Catboat building is virtually an extinct skill in the Cayman Islands although as a nation of former seafarers previous generations made them at will.
Now a new generation of catboat builders may emerge thanks to the foresight of Bernie Bush, the festival director of Pirates Week and Mark O’Sullivan, an Englishman recently arrived in the Cayman Islands who builds boats for a living.
They organised for six wooden boats built by schoolkids to race each other at Pirates Week. It was an immense success. The mouse boats were designed by Gavin Atkin.
The John Gray pupils that built their boat were Aleks Beckford, Olden Bodden, Shaun Bodden, Nelson Castro, Trey Cornwall, Finigan Huffington, Sidney McField, David Parsons-Rojas and Roger Swaby.
The Clifton Hunter pupils involved were Michael Dawes, Anthony Hibbert, Shania Espinoza Britton, Dimitri Hunter, Joseph Jackson, Chevar Taylor, Adrian Tracey and David Unick.
“Bernie organised for HSBC to provide the materials and I went into John Gray and Clifton Hunter schools to teach the kids how to build three boats each,” O’Sullivan said.
“On the Saturday of the paper boat race the kids raced in their boats around the island in George Town harbour. They are made of plywood and the idea is that you can make a boat out of materials you can get in hardware store anywhere in the world, costing less than $200.
“It worked out that they spent about 15 hours making each boat and they went in on Saturdays to get them finished on time.”
The Lion Aquatic Centre graciously allowed the kids to test their boats there. O’Sullivan is pleased that they got practical experience.
“It is one thing to sit in lessons and do stuff but it’s another thing to get into a boat and trust that your school uniform is going to be dry at the end of it with the work you’ve done yourself.
“Even if you make a cake and take it home, mum’s always going to tell you it tastes nice. The water doesn’t care. If your boat is bad, you’re going to sink.”
O’Sullivan has done this project in London with youths and never have six boats built collectively not had at least one leak. “As far as I’m concerned, boat building is in Cayman blood. The evidence is there, the water don’t joke.
“The whole idea of this is because the Cayman Islands catboat builders are like ninja masters and the level of skill and knowledge into building a catboat is pretty much lost.
“You can pay thousands to learn those kinds of skills. Tradition on the Island is that people grew up learning that. Unfortunately, people are not growing up learning that.
“If you take a 14-year-old today and suggest building a catboat, it would take him years. They haven’t got that much patience. But if you say we’re going to build a boat in three weeks then you’ve planted the seed in their brain.”
O’Sullivan intends to build more boats at schools, “a little more complicated this time and hopefully they will be able to go to the catboat club and make their own.”
He added: “Next year we hope to develop the regatta by the secondary schools building rowing boats and plywood catboats and the students learn to make the rope to rig them and the primary schools build mouse boats.”
Bush said: “One of the things I was instructed to do by the Premier when I took over Pirates Week was to see what I could do to highlight our heritage and culture.
“And when Mark and Chris Bounds (a teacher at Clifton Hunter) invited me to a meeting and showed me the proposal, by the time I’d finished the first page of three I was sold on the project.
“Like Mark, I realised that these youngsters have a short attention span. So the first thing is that you have to capture them and these little boats were the perfect thing.
“I’m not just thinking of catboats but as a member of the Olympic Committee, I’m also thinking of rowing boats in the future.”
Bush approached HSBC to sponsor the project and through Gonzallo Jalles found them helpful. “All HSBC said we should do was get the materials and they would sign for me.
“When we had the race in Pirates Week it was something to behold. It was something to see these six young men go out and race around the dock and come back in.
“The boat that came last was actually the one everyone was cheering for. As the young man launched the boat, a wave came and filled it with water.
“He never gave up. He would take three strokes with the paddle then three strokes to bail the water out. He finished and the boat never sank. To me it was a beautiful beginning.
“Since then I’ve seen a couple of those kids in the street and they’ve asked me how soon the next race will be.
It was the first of the HSBC three-race series with the other two to go in the New Year.
Bush added: “We’re looking to build a seventh boat so that all four of the houses at John Gray and three from Clifton Hunter can be represented.
“So it’s a good beginning. I’d like to say a special thanks to HSBC and AL Thompson for giving us a discount on the products. Thanks also to Mark, Mr Bounds, Paula Elsley and Rafael Bodden and also Michael Myles who has helped us with this programme.
“Ultimately, I can see this programme working successfully with the catboat association and the Olympic Committee. Mark has a special way of working with the kids. They’re really comfortable with him so he gets the best out of them.”