Veteran seaman recalls glory days of shipping

 

Cayman might indeed have lived up to its description as “the islands that time forgot” if it weren’t for the veteran seamen who built this country through hard work and dedication.  

Sharing the history of Cayman’s shipping industry in the early years, seaman Brainard Watler offered a brief glimpse into how frugal and hardworking these men were. 

“How things have changed,” said Watler, referring to the recent dry docking of the Jolly Roger for repair work at the George Town Barcadere. 

“This would have been a major task in earlier years just for the mere size of the ship,” he said. “The upkeep and repairs of vessels after use was one of the most difficult and costly tasks which ship owners had to put up with in those days.” 

Watler recalls his father, Royal Watler, telling him that big vessels such as the Goldfield, Klondike and Gold Medal had to be towed into in the North Sound, which was known then as Duck Pond, to be put on dry dock for necessary repairs to be carried out by hand. 

The men would carry out what was known as “throw the vessel down.” This meant rigging lines to gradually pull the vessel over until one side was exposed to carry out repairs. 

“They would secure the sails, take out the ballast and dungeon and batten down the hatches as tight as possible,” explained Watler. “The men would strip the exposed side of barnacles, rotten and worm-eaten wood and the vessel would be copper painted. When the paint dried, the vessel was turned on the other side and the process repeated. That was how it was done those days.”  

A lot of ballast rocks and old anchors can be found at Duck Pond as evidence of what took place there. This process was carried out every year, whether money was being made or not. 

This, and the turtling industry dwindling to a crawl proved costly for Watler’s father and others. An era was coming to an end, as sailing vessels were getting worked out of the market forever. 

Watler also recalls the Goldfield being in operation when he was growing up. The Klondike had been sold and the Gold Medal was lost at sea without hands on board after breaking anchor during a hurricane. 

“The Goldfield was a good vessel which brought all the supplies such as flour, sugar, kerosene and even passengers from overseas,” Watler said. 

But when the changes came along, the vessel was sold. The Goldfield changed hands three times before being purchased by the Cayman Islands Goldfield Foundation for US$75,000. She was refurbished and sailed back to Grand Cayman from Seattle but sadly fell into disrepair and sank. Her remnants still lie beneath the waters of Canal Point.  

“I told them it was not a wise move, although it was a part of Cayman history,” said Watler. “I was not against that, but I said people do not understand the Goldfield anymore and most of the people who did are dead.” 

Watler also told them the worst place to put the vessel was in the North Sound. His father told him that ships in the North Sound had to be moved very quickly or worms would eat the bottom and the vessel would sink. 

Unfortunately, the Goldfield suffered that fate. After pumping her and floating her to Canal Point off West Bay Road, the Goldfield sank forever. 

“The remains might still be somewhere out there, but I don’t think you could find enough of the Goldfield if we even sieved the water with a strainer,” said Watler.  

“The worms ate her completely beyond salvage. That was a big loss. It is a pity it turned out that way because it was such a good idea, as far as preserving our heritage was concerned. A good solution would have been to find a place to bring her onshore and keep her there as a heritage showpiece …that would have been the ideal thing.” 

Brainard-Watler-Cayman-Islands

A man of the sea, Brainard Watler has a nice view of ships from his home in South Sound. – Photo: Jewel Levy
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