was 15. His father constructed Tortola sloops, a boat of elegance and functionality used for inter-island trade. But by the time Edwe took up boat building, these classic beauties were already on the way out. Instead he concentrated on building fishing boats; first ones for rowing, and then newer designs for outboard motors with flatter bottoms and a keel that was part of the craft’s internal spine.

Edwe constructed the boat frame from white cedar because of the ease with which it can be fashioned into the required rib shapes. For the planks he preferred imported pitch or white pine because of their greater width. I watched Edwe carefully plank the hull, insert strips of cottony caulking material between the wooden planks and sand the hull to a smooth finish. He then finished the craft’s interior and the hull with several coats of antifouling paint.

Painting the boat (usually a bright red or blue) was left to the owner. “My boats are hardly ever the same,” he told me then. “I try to make them better each time.”

Tortola Sloop construction largely got underway after the abolition of slavery in 1834. The collapse of the plantation way of life prompted the departure of much of the white planter population, and the 9000 or so remaining former slaves were left to live a hand-to-mouth existence by farming and fishing.

The majority of early boats were either rowing boats or small sloops for fishing. But soon, larger sloops and schooners were built to accommodate an increasing trade in produce, livestock and seafood with neighboring St Thomas. Not only were the Virgin Islanders adept in the art of boat building, they developed vessels singular to this area.

According to Edwin Doran, a writer and early observer of these boats, “Tortolan craft are distinctive in form and represent a boat type with a long history built by local artisans in conformance to a long accepted style.”

Racing demonstrates that these boats are more than museum pieces.

The Tortola sloop had many unique characteristics including an overhanging stern and stem, pronounced sheer, considerable keel drag, a sloop rig with strongly raking mast and a boom extending far aft of the transom. At one time hundreds of sailing vessels were seen plying these waters.

Interest in traditional sloops has far from waned. Foxy and Tessa Callwood, owners of the popular Foxy’s Bar and Restaurant on Jost Van Dyke, and founders of the Jost Van Dykes Preservations Society, spearheaded an exceptional boat building project on their home turf. Endeavour II was built over the course of several years under the guidance of experienced boat builders with several young local apprentices helping out. A hybrid of traditional and modern construction techniques, the boat was intended as a learning tool in boat building construction. Now used as a day charter vessel, the boat is roomier and more comfortable for passengers than a traditional sloop.

The H. Lavity Stoutt Community College is also in the forefront of preserving the islands’ classic boat tradition. Currently the college owns five boats, including the 25’ Youth Instructor, built by the East End boat builder Osmond Davies; the Esmie, the fleet’s newest boat, was constructed by Leondo Nibbs in 2000, and the oldest built in 1914, is Intrepid. The historic sloop, discovered in St. Croix, was purchased by VP Bank and donated to the college. Two other boats built by Anegada boat builder Watson White, Sea Moon and Moon Beam are awaiting funds to be restored.

The Tortola Sloop, Sea Moon. Painting by Lutai Durant, from the book, Building a Virgin Islands Sloop, the Story of Sea Moon.

Geoffrey Brooks, the curator of the National Maritime Museum and a lecturer at the community college, has been instrumental in the upkeep and promotion of the sloops. He is the author of the children’s book, Building a Virgin Islands Sloop, the Story of Sea Moon, which was illustrated by noted BVI artist Lutai Durant, and depicts the boat building efforts of Anegada boat builder, Watson White.

Geoffrey, along with VP Bank General Manager Sjoerd Koster and other Tortola sloop enthusiasts, have formed the Virgin Islands Sloop Foundation whose mandate is to “provide funding and supervision for the maintenance and restoration of historically significant sloops in the territory.” In addition they hope to organize and develop programs that teach and enhance the boatbuilding skills of young Virgin Islanders and preserve the history of the sloops and their construction. Nanny Cay, which has given the boats free haul outs and dock space, has also been a firm supporter of preserving these historic vessels.

Rekindled interest in the boats, both here in the VI and throughout the Caribbean, has been highlighted by Vanishing Sails, an inspiring documentary about the traditional boat building industry in the small Grenadine island of Carriacou. The film, by documentary filmmaker Alexis Andrews, was screened at the HLSCC auditorium on Tortola where it was enthusiastically received.

The movie centers on Alwyn Enoe, one of the last wooden boat builders in the Grenadines, who constructs one final sailing vessel, a labor of love that takes over three years. His methods are almost exclusively traditional: he and his sons handcut white cedar for the boat’s ribs; shaped them using chisels, and caulked the planks with cotton and pitch, the same techniques utilized by BVI boat builders. When completed, Alwyn and his sons entered the vessel in The Classic Boat Regatta in Antigua – one of six Alwyn boats competing in the race. For his efforts, Alwyn was presented with a lifetime achievement award.

Artist Aragorn Dick-Read, a long-time supporter of Caribbean classic boats and a friend of Alexis Andrews, is optimistic about the region’s boat building tradition. No stranger to traditional boat building, Aragorn constructed the Carib canoe Gligli with the help of Dominican Caribs. He and Alexis are also founders of the West Indies Regatta, a classic boat regatta in St Barths.

“As these classic Caribbean boats decrease in numbers,” notes Aragorn, “they have become increasingly valuable, and a resource to be treasured.” He and Alexis hope that Vanishing Sails will spark further interest in preserving the BVI’s boat building tradition.

Each year, the significance of these boats to island culture is highlighted at Maritime Heritage Day, part of the BVI Spring Regatta’s slate of races and activities. One of the most popular events on that day is the VP Bank Tortola Sloop Challenge. The race between the Virgin Islands’ Governor and the Premier demonstrates that these boats are more than museum pieces. They are fine works of craftsmanship – intricately tuned sailing vessels that remain as relevant in the 21st century as they did 200 years ago.

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