Bringing Cayman catboats back to life

Thanks to the Cayman Islands Catboat Club, the historic, brilliant blue catboats are again in the spotlight 

 

Carefully crafted from the curved branches of Cayman’s pop-nut, fiddlewood or mahogany trees, catboats played a major role in nearly every facet of life in the Cayman Islands, serving as the islands’ taxis, pickup trucks, buses, and of course, fishing boats, from the early 1900s through to the 1950s. During those times, roads in Cayman were generally poor, so catboats were used extensively as a mode of transport between the coastal settlements of the different districts. In Cayman Brac, catboats were also particularly important in loading and unloading goods from schooner to shore.  

Now, their importance is once again being recognized, due to the efforts of the Cayman Islands Catboat Club, which recently opened its restored clubhouse on the George Town waterfront. 

The clubhouse on Whitehall Bay aims to preserve and promote catboats for future generations. Originally a local seaman’s home, the house was devastated in Hurricane Ivan in 2004. However, thanks to the generosity of Cayman’s corporate community, the building was rescued and renovated.  

Along with a small catboat museum section and an area where traditional fried fish and fritters are sold, the building will accommodate a fully functioning workshop where old catboats will be restored and new ones built. Groups of schoolchildren, as well as tourists, will be able to witness not only how the boats are built, but also be able to take rides in them from the adjoining jetty, helping to bring Cayman’s history back to life. 

A catboat legacy 

Cayman’s catboats are small, one-sail wooden boats, with the beam at the widest point nearly half the total length. They are typically crafted to be sharp at both ends so they can cut easily through the water whether they are going backward or forward. Indeed, some people say that their agility – like a cat silently hunting its prey – is how the catboat got its name. But nobody knows for sure. 

It is believed the first Cayman catboat was built by Daniel Jervis of Cayman Brac, in 1904. He built it, so the story goes, because he was dissatisfied with the relatively cumbersome, unstable and heavy dugout canoes that he had been using as part of a turtle-catching team attached to the schooners around Grand Cayman. 

Although similar small sail boats had been common throughout the eastern seaboard of the U.S., Jervis is credited with the first truly distinctive Caymanian-style catboat – sharp at bow and stern, with one, simple sail, set toward the bow, thus leaving plenty of room for hauling turtles aboard. The boat was designed for a crew of three, and Jervis called it The Terror.  

According to Captain Kem Jackson, vice-president of the Cayman Islands Catboat Club, and one of the last remaining catboat builders of his generation in Cayman, the design of the Cayman catboat was often changed, depending on its primary purpose.  

“If it was for turtles, you wanted to make it ‘tippy.’ That means it tips easily to the water to help drag a heavy turtle on board,” Jackson said. “If you were making one to transport people, you needed it to be more stable, with a deeper keel.” 

Jackson described the days when he and his friends would borrow some of the West Bay fishermen’s catboats after they got out of school each afternoon. 

“Going fishing in a catboat when I was a little boy was the biggest thrill in the world,” Jackson said. “The fishermen didn’t mind, as long as you always brought them back in good condition.” 

Jackson said his grandfather, known to West Bayers as “Uncle Bob,” taught him virtually everything he knows about repairing catboats – a legacy he is now passing on to the next generation of boat builders.  

Jackson recalled an incident when, as a young boy, he was out fishing for barracuda with his grandfather and not paying attention. He broke the boat by running it aground. “That was nothing to him,” Jackson said. “But then he would stand over you till you fixed it – his way. That is how I came to know so much about catboats.”  

Jackson said he got his first catboat at age 17. “It was called The Wireless. The times I used to have with it!” Jackson said.  

After working with many different kinds of boats for years, Jackson “rediscovered” catboats after meeting an old friend, Jerris Miller, who had decided that he was going to haul his own catboat around on a trailer to show schoolchildren what boats used to be like before the age of fiberglass. 

Together, and with much encouragement and help from an American by the name of H.E. Ross, the Cayman Catboat Club was formed in 1998 out of the Cayman Maritime Heritage Foundation to help prevent Cayman’s age-old catboats from vanishing forever. 

A catboat renaissance 

Since then, Jackson has spent many long hours lovingly restoring the boats in his back yard in West Bay. The boats, long neglected at the back of garages or under trees, are often discovered in such a poor state of repair by club members that they often need to be almost completely rebuilt. 

The club also races the restored boats at the increasingly popular regattas that can be seen around the island, and Jackson sometimes takes tourists out in his own boat, The Captain D. 

Sadly, only a handful of catboats have survived modern times, and still fewer survived Hurricane Ivan, bringing the club’s fleet of boats down to just three from 14. But gradually new boats have been found and painstakingly restored to their former glory, bringing the total number up to seven.  

That number is set to increase now that the club’s long-cherished dream of making the old building at Whitehall Bay a center for everything to do with catboats. And, not only are Cayman’s catboats being lovingly preserved for future generations to enjoy, they are also enjoying a renaissance.  

Ned Miller, the 22-year-old son of club president Jerris Miller, is part of a small but growing new generation of Caymanians who are keen to learn all they can about Cayman’s rich cultural heritage. He recently completed a course in traditional boat building at the International Yacht Restoration School at Newport, Rhode Island.  

“They teach you all the traditional ways of working,” Miller said. “It was a two-year course, but I’ve also been learning about boats with Kem Jackson prior to that as well as afterwards, learning all the little ‘tricks of the trade’ from him,” he said from the workshop where a lovely old catboat, The Bluenose, built in the 1920s, resides along with a display of traditional craftsman’s tools.  

“This is going to be the shop, and I am going to be working in here full-time,” he enthused. “We want to increase the size of our fleet and see the boats out there every day.” 

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The ribbon is cut at the new clubhouse, the Whitehall Building, which used to be used to help careen schooners. Club president, Jerris Miller, praised the members of the corporate community, without whose help the clubhouse building would not have been restored. From left, Deputy Governor Franz Manderson; Catboat Club President Jerris Miller; Vice-President Kem Jackson, and Dart’s Mark VanDevelde. – Photos: Christopher Tobutt.

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Fisherman haul a turtle into a catboat. – Photo: Cayman National Archive

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Kem Jackson hard at work in the new clubhouse workshop.
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