Catboat tradition resurrected

A Cayman tradition is being nurtured 5,000 miles away at the Boat Academy in Lyme Regis, UK.

There, Tom Sargison, is building a catboat – a Caribbean catboat that’s drawing quite a bit of interest at the academy, which is perfectly situated in the West Dorset countryside near the Jurassic Coast.

Sargison, 26, grew up in Cayman and has been a sailor and student of marine studies his whole life.

Two years ago, he and his father David were part of a crew of four that crossed the Atlantic in a 40-foot sailboat. (One of those things “you look back on fondly”, he says, after having recovered from a life that revolves around the four-hour watch.)

He has a degree in marine biology and worked briefly as an underwater photographer in Cayman. He later worked construction in England and also spent a year on a million-acre sheep station in Australia. It was this “more practical work” that turned his attention and determination to boat building.

“It gave me the idea of combining my enjoyment of being near the ocean and the practical challenge of building my own boat,” he tells Weekender, adding that he was instantly drawn to the idea of building a catboat.

The catboat

The traditional catboat, he says, “is a relatively simple work boat.”

“Traditionally they are double ended,” he explains, “however, the boat I am building has a square transom and is based on a boat built in Cayman in the 1920s, a boat called the blue nose.”

Using a few simple measurements and photographs, he and his instructor built a half model at a scale of one inch to one foot.

They then used the half model as a template to build the boat; they took measurements, enlarged them and then drew the full-size boat. The drawings then became the blueprint for the boat.

“Most people on the course are building from plans and designs, whereas we have designed and created this boat from a couple of photographs. This has made it slightly different to the rest,” he says.

“Also, we have constructed the backbone of the boat first of all, the keel the hog, the transom and stem and frames. These are all the structure of the boat to which the planks are fixed onto. Many other boats are built around moulds, and when the hull skin is finished, the boat is then lifted off the moulds and then fitted out with frames, etc. This build has a slightly different approach.”

Of course, the traditional crafts were built with local materials and methods, he points out, and he uses more modern techniques to put his own spin on the boat.

“The availability nowadays of good adhesives and time-saving techniques will always creep into modern-day boat building,” he says.

“I am, however, trying to keep it as close to her Caymanian counterparts by using similar woods, for planking and frames and the mast and boom. I am also going to make my own sail.”

The course

Sargison started the course in September and will launch in June – an exciting “graduation” for the dozen boat builders this term. “We all launch and then have a few beers!”

After that? “I hope to bring the boat back to Cayman and if possible, spend some time back at home using the skills I have learned over the past few years. I would enjoy repairing or possibly building more boats on the island.”

Cayman is “an inspiration.” he says.

“I would love to run a small workshop and possibly try and help to maintain the boat building tradition in Cayman.”

The challenge

Boat building fulltime has been“a real challenge,” he says, yet “I learn new things and enjoy going to work on the boat every day. What I like about boats is there are no straight lines and that makes bringing components together delightfully testing.”

“I hope to continue working on boats, and should interest arise and avenues open, work at building my own small boats, whether fibreglass or out of wood.”


Sargison’s parents, David and Sheila, have lived in Grand Cayman for 30 years.

Tom attended Cayman Prep and learned to sail – on modern boats – at the yacht club and in North Sound. He then went on to earn his degree in marine biology at Swansea University in Wales.


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