People of the Islands

Telling “A Caicos Sloop Story.”

Story and Photos By Michael P. Pateman, Ph.D. and Vanessa A. Forbes-Pateman

In the Summer 2019 Astrolabe, we introduced “People of the Islands.” This project seeks to tell the story of “Islanders” through a first-person narrative. The various interview topics include boat building, food/cooking, bush medicine, island migration, cultural traditions, music, dance, story-telling and much more. After many delays, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a new job, we are excited to launch the first video documentary for People of the Islands, A Caicos Sloop Story.

This is one of James Dean’s boats in Blue Hills, Providenciales. James notes that his grandfather, father, uncles and brothers were all boat builders, a skill that has been passed down to his sons and nephews.

This article is our narrative of the experience and reactions from filming the interviews on traditional boat building in the Turks & Caicos Islands. We will switch the first-person narrative between Michael and Vanessa, as our personal experience is vital to telling the story.

When Michael first arrived in the Turks & Caicos as director of the national museum, he was amazed with how similar but different the cultural traditions of the Turks & Caicos Islands are compared to The Bahamas.  One of his main goals as director was to explore and experience these cultural traditions so that the museum can do a better job of presenting them to residents and visitors to the Islands. One of these traditions is the building of native Caicos sloops.

This journey started on February 16, 2019 at the annual Valentine’s Cup, hosted by the Middle Caicos Co-op on Bambarra Beach, Middle Caicos. The Valentine’s Cup is a regatta using model Caicos sloops enjoyed by locals and visitors of all ages.

While waiting for the event to begin, I walked around to interview attendees. Fortunately, the first people I met are both members of different TCI boat building families, Wing Dean and Brodie Forbes. They both spoke with fondness of childhood memories of building model boats out of gum elemi trees with their friends. Historically, children would gather logs from the gum elemi tree and carve smaller versions of Caicos sloops, complete with sails and rigging, and race them in sheltered waters.

That evening I called Vanessa excited about the information I had gathered that day. I expressed shock that we didn’t have something similar in The Bahamas.   However, Vanessa was surprised as she thought it was a common childhood practice. While both of us are from The Bahamas, we had different childhood experiences.  Similar to most Bahamian families, we can trace our familiar history to various family islands, Michael (Cat Island and Berry Islands) and Vanessa (Andros and Exuma).   However, multiple generations of Michael’s family were born on New Providence whereas Vanessa’s parents were both born on Andros.This is similar in that many children who grow up in Providenciales do not have the same cultural experiences as those from the other islands. 

Vanessa recounts stories similar to Wing and Brodie’s. She recalls, “The most exciting part of getting my own model boat was choosing the tree it would be sculpted from. I excitedly watched and helped my uncle, knowing upon completion the best part of the summer is the model boat regatta and I always wanted to win—which child doesn’t? Model boat regatta day was the highlight, nobody slept the night before and you kept your eye on your boat in case one of the cousins tried to sabotage you. We barely ate breakfast since we were so excited to get down to the bay to race our boats. There’s nothing quite like seeing the wind catch your sails and your boat take off; you couldn’t hear much from all the excitement, sound, colour, smell of the food and the sea. The buildup to the regatta made summering on the family islands the best part of getting sent there from the capital of Nassau.”

This historic photo shows the last sloop built by Hedley Forbes. Note the sharp point of the bow.

Before continuing we decided a to get a historical perspective on the Caicos sloops by interviewing David Douglas from the Turks & Caicos Sailing Association.  David is involved in the Caicos Sloop Heritage Project, whose mission is revitalizing the building of Caicos sloops through “One Design,” a method that allows the boats to be built and raced on a regular basis. He described how historically, the local sloops were the lifeblood of the Islands. Small boats were used to fish, and catch conch and other seafood, while larger vessels were used to trade those products mostly with Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They were also used to carry cargo around the Islands (similar to trucks today), as ambulances to move the sick, and as “water taxis” to move passengers from island to island.

David provided us with background on the differences between the Caicos and Bahamian sloops. The Caicos sloops were more weatherly, designed to travel further distances than their counterparts in The Bahamas. Also, the Caicos sloops were created as work vessels, especially on Grand Turk and Salt Cay, to move salt from the islands to the larger vessels anchored offshore.

Next, we went back to Middle Caicos to interview Hedley Forbes, the last of the senior boat builders living on Middle Caicos. Hedley is Brodie’s father. We met Hedley at his home in Bambarra. (Of note, Hedley was involved in the Caribbean Research Foundation’s project to document traditional boat building in 1984 on Grand Turk. More details of this project can be found on the Turks & Caicos National Museum’s website.)

Although considered one of the foremost boat buildings in the Turks & Caicos, Hedley does not identify as a boat builder, but as a carpenter. Both skills he learnt from his grandfather.

Hedley described how the skills he developed building boats informed his carpentry skills and vice versa. For example, he learnt that a sharp-hulled boat moves through the wind and waves of the ocean easier than one with a wider hull. He took this design element and incorporated it in the construction of his roof, which he states has received very little damage through the various hurricanes that have impacted the country.  

Our next stop was Blue Hills, Providenciales to meet with the Deans, a prominent boat building family of Bermudian descent. First, we interviewed James Dean Sr., the patriarch of the family. James notes that his grandfather, father, uncles and brothers were all boat builders, a skill that has been passed down to his sons and nephews. He fondly recalled memories of looking out to the bay in Blue Hills and seeing the masts of numerous anchored Caicos sloops. James also spoke about the regattas, especially his competitions with Carl Ewing, Hilly Ewing, Hedley Forbes and “Hearts” Capron. An interesting design note—the Dean vessels have a wider hull when compared with the designs of Hedley Forbes. Both builders claim their technique is the best for speed and control in the water. Over his career James built over 50 Caicos sloops of various sizes, the last in 2009, which he named Wildfire. 

After the interview, we were shown some of the Dean fleet that were destroyed in 2017 by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Wing Dean told us that he was building a new sloop at his home and invited us to view his work. We were excited by this opportunity because although many sloops were lost during the 2017 hurricanes, we could not find anyone building a new Caicos sloop. 

Pastor “Gold” Williams sails his model sloop.

A few months later, Michael visited Wing, to interview him and observe him building his new sloop. The interview focused on the differences between the traditional (historic) and contemporary methods for building sloops. Traditionally, boat builders would go into the forests and harvest the locust tree to build the frames and Caicos pine for the planking, masts and spars, with the entire vessel being constructed with hand tools. Today, lumber is purchased from hardware stores with metal masts, and construction is almost exclusively with power tools. Although the tools and techniques have evolved, modern builders follow the traditional design techniques.

The final documentary will be submitted to the Turks & Caicos Film Festival 2021. Follow and our social media channels to be kept up to date on the release of the trailer for a Caicos Sloop Story, full interviews, and the release of the full documentary.

The 2017 hurricane season was devastating for traditional Caicos sloops. Many were lost and the traditional regatta grounds in South Caicos were destroyed. With projects like this documentary, the One Design program and the programs launched by the TCI Department of Culture, we hope that this art can be revitalized.

Thanks to Martin and Donna Seim, Director’s Welcome Grant for Projects (purchased Camera gear) and Brian Riggs, donation from Quiz Night to the museum.

Not every interview made it into this article. Others interviewed include: Cardinal Arthur, Middle Caicos; Kendal Butler, Bahamas; George Dean, Providenciales; “Pringle” Dean, Providenciales; Elbert Higgs, North Caicos; JJ Parker, Providenciales; Timothy “T-boy” Robinson, Middle Caicos; Wilton Selver, Salt Cay; Curtis Simmons, Grand Turk; Eustace and Alfred Williams, North Caicos; and Pastor Goldstein Williams, Providenciales.

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