We don’t often stop and contemplate the origin of our food while sitting down at a restaurant, or while pushing a shopping cart through the grocery store. However, most goods in Cayman have made a long journey across the sea. For decades, Caymanians have worked on fruit, merchant and cargo ships to bring us produce from overseas, while also providing for their families at home.
Today, seafaring isn’t often considered a prominent career choice, but there was a time when the burden of filling this important role rested on the shoulders of Caymanians, like Capt. Paul Hurlston.
On Saturday, Nov. 23, the National Museum opens its latest exhibit, “Voyages; a Sea Captain’s Legacy.” It pays tribute to Hurlston and other seafaring men who sacrificed their safety and security during Cayman’s historically challenging years. The exhibit will take viewers on a journey through Hurlston’s life and career at sea, while providing a fresh perspective and deeper appreciation for those who worked in the seafaring industry.
I met Hurlston at his home in South Sound, the area he was born and reared. He is 82, and has a contagious laugh and a bright sense of humor. He proceeded to recall vessel names, historic dates and exhilarating events from memory. Although he’s traveled the globe and witnessed breathtaking scenes, he said he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world, adding with a chuckle that he probably sailed halfway around the world before actually seeing East End.
From his youth, Hurlston recalls a very different Cayman, one without running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. Mosquitoes could be grabbed by the handful, and one couldn’t go outside at night without a burning smoke pot in hand. The church brought the community together. History was shared through stories and songs, now a colorful tapestry of Caymanian culture.
Hurlston can recall the effects of World War II, the first schooners and airplanes, and countless parties celebrating a ship’s launching from the George Town docks – complete with kitchen bands, stew and kegs of rum.
“My generation is one of cobblers, poets, painters and seamen,” he said.
The 1930s through the ‘50s were an especially difficult time to live in Cayman, Hurlston said. Work was scarce, and options were limited for those trying to provide for their families. Like many others, Hurlston’s family took to the sea by way of turtle, fruit, merchant and cargo ships.
Hurlston and his five brothers came from a long line of seafaring men, with his grandfather and brother both captains. He learned how to navigate at age 12 and had his first trip working on fruit ships at 15.
In 1947 he set out on his first international voyage and was gone for more than four years. Hurlston believed in the power of knowledge and good work ethic, and proceeded to move up in rank. He made it a personal goal to master every position on board a ship before one day becoming captain. “Within a few hours, I could tell if a new crew member knew how to do his job – because I’d done it myself at one time,” he said.
Hurlston met his goal and was appointed captain at age 36. A ship’s captain was responsible for everything, from construction, cargo, first aid, crew, navigation, communication, and all the logistics of disembarking and unloading in foreign countries – each with their own set of laws and customs. Although these duties still apply for a ship captain today, the men of Hurlston’s day faced unique challenges.
Navigation relied on one’s understanding of the sun, moon and stars. Maps and charts where drawn by hand, and communication was limited. Attention to detail and an innate understanding of the sea were governing factors in a successful voyage. The environment was unforgiving, and situations could change without notice. Storms, fires, injury, and stowaways presented a constant threat. The job was physically, and mentally demanding in a multitude of ways.
Saltwater in his blood
“I’ve been on fire, run aground, ship wrecked, and caught in many storms and hurricanes,” Hurlston said with a smile, adding that there must have been saltwater in his blood. After a few weeks on land, he would begin dreaming of his next voyage, and the open sea.
Hurlston’s colorful career took him throughout the world, including the Panama Canal, West Indies, Gulf of Mexico, and Persian Golf. He was commissioned by National Bulk Carriers, West India and Tropical companies, and the Atomic Energy Commission, among others. In 1974, Hurlston was chosen to command a heavy lift ship, the Inagua Sound. It carried a nuclear reactor and was the first foreign vessel to both load and unload in U.S. ports since 1929. It was a historic voyage, and the US Senate waved the Jones’ Act to allow Hurlston’s ship to pass through.
It’s said that Cayman was home to some of the finest seamen. Hurlston doesn’t believe Cayman necessarily had the best seaman, just the best disciplined men, and that’s what counted.
I asked him what advice he would give a young person today.
“Always admit your mistakes,” he said. “Own up to everything, good or bad. Regardless of what you’re doing, someone’s always watching you. Remember that.”