People watching the water on a bright sunny day late last month would have seen a sight that hearkened back to Cayman’s olden times – a quartet of the islands’ iconic blue and white catboats cutting through the waves as they sailed from West Bay to North Side in an annual race.
The event, the David Foster Memorial Catboat Race, is the longest running one organised by the Cayman Islands Catboat Club. Foster, who passed away in 2005, was a long-time club member and an avid supporter of preserving catboat heritage in the Cayman Islands.
The catboat is a colourful reminder of Cayman’s seafaring past. For generations, the indigenous people of these islands relied on the vessels for their survival.
Cayman turtle rangers pursued loggerheads, hawksbill and green sea turtles, and fished, and the boats were also used to transport people and goods around the island.
Boatbuilder Captain Daniel Jervis, who was born in 1862 and died, age 77, in 1939, was the first person known to have made a catboat in the Cayman Islands, in Cayman Brac in 1904.
He lived in Spot Bay in a house below the bluff with his wife, Georgeanna, whom he married in 1896. Together they had eight children. The house, which was built in 1875, still stands to this day, according to Spot Bay resident Hendinburgh Dixon, 89.
Dixon remembers Captain Jervis as a very good carpenter, pastor and farmer in the community, who worked all his life building catboats and farming.
“He built the catboats alongside his house under a big fig tree on the north side of his house,” Dixon said.
His father and a lot of the men in the community would watch Jervis build the boats, as they talked about their days at sea, how they caught the turtles and what was happening in the community.
Dixon said his father, Blake, bought a six-passenger catboat from Captain Jervis for 7 pounds.
The story recounted in Cayman history books is that one day Captain Jervis, who was shelling beans with his wife, was inspired by the shape of the shell to say he could build a better boat than the one being used for turtling.
Kem Jackson, an expert on Cayman catboats, said he was told Captain Jervis started building the boat in his backyard and kept it covered from prying eyes with coconut leaves. One evening, he got together with friends to reveal the boat, but when he lifted back the covers, he discovered a cat had had a litter of kittens in the bottom, and thus the name ‘catboat’ was born.
Fishermen declared the boat the ultimate vessel to pursue turtles.
Captain Jervis’s first catboat, called ‘The Terror’ and which was 3 feet, 8 inches wide and 14 feet long, was such an obvious improvement over the dugout canoe, it was copied by boat-builders from all three Cayman Islands and beyond.
‘The Terror’ continued in service until it was lost at sea in the 1932 storm.
The catboat was a double-ended, shallow-draft sailboat with a forward-mounted mast, pushed by oars and paddles. It was constructed with timber from the plopnut tree for its natural curves.
Mahogany, fiddlewood and pomperra were used for the ribs, and mahogany for the planking. Crocus was stuffed into the timber seams with a chisel and hammer. Builders worked with various handmade tools – adzes, planes, handsaws, chisels and spokeshaves.
The women stitched the sail, using a hand-held machine.
According to the National Trust for the Cayman Islands website, it became the custom to paint the catboats blue, to minimise the glare of the sun on the sea being reflected into the fishermen’s eyes.
As time went by, the demand for catboats grew, and other Caymanian boat-builders took up the trade. The first people Captain Jervis showed how to make the catboat were Captain Edwin Walton from Spot Bay, Arthur Dilbert from Watering Place, Arthur Ryan from Stake Bay, and Ulin Bodden from West End. Soon afterwards, the skill spread to Grand Cayman.
Captain Jervis’s son Lee took over the catboat trade after his father passed away.
He describes the boat as taking on little water due to being a shallow boat in the book ‘Hearts and Sails, the Cayman Catboat’ published by the Ministry of Education for Heroes Day 2008.
In 1935, during Commissioner Allan Cardinall’s time, the first catboat sailing regatta took place, and races around the islands were held for many years afterwards.
As more roads were built on the islands, and the turtling industry came to an end, catboats were used less often, eventually becoming somewhat of a footnote in Cayman’s maritime history.
Today, the Cayman catboat is once again being recognised, due to the efforts of the Maritime Heritage Foundation and Cayman Islands Catboat Club, which was formed in 1998 to help preserve the legacy of the boat. Club founders Jackson and Jerris Miller continue to pass on their extensive catboat knowledge. Jackson has a fully functioning workshop where old catboats are being restored and new ones are built.
Groups of schoolchildren, as well as tourists, visit and then help spread information about the history and culture of the catboat. Among the club’s activities, it provides people with the opportunity to ride in a genuine Cayman catboat.
The monument, Dreams from the Sea, in Heroes Square in front of the courthouse in downtown George Town, stands as commemoration of Cayman’s iconic catboat.
The Catboat Club each year hosts the David Foster Memorial Race, enabling some of Cayman’s remaining catboat captains to pit their skills against one another.
In the most recent race, held 24 Aug., Jackson, Miller and other catboat aficionados showed what their boats could do when they battled each other and the elements to sail between Garvin Park in West Bay and Rum Point in North Side.
Jackson, skippering the Captain D with Joey Jackson, finished first in 2 hours, 30 minutes. David Foster’s Brac Cat, crewed by Rommell Ebanks, Rommell Ebanks Jr. and Andrea Martinez, completed the course in 3 hours, 14 minutes.
In third place was the Whittaker Cat crew, consisting of Jerris Miller, NJ Miller and Orneil Galbraith, in a time of 3 hours, 44 minutes, followed by The Traveller, skippered by Bobby Ebanks, which finished in 4 hours and 20 minutes.