Brac camp sends kids a blast from past

Taj McFarlane and Laura Walton watch Jude Walton demonstrate some of the tools used in catboat building. - Photos: Simone Scott

The Brac YMCA Culture Camp recently kicked off with an action packed schedule.

Laura Walton leads a craft activity dressed as an old-time Caymanian.
Laura Walton leads a craft activity dressed as an old-time Caymanian.

Things started out with a real treat for campers, when they got to meet Brac artist Conroy Ebanks, who gave a fascinating talk on heritage using his paintings and other items as visual props.

“He talked about various aspects of Brac and Cayman history and heritage, and campers got the chance to learn about a wide variety of aspects of our history, including the different instruments used by old-time kitchen bands, and the way people used to farm utilizing their grounds on top of the bluff,” explained camp coordinator Simone Scott. “Then for a fun activity, the older children … tried copying his artwork, while the younger ones colored a printed black and white photo of his work.”

After a healthy snack, Jude and Laura Walton arrived, dressed as old-time Caymanians, with an exciting lesson on catboats. “Mr. Walton is the son of the late Jefford Walton, our last catboat builder on the Brac,” said Ms. Scott.

“He helped his father build catboats up to 2005. In fact, we were going try to give that final boat its first sea launch this camp on Wednesday, but the weather is not going to allow it.”

Mr. Walton showed the children the Brac Heritage House catboat his father had started in 1960. Mr. Walton also taught the children about some of the tools that were used, and talked about the different kinds of local wood such as plop nut and mahogany that were used in boat building.

Josimar Tatum and Donte Bodden work on their catboat pictures.
Josimar Tatum and Donte Bodden work on their catboat pictures.

The campers then got to hear about the first person thought to have built a catboat in the Cayman Islands, Daniel Jervis from Spot Bay, Cayman Brac.

According to the National Trust, Mr. Jervis built the original catboat in 1904. He had learned his shipwright skills while working on Grand Cayman and had gone out to sea with the turtle boats.

At that time, schooners would carry a number of dugout canoes on board, which would be let down into the water at the turtling grounds for the crew to catch the turtle. Mr. Jervis sought to improve on the unstable dugouts, which were too long and narrow to turn quickly, and to develop a small craft that was short, wide, stable and maneuverable.

His design for a shallow boat with a six inch keel, a pointed stern and bow, and a single sail resulted in him building the Terror.

“It may be that he saw such boats elsewhere,” notes Trust information on how Mr. Jervis came up with the idea for the craft, but in another version of the story, Mr. Jervis got the idea for the boat’s shape from seeing his wife shuck beans into a bucket of water, and noticed how well the husks floated.

Isaiah Conolly and Taygan McFarlane hold up their coloring pages of Conroy Ebanks’s artwork.
Isaiah Conolly and Taygan McFarlane hold up their coloring pages of Conroy Ebanks’s artwork.

The Terror allegedly took 30 days to build, and when he took it with him on his next turtling expedition it proved a great success and very popular. With several more being built, the catboats’ small size – which ranges between 14 and 20 feet long – meant that more could be carried by the schooner and thus increase everyone’s profits, as one catboat could be brought for every three men on the crew. Although the Terror was lost at sea in the great 1932 storm, the seamen of Cayman Brac became skilled at building the little boats, which today are a Caymanian icon.

At the next activity, craft time, Ms. Walton showed the children a miniature catboat made from a mahogany seed and canvas sail, which they painted. She also asked the children a curious question which had them puzzled at first, which was: “Who has swum in a boat before?”

The answer was her, as a newly built catboat needs to be filled with salt water to swell its wood planks so it will not leak, and when she was a little girl, she remembers being in a boat during that process.

When not in use, catboats were filled with a little seawater to ensure the planks would not shrink while they were out of the water.

Camp activities and adventures this week continue with a fishing trip, a historical homes tour, a conservation talk and storytelling, all led by members of the Brac community. “The community has been very generous with their sponsorship of our snacks and activities, and we are very grateful for their support,” said Ms. Scott.