Right Place, Right Time

6/1/2010

By Tom Morkin

Typically, in our travels, we hear “Oh, too bad you weren’t here last week”, or “yesterday”, or even “two hours ago.” “We just had a dance fest” or “wedding feast” or “music festival”, “parade”, “amazing local art exhibit” or some other special event that we just missed. But sometimes Lady Luck smiles on us and we hear something like what we heard from our Swedish buddies Hakan and Anna of the sailboat Unicorn: “You two arrived on Carriacou at a good time. Tomorrow, on the north coast of the island in the small boat building community of Windward, a boat launching is taking place.”

Yeah great, so what? Why do you mistake me for someone who gives a damn? I was tempted to say. Fortunately, it was one of the few times when I was able to keep my mouth shut long enough to hear why I would give a damn. Hakan and Anna explained that Carriacou is one of the few islands left in the Grenadines where the wooden boat building industry, while it may not be flourishing, is still viable and is even experiencing a mild resurgence.

These Scottish boat builders settled in the village of Windward and evidence remains today not only with the boat building techniques but also with many of the local names having Scottish origins such as McQuilkin, McLawrence, McFarlane, McCloud, McIntosh, Compton, Roberts, etc. During its peak in the early 20th century, as many as 129 trading sloops and schooners were built.

For generations, Windward was the boat building center of the south eastern Caribbean. In the 1700s Scottish estate owners brought in Scottish shipwrights to build sloops and schooners to transport produce from Carriacou to Grenada for onward shipment to Europe.

Although the old fashioned fish boats propelled by sails have been replaced by power boats, there are still locals and outsiders who provide a demand for the traditionally designed and crafted sailing boats, keeping a small number of boat building families busy.

As luck would have it, the 42 foot yacht Zemi, under construction in previous months, was being launched the day after our arrival. We had to be there. So the next day, six of us cruisers took a taxi van to Windward to be part of the event.

Now when a Carriacou built yacht goes into the water for the first time, it does so with a very big splash in more ways than one. For Master boat builder and designer Alwin Enoe and his sons, Chris, Carl and Terry, who use traditional methods and tools like hand saws, hatchets, adzes, and hammers, this was a big day. As is the custom, everyone from near and far was invited to help celebrate, and to help move the 14 ton boat approximately 100 feet from the construction site to the water. We’re not talking about travel lifts, hydraulic trailers or marine railways. We’re talking about 100 men (NOT women- who are not allowed to help) pulling the boat using four part block and tackle as it rolls along over 10 rolling logs.

No doubt, the laying out of copious amounts of rum and beer coupled with the attendance of the local church choir who provide the music, give a party atmosphere to what is really a hard day’s work on the beach.

The boat is supported by logs, three on each side and one at the bow and stern and must be gently put on one side to be rolled along the logs on the ground. So challenge number one is to do it gently, without the use of cranes or other motorized contraptions and without killing anyone. Don’t forget the boat is a keel boat and weighs about 14 tons.

Here’s what they did. They first nailed a couple of one inch by eight inch planks along the length of the boat at the turn of the bilge. (Imagine how a sailboat out of the water viewed from the bow or stern has a wineglass shape. The ‘turn of the bilge’ is that point where the line of the hull goes from predominantly horizontal to vertical.) These are sacrificial planks there to protect the boat’s planks as it rolls along the logs.

Next, the logs propping up the bow and stern are removed. The boat is pushed by several men over to port where a weight is carried by the three vertical logs. The logs on the starboard side fall away.

Now, here comes the really neat and dangerous part. Three men with very sharp axes in a very coordinated way begin to vigorously hack away at the bottoms of those logs supporting the boat. As the chips fly, the boat is slowly eased down until she ‘sort of’ gently comes to rest on her side on the ground. Any mistakes and she comes to rest not so gently on one of the workers. Ouch!




A bridle is placed around the boat and led to two sets of blocks or pulleys which are connected to a two inch line of about 600 feet in length which is anchored out on the reef. The sweaty part begins when the men take to the line and pull for all they’re worth between rum and beer breaks.

Some who didn’t man the line were responsible for repositioning the rear logs to the front of the advancing boat.

 

As you might expect, gliches occurred. The anchor dragged and had to be reset. The slightly unlevel ground resulted in the boat sometimes veering off course in an alarming fashion but after a couple of hours Zemi was reluctantly coerced into the water. To say she happily and gracefully took to the water wouldn’t be an exaggeration, it would be an outright lie.

A squall struck just as her keel was under water. Dark towers of cumulo nimbus clouds brought wind and rain and blotted out the sun as 40 men took to the water to push her that last 50 feet before she was finally floating free.

It was like she knew life on land might not be that adventurous, romantic or exciting but it was safe. As for the watery world into which she was inexorably pushed, she wasn’t so sure and her doubts were clearly manifest but hey Zemi, How many of us enter this world without some kicking and screaming?

But to the water she did go and a pretty sight she was. She rode high on the water since she was still without an engine and mast. These details will be added at the boatyard in Tyrell Bay on the other side of Carriacou. So the day’s work in Windward was finished which meant it was time for the Jack Iron rum to flow.

Jack Iron rum is another commodity that keeps Carriacou on the map. It is overproof rum, usually in excess of 70% alcohol, so a little goes a long way. Coolers of Jack Iron punch were opened and freely offered as the local church choir sang in one part of the now boat-less boatyard and a banjo player picked in an area scarcely 100 feet away. What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Following our day at Windward we couldn’t help noticing all the lovely wooden boats we saw throughout our meanderings in the Grenadines and were even more impressed to learn that so many of these creations were from Carriacou. Let’s hope it doesn’t stop.