The role of the Caymanian seafarers was highlighted at this year’s International Day of the Seafarer. Hosted by the National Trust of the Cayman Islands, panelists including Clifton Bodden and Ora Hollebon offered interesting details about those whose careers were shaped by the sea.
Clifton Bodden: The Home Guard
Both wartime service and seafaring have given Clifton Nevis Bodden memories he will never forget. The sprightly 91-year-old lived in Cuba until his late teens and moved back to Cayman after America entered World War II (December 1941).
With the war dominating the news, “CB” signed up the following summer, becoming a soldier in the Cayman Islands Company Jamaica Home Guard. Its duty was to defend the nation and Allied ships from enemy attack by keeping a constant lookout for German submarines. In wartime, the region was strategically significant. Vital supplies routed through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean meant that scores of ships were threatened. For this reason, several of Britain’s Caribbean colonies had a U.S. naval base. Cayman’s base on Grand Cayman, though small, was thought by Bodden to be effective, housing planes for deployment off the coast.
Speaking of that time, he said: “We trained [in artillery] with U.S. personnel at the base, right behind the library in George Town. Our barracks were in Dobson Hall facing Fort George.” With the main shipping lane for the Panama Canal nearby, Bodden said, “[the Germans] had plenty of subs sinking ships. The navy patrolled the Caribbean right up to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba… In the evening, after the military planes… pitched into the North Sound they’d be serviced and refueled before leaving the next morning.”
The full-time soldier was stationed at Fort George in George Town port, the site of a much earlier coastal defense structure. All volunteer soldiers received extensive weapons training, learning how to fire rifles and heavy artillery, which had a range of up to 6 miles.
His accuracy during target practice meant he was selected to learn advanced artillery skills in Kingston. While training on 6-inch and 18-pound guns there, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
With six lookout posts, the Home Guard mounted an effective coastal watch system for the time. Each post was manned by four soldiers a shift. From Palmetto Point and North West Point in West Bay, to Fort George, Pedro Bluff and East End and North Side, soldiers at the vantage points were often the first to sight enemy craft. “We didn’t have tall trees and many buildings [in those days] and you could see from Spotts coming down through South Sound and all on up to North West Point,” Bodden explained.
At Fort George the lookout post was high up in a cotton tree. The structure was a purpose-built hut with windows facing north, west and south. Equipped with binoculars and range finders – to note the distance of enemy submarines – soldiers scanned the water in four-hour shifts broken by a 10-minute break. Once a submarine was sighted, it was rung in to the reporting office on Cardinall Avenue, which relayed the message to the base. Such incidents often led to planes scrambling to investigate.
One memorable incident in Bodden’s wartime service was learning the fate of the Comayagua. In May 1942, the Honduranian freighter was torpedoed and sunk 14 miles from George Town. If it had not been for the rescue efforts of a local schooner, the Cimboco, more than seven lives would have been lost.
Bodden later attended college in Jacksonville, Florida, and served as a first engineer for many years.
Captain Crosby and the Gravina
Another Caymanian who had a career connected with the sea was Captain William Crosby Ebanks. Captain Crosby, as he was later known, emigrated to Honduras at age nine to join a relative as a produce packer. According to Ora Hollebon, who is researching her father’s life, “Honduras was very prosperous in those days, at least in relative terms.”
He got his first job at sea as a teenager. Despite little formal education, he was resourceful and later set up a business in Honduras trading directly with the United Fruit Company. “He became a land owner there with plantations hiring many Honduran employees,” his daughter recalled.
Nearing 40, Captain Crosby returned to live in Cayman with his two sons. Seeking a fresh start in his homeland, he later set up a transportation business. Never having lost his early love of the sea, he later commissioned the building of a cargo-passenger vessel. Explaining her father’s decision to become an owner/captain, Hollebon said: “Cayman had very little of anything in those days and its economic state was depressed to say the least… “
Built in Honduras, the Gravina, was a yawl rig with a tall central mast flanked by two smaller ones. Hollebon said that the 60-foot vessel, sailing mainly from Havana/Isle of Pines to Grand Cayman, “… could make the trip to Cuba in 24 hours. She was a beautiful ship and some referred to her as a big catboat.” With few local stores, the vessel brought a variety of goods to Cayman from 1930 to the late 1940s, including “provisions, lumber and other building supplies and provided jobs for at least 10 persons.” Though not the only passenger-cargo ship in Cayman, the Gravina was said to be one of the fastest of its kind.
According to his daughter, Captain Crosby was primarily a businessman and often delegated piloting to a certified sea captain. His main role was to run the ship at a profit by keeping a full payload of passengers and supplies.
Hollebon found that, “Many people [she] interviewed went to Havana on The Gravina for surgery, other medical treatment and to visit relatives who were living there. With Cayman’s small population, what are now routine procedures were not performed locally, as there were few qualified doctors. So, like the air-ambulance service of today, the craft provided a lifeline for those seeking medical help overseas. On a lighter note, some passengers sailed to Havana just to get the latest hairstyles the capital’s salons offered.
On one fateful trip, though, the vessel had a near collision off the Isle of Pines. Decades later, Hollebon was told that “… everyone on the small, low draft vessel was panicking as the… steamer [approached]”.
She said: “My father ordered everyone on deck – including passengers to swing lights… to alert the oncoming vessel.” Moments before impact, “[In] what must have seemed a long time but could only have been minutes, the steamer gave a long horn blast and turned away….”
Undaunted and with a schedule to keep, “The Gravina sailed to Cayman at high speed, making record time…”
Despite that lucky escape, the vessel later sank after striking a reef near the Isle of Pines. Once again, no one was harmed.
After the loss of the Gravina, Captain Crosby set up a store in West Bay importing goods from the U.S. and Honduras.
Ora Hollebon is currently undertaking research into the life and times of her father and the Gravina. Anyone with recollections of either can contact her at [email protected] or 925-5531.