A Breeze and A Sail

bbc-sloops-bluehills_187102TCI Maritime Heritage Federation is dedicated to keeping the country’s sailing heritage vibrant.

By H.E. Ross

From workboat regatta challenges to soft sailing on beautiful Chalk Sound, the Turks & Caicos Maritime Heritage Federation offers visitors a way to relax and assist local children in taking a ride on their traditional Caicos Sloops.

From its inception, the Turks & Caicos Maritime Heritage Federation has had the dream of placing the hands of the older generations into the hands of the young by way of passing on the skills and traditions of this country’s sailing culture. The federation was started by sailors and boatbuilders in order that the traditional sailing skills and vessels that sustained this economy for over 300 years be preserved as a source of pride in the history of this fast developing island nation.

The popularity of the concept was supported by the business community, the local population and the government, and the organisation has maintained itself while developing cultural and educational programmes. The Maritime Heritage Federation registered as an official non-governmental organization (NGO) on January 31, 2005 and immediately started developing a primary schools programme that saw maritime history and heritage brought not only into the classroom, but brought to life for 300 sixth graders onboard traditional Caicos Sloops in the next year and a half.

It developed cultural sailing programmes that took young people and interested adults on sailing expeditions to learn the ways in which people created commerce in the “ol’ days past.” (These “good old days” ended in the mid-1980s when tourism took hold and real estate development began to boom.) A few of the sailors on Middle Caicos, North Caicos and Providenciales continued to build the hulls and change the rigging for more efficiency for the race course in place of the conching, fishing or trading needs of the past.

When the federation officially started, there were five sloops left fit for the sea. Today, there are fourteen, with four more being built. As some say here, “There are sloops being built everywhere.” Interestingly enough, the sailing workboat craze is blossoming throughout the world, not excluding the Caribbean, and the Turks & Caicos, who are on the leading edge of luxury development, are embracing this phenomenon in a way not common in this wide and separated basin of the Caribbean Sea.

Generally, cooperation between island groups is hard in coming, but the Turks & Caicos is challenging its cousin island nation of the Bahamas to a sailing workboat regatta. And, the Islands are inviting the sailing tourist to get on a sloop and race in this first-of-its-kind event.

When this concept was first approached, the leaders of our Bahamian counterpart became excited about the idea of a challenge race. The more than 50 years running out island and family island regattas were already famous and the fleets were professional in their strict preservationist rulings for their extremely tall-masted vessels. And a lot of those aboard the Bahamian Sloops were related to Turks & Caicos Islanders. But, a Turks and Caicos—Bahamas Regatta, which many talked about for years, just never happened. Logistics, money and detailed planning were the obvious barriers.

educ-programme-oseta_186fd7The Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas have a long related history with the Bahamas actually governing the smaller archipelago from 1799–1848 and again as an independent Crown Colony, the Turks & Caicos were under the supervision of the governor of the Bahamas from 1965–1973. There has also been a long history of people working back and forth in both countries, with a result of family relations through blood lines being strong and continuous.

One trait that seems to have passed on through both nations is the love of sailing. Most other Caribbean island nations have had to regain the knowledge of their boatbuilding and sailing skills, but neither the Bahamas nor the Turks & Caicos have ever lost their parents’ love of the sea and the glide of sails over that environment.

The islands of both the Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos comprise an area more than half the length and contain more islands and cays then the islands of the Caribbean Antilles from Cuba to Trinidad & Tobago. As with all the Caribbean islands, sailing vessels made commerce a reality. But a special place in history goes to the Turks & Caicos in the evolution of the fore and aft rig developed by the first settlers, the Bermudians, to get to their reason for settlement: the white gold of salt. Salt made the Bermuda Islands rich and it was trading salt from the Turks Islands by Bermuda Sloops that started and maintained that prosperity for over 100 years.

The designs of local sailing vessels to this day are directly related to the small craft created by those early Bermudians for both inter-island trade within the Turks & Caicos and intra-island trade with other places as far away as Jamaica and Cuba. The Bermudians settled in the Turks & Caicos in 1678 and much of their architecture remains, especially significant on the Turks Islands of Salt Cay, Grand Turk and South Caicos where the salt pans were established and the Bermudians mainly lived.

South Caicos is the site of the first official sailing workboat regatta in the Turks & Caicos in 1967, commemorating Their Majesties Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles’ first visit to the archipelago. The regatta, started the year after the visit, was inspired by a sail-by of a reported 30 large intra-island trading sloops. Each year since, the regatta has been held on the last weekend in May, with its 40th running to be celebrated this year. The sailing participation faltered with the introduction of beauty contests and motorboat racing, but is being revived by the South Caicos Regatta Committee and the federation, which brought five sloops to race the three races of the regatta last year.

In fact, since the federation was formed Caicos Sloop racing increased from one or two to seven races held in one year. The hopes for 2007 are for fourteen races in seven events.

chalk-sound-suspenis_1870e7For the federation, workboat sailing races are methods used to draw attention to the more important business of putting youth aboard the sloops and promoting their interest in studying the history of the development of the vessels and the reasons for their design variations. Most of the present history of the Turks & Caicos is given from the viewpoint of land-based interest. Hopefully, the youth who are involved with a constant promotion of maritime preservation will change that, encouraging the study of many other facets of the history and diasporic influences of this maritime culture.

The sailing programmes are a result of this aspect of the general mandate of the Maritime Heritage Federation. To actually learn how the vessels were used by the fishermen and traders is to live the history of the place. A further result of this slant in teaching history is the invitation for visitors to sail aboard the sloops and experience the traditional techniques in fishing conch, lobster and scale fish with traditional tools such as grains and waterglass while sculling for positioning.

Basic sailing aboard Middle Caicos Conch Sloops is being offered on peaceful and beautiful Chalk Sound, while in-reef techniques will soon be taught from Sailing Paradise in Blue Hills. Sailing Paradise is a beachfront establishment with restaurant and shops built and dedicated to the owners’ grandparents, David and Cecilia Smith. Cecilia was a sloop builder and David one of the best trading captains in Providenciales (or Blue Hills, as the locals called the island). One of the great assets of this type of attraction are the stories told by the sailors and boat builders who might not open up about the past without the incentives of a breeze and a sail.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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