West Bay's own sustainability pioneer

Catboat builder looks to both the past and the future

The white picket fence signaling Kem Jackson’s neatly groomed property close to Morgan’s Harbour is an inviting signpost to any visitor looking for a fascinating window on local history and heritage. But what many might not know is that it is also a place that offers a snapshot of Cayman life that is most definitely looking to the future. 

With a workshop on his property, Mr. Jackson is well known in the community for his efforts in preserving Cayman’s catboat tradition.  

Mr. Jackson’s commitment to passing along the knowledge of his generation through his work with youth and through the Catboat Club has led to recognition in the form of an MBE and a National Heritage Award. 

However, Mr. Jackson’s interests span far beyond the little blue catboats. His commitment to honoring the past, while trying to make the world better for future generations, makes him a true sustainability leader. 

Now 78, Mr. Jackson’s calm exterior belies the fact he has led an exciting life. 

The West Bay native went to sea as a young man of 21 in the 1960’s when, he humorously noted, his first job mostly involved peeling potatoes. But before long, some tinkering skills he’d acquired in Cayman proved useful. 

“I heard the engineers on the deck trying to get the generators started. I had some experience with those kinds of generators, being from Cayman, and I got them to start,” he said. 

It did not take long before he had worked his way up to chief engineer. 

After spending a few decades working on the ships, he then spent time at sea in the treasure hunting game in the Bahamas and beyond. 

He remembers finding a cannon that had some major design flaws. 

“This cannon was so old, they hadn’t come up with a way to connect the different sections of the barrel properly, so it would fly apart when fired,” he said. “So, there certainly was always a new man firing it every time.” 

While interested in the past, Mr. Jackson also has an firm eye on the future. 

Mr. Jackson’s interest in what’s new and cutting-edge, and his technical talents have also led him to become a different kind of pioneer. In a time when some local residents have been making the news for their modern, energy-efficient and clean electricity generation designs, Mr. Jackson has for years been quietly running an off-the-grid system at his home that would wow even the most jaded green-power enthusiasts.  

Proudly showing off artwork on the property done by local special needs students, Mr. Jackson offered the Cayman Compass a tour of the large garden, grow houses and an orchard boasting oranges and other fruits. 

Then he nodded toward a humble shed nearby. 

On the top, an array of solar panels glinted in the morning sun. 

“Those run the fridge, two water pumps, the lights, a fan and the washing machine,” he said. 

Opening the shed door, he pointed out an elaborate battery installation inside. 

He then opened a small door on the side of the house, revealing another assemblage of hoses and other hard-to-identify items. 

“This is where our water comes from – it’s 25 ppm [parts per million] salt,” he said, showing his home desalination system. “It makes about 50 gallons an hour.” 

“I’ve been making my own drinking water since 2000,” he added, noting the clean water heads to a cistern and excess water is used to maintain the garden. 

The small windmill on the roof provides another energy source. Turning around to scan his property, he noted that he feared not enough was being done to pass on the knowledge and cultural history to younger generations. 

“For example, did you know that hundreds of schooners were built in Cayman?” he asked. “Now, that’s definitely something worth following up!” 

Clearly this keen steward of Cayman’s past and future heritage is not about to slow down anytime soon.  

The Jackson property truly is a testament to the self sufficiency, the “ambition and gumption” and the ability to take advantage of opportunities that Caymanians of old were well known for. 

Kem Jackson’s garden contains a rich bounty of produce.
Kem Jackson’s garden contains a rich bounty of produce.

Solar panels, along with the small windmill in background, serve much of the home

Solar panels, along with the small windmill in background, serve much of the home’s electricity needs.

The desalination system provides all the family

The desalination system provides all the family’s water needs.

Kem Jackson, left, and friend Loxley Banks at the catboat workshop, adorned with artwork, at Mr. Jackson

Kem Jackson, left, and friend Loxley Banks at the catboat workshop, adorned with artwork, at Mr. Jackson’s West Bay property. – Photos: Basia McGuire

An orchid house is just one of the garden

An orchid house is just one of the garden’s features.