Charles “Chuckie” Ebanks, boat captain and West Bay stalwart, not only pilots pleasure boats, he also makes them … and fishing rods, too.
Born and raised in North West Point, the 64-year-old International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame board member comes from a long line of seafarers who were fishermen and turtlers.
The model boat builder and custom fishing rod maker says that his earliest memories include watching the blue catboats of his father and their neighbors fishing out on the water. His fascination of the deep and “all things on it and in it,” though, is tempered by a healthy regard for its vagaries.
Chuckie described the ocean simply as “Too soft to walk on and too much to drink.”
A well-spent childhood
As a young boy, money being tight, there was not much to spare on fripperies like toys. So, using his initiative and the materials he found or salvaged, Chuckie made his own playthings or did without. By age 12 he had already made his first fishing rod and at 13 he had launched his own full-sized boat. He and his friends fashioned sturdy 10- to 12-inch model boats to sail in the sea, marl pits and rock pools that dotted Cayman’s scenic coastline when he was around 10 years old. Those halcyon days, filled with laughter, light and the joys of friendly competition, were wrapped up in the sea when play was almost like a gentle apprenticeship.
“We soon learnt to build our toy boats true, as those that weren’t were useless. We studied the tides and the wind to get any kind of advantage we could to make them sail better before tying them to us with long pieces of twine as we swam out to race them,” he recalled.
“There was no staying indoors for us boys; we were happiest exploring and generally making our own fun.”
In this way, Chuckie quickly gained the feel for boat building and made his own 12-foot skiff – The Sea Devil – when barely 13 years old. “It was quick and a beauty to handle,” he recalled proudly.
With the help of his father, the resourceful teenager stripped a decommissioned cargo ship for its Douglas fir for timber and to make the boat’s frame. The Kia Ora was a Liberty ship en route to Japan to be scrapped. Chuckie bought the skiff’s outboard motor thanks to the largesse of Capt. Rayal Bodden. The local shipwright, builder and entrepreneur was the first to import outboard motors to the Cayman Islands and he readily agreed to let young Chuckie pay him in installments. With that, and some marine ply from Tampa, the Sea Devil was ready to put to sea.
This early exposure to boats and the sea in general now means that Captain Chuckie likes nothing better than to spend his spare time making model sailboats, schooners, catboats and half models.
He used birch for the first catboat model he ever built, digging it out with a penknife. The prototype, with ballast so it could stay upright in water, was 2 feet long and had about 12 sails, he mentioned with pride.
Unsurprisingly, in the intervening years, word has spread about these wonderfully rendered replicas. Nowadays, Captain Chuckie takes commissions for models and half models from all over the world, most recently from Alabama and Hagerstown, Maryland.
Given the level of complexity employed in constructing such boats, each full model generally takes up to 70 hours to make. He uses mainly mahogany and spruce for the superstructure, coupled with a fair amount of manual dexterity and patience. Simply put, Captain Chuckie first uses a hatchet to rough the wood out to approximately the right dimensions before working the piece over with a grinder to smooth it down. Then, after hand sanding with fine sandpaper, he adds smaller wood strips fashioned to represent the gunnel, keel and gripe. Other parts installed include a pine interior, seats, a water glass, a hand line and sail cloths.
The completed piece is painted and varnished and either mounted for display or left free-standing for sailing. His half models are finished off usually to be wall mounted and as part of a picture.
His full models sell for $300.
Bespoke fishing rods
When not taking passengers out to Stingray City and other snorkeling and fishing spots or making his models, the stomach cancer survivor is busy pursuing his other passion of making fishing rods to order. This pastime was also begun in childhood and was prompted by the young Chuckie wanting things his family could not afford.
“We didn’t have much money in those days,” he said of his family. “There wasn’t money for me to have toys, and so being always quite handy boy, I started to make whatever it was that me and my friends wanted.”
Past customers include soca and calypso legend Byron Lee.
Casting rods, trawling rods and stand-up rods are what Captain Chuckie makes in the main. His fiberglass and graphite rods take three days to make, depending on customer requirements.
His first attempt, he admits, was an eyesore – but it worked.
“My first rod was made from wild strawberry, which I cut and planed down,” he added. In
one form or another, he has made rods ever since, refining them as he grew more skilled.
Captain Chuckie buys components and starts by putting a blank (pole) on a turning machine, slowly turning it until the pole gets a bend, along which he puts the guides. Once the guides are properly lined up, he mounts the reel seat onto the rod and puts a plate in (a line). Confident that all the parts are perfectly aligned, he puts on the grip and applies clear epoxy and paint.
“God is good,” says the boat captain talking briefly about how he would return to his pastimes after recovering from each bout of chemo. “I got my family, the sea, my rods and models. It might not seem much to some who live here, but life don’t get better than that in my book.”
Captain Chuckie can be contacted on 916-6319 and via [email protected]