One hundred years ago, getting to the hospital, the market or just about anywhere else in Cayman likely would have required a catboat.
“They were the pick-up trucks of yesteryear,” said Loxley Banks, a director of the Cayman Catboat Club, founded in 1998 to promote and preserve the island relic.
“If somebody had to come to the hospital from East End, usually they would have to somehow get them in a catboat and transport them to Hog Sty Bay and then get them up to the hospital.
“It was used to transport dead bodies, sick people, and was used for just about any mode of transportation that was necessary in that day.”
Until the 1940s, in fact, Banks says there was probably only one pick-up truck, if any, in Cayman. The catboat was the primary means of transportation and a centrepiece of many Caymanian stories.
During an afternoon at Kem Jackson’s home in West Bay, Catboat Club members shared stories about the vessels with the Cayman Compass.
The concave sailboats, built of hand-crafted popnut tree and mahogany, weren’t just vessels for running errands, fishing for dinner, or transporting the sick.
They also connected people.
It was how you organised reunions with friends and family. Or how you snuck off to meet a love interest.
“Rum Point would have been a famous place for that,” Banks said.
“You could go into any little cove there and it was like you were going to someplace in Rotterdam, I guess.”
The catboat first brought together Banks’ aunt and uncle, when one waved – or didn’t, depending on who’s telling the story – at the other from shore.
“There’s lots of really beautiful stories, romantic stories, related to the catboat. It has a very important role in our development and that’s why the Catboat Club tries to keep this aspect of our culture, heritage or history [alive],” Banks said.
Rough waters ahead
So, what happened to these once-ubiquitous Cayman-built boats?
The catboat has faced numerous challenges that have threatened to relegate the vessel to history.
First came the arrival of the outboard motor to the islands after World War II. The motors required a flat surface for mounting. The entire hull of a catboat is concave.
“So, they cut the stern off, maybe about a foot and a half, two feet, and made a solid, straight piece where they could mount them and put an outboard motor on,” Banks said.
“Most of what we have, we had to restore because all of them had the sterns cut off and that went on for, I’d say, maybe six, seven, 10 years.”
Most of the catboats that weren’t adapted for motors were condemned to rot, said Catboat Club president Jerris Miller.
“Probably 99% of the 300-plus catboats that were on the island ended up rotting away because they’re made from wood, and you really have to use them and get them into the sea regularly or they just deteriorate,” he said.
As a young man in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he said, he detested the catboats that had been cut and fit with motors.
Now, he recognises that the modifications inadvertently helped preserve a piece of history.
“Here we are, 50 years later, and if it wasn’t for the fact that some people actually cut these boats and put a motor on them, there would be zero catboats on the island.
“We only have one, single catboat that I’m aware of on the whole island that was never cut off at the back.”
That catboat, located off North Sound Road, remains one of Cayman’s few existing catboats – preserved, restored, or otherwise.
Another is Jackson’s personal catboat, Captain D. The boat was one of many that had its stern cut off.
Jackson now has the vessel restored and functional, ready for fishing trips or cruises across North Sound.
‘Patience and time’
As a child, Jackson would help his grandfather fix up his catboat, patching leaks and other necessary repairs.
He would also accompany him into the bush to collect building supplies.
“First thing, out in the sun, he’d be out sharpin’ his axe because he was going out to get timber,” Jackson said.
“And I’d throw that thing on my shoulder. I had to go.”
Miller chimes in that the trips weren’t as simple as carrying the axe and chopping wood.
“They didn’t have any machinery to help them. So, they went into the bush and it was easier to actually make the piece of wood to exactly the size you wanted out there because it was less for a young boy to drag out,” Miller said.
“They’d cut it up and then square it, and they would cut it down to the smaller size that they could use before they even brought it out.”
The rest required a certain level of mental acumen and sheer determination. No two catboats were exactly alike, and no written plans of a Cayman catboat exists to this day.
Boat builders required a few key factors to succeed.
“Patience and time,” Banks said.
“And knowledge,” Miller added.
Through a combination of heat, sometimes from steam, and friction, the builder would slowly bend the timber and fit it into place.
The boatyards were often just yards.
“They would literally just put a keel down in their yard and start to build the ribs and build a complete boat just like that in the backyard,” Miller said.
“It wasn’t like it was one person in the Cayman Islands that did it. Every district had 10, 15 people that would build a catboat in the yard from no plans, no anything.”
While old-time Caymanians carried this unwritten knowledge with them out of practice and necessity, modern islanders have learned that the craft is not so simple.
Through decades of trial and error, Miller has learned that the old way is the only way to build a Cayman catboat. It can’t be adapted to pre-made, ready-to-assemble kits. There is no IKEA for catboats.
Part of the art is picking the right tree, with the right bend, the right type of wood, and approximately the right height.
“Well, the tree that the guy finds might be 17 feet, might be 18 feet, might be 16 and a half. So that’s what you got for a boat,” Miller said.
“When you try to replicate [a catboat], it’s difficult to get it exactly alike. They’re all different, yet they all have the same basic design.”
Over the years, others have attempted to restore the Cayman catboat. But as the story of the boat goes, the vessel has never been easy to preserve.
The efforts of the late Ira Walton, for example, were compromised when Hurricane Ivan in 2004 destroyed several boats that he had built, as well as the Catboat Club meeting space.
In recent years, catboat restoration has received a boost from the Gwen Bush Memorial Scholarship, offered through the Catboat Club’s umbrella organisation, the Cayman Maritime Heritage Foundation.
So far, three young Caymanians, including Miller’s son, have studied boat-making under the scholarship.
“It is specific for young Caymanians to go get trained to learn wooden boat building,” Miller said.
As part of his studies at the International Yacht Restoration School in Rhode Island, Ned Jerris Miller helped restore the 12-foot Beetle Cat, which was later sold for US$11,000.
“They’re learning the old techniques of doing it and it really makes it a lot easier,” Miller said of his son’s studies.
“We’re really proud of the fact that we’re getting young Caymanians interested in it and everybody that has gone and graduated has come back to very good paying jobs. They’re really in demand … with the amount of watercraft that we have here.”
The students trained through the scholarship offer one of the islands’ few links in the younger generations to a near-forgotten practice.
The Catboat Club also visits schools and community groups to promote education about the boats.
For more information on the club, visit www.catboatclub.com.