Sidebar: Catboat construction
Only a few generations ago, catboats were the main means of transport in the Cayman Islands and a vital part of everyday life.
The vessels were used to travel from district to district, move goods and to carry people to hospital in emergencies.
Men-folk took them out turtle fishing – which for many years was the mainstay of the islands’ economy – with the boats’ shallow, rounded shape ideal for hauling turtles over the side.
Catboats have, of course, been replaced by cars and trucks but nonetheless retain a special place in the hearts of Caymanians and are an integral part of Cayman’s maritime heritage.
Their beautiful, sleek design lends an air of nostalgia for a way of life that existed when Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman were truly “the islands that time forgot.”
However, since the boats have fallen into disuse and disrepair, the number of vessels has declined and Cayman’s unique boat-building skills have all but disappeared.
In 1998 it was realized that action must be taken to stop catboats vanishing forever and so the Cayman Catboat Club was formed under the auspices of the Cayman Maritime Heritage Foundation.
According to Jerris Miller, the club’s president, there were by that time just 13 catboats left in Cayman, which they proceeded to restore.
But then along came Hurricane Ivan in 2004, destroying the club’s building on George Town waterfront and most of the catboat fleet too.
Since then, thanks to a steady fundraising effort, and a generous donation of US$425,000 from Dart, the clubhouse has been rebuilt and it recently re-opened.
In keeping with the heritage theme, the clubhouse has been constructed in the style of a traditional Caymanian building but with modern conveniences such as air-conditioning and hurricane-resistant materials.
Some of the features of the original building have also been retained, including the wooden roof and an ironwood structural post, plus parts of the wattle and daub wall construction which have been exposed for visitors to see.
This new facility has catboats on display as well as heritage items in the museum room, and a workshop where visitors can watch catboats being constructed and repaired.
Captain Kem Jackson from West Bay, who is one of the last catboat builders in Cayman, will be constructing and repairing vessels as well as teaching the younger generation these age-old skills.
“Ivan destroyed 12 of our collection of catboats, leaving us with just four,” explains Jerris. “There have been no new catboats built in Cayman for 25 years but now that we have the workshop, Capt. Kem will be able to work on new boats and teach other how to make them.
“When I was a young man, nearly every family had a catboat and it was essential to our way of life. The reason that most of Cayman’s roads are beside the sea is because the houses were built before the roads, in times when traveling and communication was mostly done by boat. We want to ensure that catboats remain a part of our heritage and culture.”
The new clubhouse also has a meeting room, space for an upstairs bar and hopes to showcase an outdoor caboose on which Caymanians traditionally cooked their meals.
Located in an area of the waterfront known as “Careening Place” where the hulls of schooners were cleaned in olden times, the clubhouse is ideally located for catboat events, including races.
Plans are also being considered to hold tours for visitors and cruise ship passengers, as the clubhouse is situated conveniently close to George Town harbor.
The club, which has over 100 members, is now hoping to attract more people to join and help ensure that Cayman’s catboat heritage flourishes well into the future.