Keeping the catboat tradition alive

If you’ve heard of catboats, then you’ve probably also heard of West Bayers Kem Jackson and Loxley Banks. Both just short of age 78 and born only three months apart, the two longtime district residents have been friends since childhood, and share a passion for Cayman’s distinctively blue sailboats known as catboats. 

Dropping by for a tour of the outdoor workshop at Mr. Jackson’s home close to Morgan’s Harbour, it’s easy to tell that their dedication to preserving the catboats is steeped in their wish to see the knowledge about this special symbol of Cayman’s heritage passed on to future generations. 

As Catboat Club members, they visit schools and offer free catboat rides, as well as organizing occasional regattas. Mr. Jackson once even took the King of Sweden, in Cayman for a scouting event, for a catboat ride in the North Sound. 

Lore has it that a certain Walton many generations ago on Cayman Brac had opened a large bean pod, and examining it, had a light-bulb moment for a new type of boat. Certainly the catboat shape does resemble a long bean. Its distinctive canoe shape with two sharp ends makes it highly maneuverable. 

With the influx of outboard motors, local catboat owners took to squaring off the sterns of their boats to mount the engines. 

Today, Mr. Banks estimates only seven or eight operational catboats in traditional condition remain in Cayman. 

As for how the catboat got its name, that same Walton, legend has it, had stored his new boat under some coconut fronds, and when he returned some time later a cat had given birth to kittens in the cozy shelter. Mr. Banks countered with another possibility: The name comes from a “cat rig” type of sail rigging used on the boat. 

Whatever the “real” historical truth, there’s no doubt the catboat has made an indelible impact on Cayman. 

According to the Cayman Catboat Club, from the beginning of the 20th Century through the 1950’s the catboat was an integral part of the islands’ economy. An important possession for seafaring Caymanians for generations, the little boats were used as the pickup trucks of the past, in Mr. Jackson’s words, transporting people and goods between the districts. 

“The materials for the first building at Rum Point got there by catboat,” he noted. 

Catboats were also relied upon in Cayman’s traditional turtling industry. Loaded up on schooners, sometimes stacked one on top of the other, the little boats were deployed at turtling spots in the Western Caribbean from Cuba to Nicaragua. They were used to catch and carry turtles back to the larger ships, which would then transport the turtle products to Jamaica and Key West. 

Mr. Jackson noted that the catboats were handcrafted using a plane, a saw, a hammer and a hatchet, along with plenty of muscle and elbow grease. The timbers forming the boats’ interior ribs were typically made of hardwood like mahogany and plopnut. 

“The key was to use timbers that were already bent, so the wood would be stronger,” said Mr. Jackson. He pointed to the large original timbers in the Captain D, named after Captain Dalson Ebanks, built around 1940. The sails were traditionally made of either flour sacks, coco sacks, or a lightweight canvas known as blue edge duck. 

He added that the task of building a catboat from scratch using such traditional methods is getting more difficult. The lumber materials used to make the boats are increasingly scarce. 

Both men were keen to underscore that while explaining how the boats are made is helpful to a degree, experience and education go hand-in-hand. They worry the craft is in danger of being lost. They hope to inspire more young people to gain hands-on experience building the boats before it’s too late. 

“I learned how to make them at the side of my grandfather ‘Uncle Bob’ Jackson,” said Mr. Jackson. “That’s the best way to learn.” 

Fishermen haul in a turtle on a catboat: - Photo: Cayman National Archive

Fishermen haul in a turtle on a catboat: – Photo: Cayman National Archive

Loxley Banks, a member of the Cayman Islands Veterans Association, with Kem Jackson holding a sample timber at the catboat workshop.  - Photo: Basia McGuire

Loxley Banks, a member of the Cayman Islands Veterans Association, with Kem Jackson holding a sample timber at the catboat workshop. – Photo: Basia McGuire

Catboats at a regatta.

Catboats at a regatta.


  1. I think that the Cat boat tradition is not only worth keeping alive , but also could be a really good business, by getting of that high gas prices, and cleaning up the air quality. Back in the days we did everything with the cat boats, fishing, trooling , transportation, fun sailing trips for the family. Remember that these sail boat can go and do any thing a power boat can do .

  2. Keeping the "catboat tradition alive" should be a focal point in preserving the rich history of the Cayman Islands. Not only did the seafaring men from the early 20th Century play an integral role in shaping the heritage of the Islands, these men went on to settle in other countries where they shared their ship/boat building skills. My grandfather, Jason Alva Tibbetts, was one of these men who mastered the craftsmanship of building a catboat back on the Brac as a young man. After eventually immigrating to the U.S. where he continued working as a shipbuilder, he apparently held on to his passion for constructing the beloved catboats because he spent his spare time perfecting small scale replicas in his home workshop. Crafted to resemble every last detail of a full size catboat, the small models were oftentimes even painted the traditional blue color. Years before his death, my grandfather took on the task of building a full size catboat, which he diligently worked on in the evenings or weekends.
    As children we used to laugh and tease that one day our PawPaw (as we affectionately called him) was gonna sail that pretty blue boat all the way back to Cayman Brac! Of course that was a silly notion since we lived in Texas, but as children we truly believed that was his intention! Amazingly, that little catboat actually did make it back to the Brac, but it came piggybacking on a much bigger ship! Today that beautiful boat sits across from the Cayman Brac Museum for locals and tourists to admire its craftsmanship. As proud as I am to say it was my grandfather’s favorite pass-time, the art of building these beauties was not passed down through our family; therefore, the legacy of the Tibbetts’s catboats stopped with the death of my dear PawPaw. He actually died before completing the boat that rests at the Brac museum, but luckily a fellow Caymanian (Darley Bodden) lived close by in Texas and rose to the occasion of completing my PawPaw’s last project. With this quick history of the Brac museum’s catboat done, I hope this reaches others who may have the chance to master the traditional methods of building these boats from those few craftsmen that are still alive. If you have family or friends with catboat building abilities don’t let them pass without them sharing this beloved skill that should remain strong in the Cayman Island heritage.

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