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.”