Robert Hamaty, of Tortuga Rum Company

Robert Michael Hamaty will be remembered by many for his love of family, his adventurous spirit and for setting up a company that put Cayman on the map for rum cakes. He passed away at the Miami Baptist Health Center on Saturday, 13 June, following a brief illness. He was 72.

His family said his wife Carlene, with whom he founded the Tortuga Rum Company in 1984, was by his bedside when he passed away “peacefully”.

Robert Hamaty, 1948-2020

Hamaty was born in Westmoreland, Jamaica, on 12 Feb. 1948.

He was educated at Jamaica College from 1958-1964, and trained to be a pilot at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical Institute in Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1965 to 1966.

He was one of Air Jamaica’s first 12 commissioned pilots. He went on to become a captain at Cayman Airways, which he joined in 1978, at a time when the fledgling airline had only one aircraft, a BAC 1-11, and eight pilots. In the late 1980s, Captain Hamaty served as chief pilot and flew CAL’s first Boeing 737-200 aircraft.

He was one of the founding members of the Cayman Airways Pilots Association, and was instrumental in setting up CAPA’s annual Cayman Airways Fishing Tournament.

It was during his time as a Cayman Airways pilot that he met Carlene, who was a flight attendant. The couple married in 1988. Both of Hamaty’s children, Monique and Basil, have followed in their father’s footsteps. Monique Hamaty-Simmonds works at Tortuga Rum Company, and Basil Hamaty is a captain at Cayman Airways. When Basil took his first flight from Owen Roberts International Airport to Norman Manley International Airport after becoming a pilot with Cayman Airways in 2004, his father was in the jump seat.

Even though he moved from Jamaica to his adopted home of Cayman in 1978, Hamaty considered both places home. He served as honorary Jamaican consul in Cayman from 1992 to 2009.

Monique said her father was a fearless man.

“Nothing scared him. He used to say, ‘I flew through thunder and lightning storms and have had a heart transplant’. He also said, ‘I go nowhere and do nothing without an alternate.’ Everything he applied to life, he learned as a pilot,” she said.

Cayman Airways, in a tribute, said Hamaty had served an integral role in the growth and development of the airline.

The airline’s president and CEO, Fabian Whorms, said, “Even after Captain Hamaty left Cayman Airways in the 1990’s for health reasons, he maintained a lifelong love and interest in Cayman Airways, and will always be remembered for continuously sharing industry tips and insights with our Senior Management Team over the years.”

The Ministry of Tourism also paid tribute to Hamaty, saying he “held a deep and abiding love for the Cayman Islands, and his passion for people and spirit of Caymankindness were evident in every aspect of his life. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him, and by countless others who took inspiration from his courage, integrity and strength of character.”

In 2010, in recognition of his outstanding service and accomplishments in the fields of tourism and hospitality, manufacturing and global brand building, Hamaty was conferred with the Order of Distinction, in the rank of officer.

Throughout his life, helping others was very important to her father, Monique said, quoting her dad as often saying “It is in giving that you shall receive”.

In one case, in 2011, he and other members of the community set up a fundraising drive to send the 4-year-old daughter of one of his employees to Narayana Multispeciality Hospital in Bangalore, India, for urgent surgery to repair two holes in her heart. The operation was a success.

It was not surprising that Hamaty would help someone with heart issues – he had undergone a heart transplant in 1998. The donor was a 27-year-old pilot who had died in a sky-diving accident.

In his office, for years, Hamaty proudly displayed a framed poem and photographs of that pilot, about whom he said, “In his final hours, that young man gave me a lifetime.”

Hamaty was well known locally for his advocacy of organ transplants. He was a member of the Human Tissue Transplant Council and was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Human Tissue Transplant Law in Cayman.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Premier Alden McLaughlin said of Hamaty’s passing, “Today, sadly, Cayman has lost one of its captains of industry… Robbie Hamaty, though an aircraft pilot by training, was truly a visionary entrepreneur by nature.

“Together with his wife, Carlene, they built from scratch the incredibly successful international enterprise that Tortuga Rum has become. He was never shy to express his opinion or to provide advice to government about commerce in general and in particular, how we could continue to improve Cayman’s tourism product. He has made an immense contribution to the development and success of these Islands and will be greatly missed.”

For decades, Hamaty’s name has been synonymous with Tortuga Rum Cakes, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last year.

In an interview with the Compass in 2019, Hamaty described getting the idea for Tortuga rum after noticing passengers boarding his planes carrying brands of rum from overseas. He recalled thinking, “Why can’t this island have its own rum?”

His company went on to have major local and international success, with its rum and rum cakes being popular exports from Cayman among tourists looking to take a slice or a sip of the islands home with them. The Tortuga products are also distributed in many markets throughout the world and the company has expanded to Miami, Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas.

His daughter tells a story of when the rum-cake sales got an unexpected boost when Morton Dean, former anchor for ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’, visited Cayman in the early 1990s and returned home with a Tortuga rum cake.

“Morton shared the cake with the ABC team on live television one morning and proceeded to rave about it to both his co-presenters and viewers all across America. The 1-800 order line at Tortuga’s head office erupted with calls and as it did, Robbie, with his considerable business acumen, seized upon this opportunity and blasted news of Morton’s new favourite delicacy across the globe.

“Later that day, Robbie received a call from Morton Dean himself, who diplomatically informed Robbie that he, Morton Dean, had found himself in considerable hot water after Robbie’s marketing blitz and that such marketing requires written authorisation from the network. With Robbie’s customary charm, it was only moments before Morton said that such a letter of authorisation would shortly be forthcoming. They formed a life-long friendship thereafter.”

When he wasn’t working, Hamaty spent his time reading and collecting antiques. He also enjoyed fishing, boating, clay-pigeon shooting, driving his antique cars, and spending time with his family.

A small family service is planned for July at St. Ignatius Catholic Church and Hamaty will be laid to rest at the Garden of Reflection, Prospect Point, Grand Cayman.

In a statement, the family said they hope “there will be an opportunity for the wider family and friends to come together and celebrate Robbie’s blessed life in the coming months”.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to some of the charities Hamaty supported. These include:
The Cayman Heart Fund

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