Some of Cayman’s well-travelled seafarers gathered this week to share tales of their lives on the high seas, to mark the International Day of the Seafarer.
The Tuesday night event, called ‘Seafarers Matter’, was organised by the National Trust and the Seafarers Association.
Captain Paul Hurlston, Captain Kem Jackson and seamen Denniston Tibbetts, Steve McField and Darvin Ebanks told some of their on-shore and on-sea stories at the Seafarers Hall during the evening.
A small group of people were there to hear their remarkable stories, and for some of those gathered there, it was a cherished occasion.
As the daughter of a seafarer, Rhonda Cornwall, historic programmes manager for the National Trust, said she knew all too well the impact her father and his fellow seamen had made, both within their own families and for the Cayman Islands in general.
She said the National Trust thought it was important to record the stories of Cayman’s elderly former seamen so future generations would know of their significance to Cayman’s economy and nation-building.
For many years, Cayman’s major export was its mariners, and as late as the 1950s, the government’s annual report stated that the seamen’s remittances were the mainstay of the economy.
Most of Cayman’s sailors worked for National Bulk Carriers, often flying to different ports to join the ships.
When Tibbetts left Jamaica to catch his first ship, it was to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a sea captain.
Life on the ship was hard, Tibbetts said, and many times he wanted to go home, but he stuck it out.
Coming back home or leaving were big occasions, former seaman Steve McField said, with lots of crying, kissing and hugging at the airport as the whole town gathered to bid farewell or welcome them home.
“Not many of the young people know today that we were apprentice seamen before we went to sea, but it was some of the best days of my life,” McField said.
According to McField, most of the young boys joined sea scout camps in Cayman to become familiar with life at sea. They were trained as though they were on board a ship. They talked about aft, starboard, forward, port and stern, and acted as navigational watchman, McField said.
“Can you imagine leaving Cayman at age 17 and never been in a place like America … I was overcome with pride when I got my ‘call’, McField said.
Darvin Ebanks said he never gets tired of seamen’s tales.
His first job, at the age of 17, was crew mess man. He worked seven days a week, from early morning to late night. Eventually, he took the position as galley man. The good part was getting to eat what he wanted and staying warm while his colleagues were on deck, freezing.
“It was tough, we got lonely for home, the men at night would get together to gamble cards, tell jokes, eat, drink and hang out,” Ebanks said.
He also recalls the good camaraderie between the crew of Caymanians.
Paul Hurlston said one of his ships was a banana boat sailing out of Guatemala. He was just 16 years of age at the time.
One night, two months after being on the ship, while on a midnight to 4am watch, he was able to save a chief engineer who fell overboard. With the help of other crew members, they managed to get him out of the water and back on board.
In later years, Hurlston said he was thanked by the chief engineer for saving his life.
“Lots of things happened on the ship, good, bad and too many to mention,” he said.