Saturday, September 3, 2016

Roadside Boatbuilding

I've ridden the bus to Portsmouth (and beyond) many times the past year. One of the sights along the way that I always enjoyed was a man who builds boats under a big tree along the road as it nears Portsmouth. During my first year here, I was able to see the progression as he built several boats from scratch, each of which takes about three to four months. Although limited to just a few brief seconds of viewing maybe once or twice a month as the crowded van rolls by, I am always eager to see how far the current project has advanced since my last trip.

There were a couple of days over the past year when I was in Portsmouth and had the extra time to walk back the road to meet him and introduce myself, but he was nowhere to be found on those previous occasions. However, on Wednesday I finally got the chance to visit with him (I had to go to the Portsmouth post office to pick up a package from home—we have a post office in our village, but packages must be picked up in either Roseau or Portsmouth, and a customs fee is charged based on the contents).

His name is Erickson Steven, and he is 74 years young. He retired from his government job seven years ago, and took up boatbuilding along the road across from his house. He had always done a lot of sailing on the sea. He often gets tourists who stop by to admire his work, and he was very willing to answer my questions.
He builds the entire boat by himself, using only handtools. Below is a picture of him shaving the wood to create one of the oars for the boat. He is working the area where the flat blade narrows down to the cylindrical shaft of the oar. What can't be seen in this picture is all the curls of woodshavings on the ground below.
This particular boat is sixteen feet long. He has built some of this size, some 14 feet, and some at just 12 feet. One of his recently built boats was outfitted with a mast for sailing. This particular boat will be sold for $15,000 Eastern Caribbean dollars when it is finished (about $5,600 US dollars). Below is a view of the bow compartment door and the floor of the boat. One of the components he has yet to build is the seats. Those "sticks" are just temporary bracing.
I thought it was fascinating that he doesn't soak his wood and then try to bend it into the exact curved shape he needs. Instead, he hunts for wood that naturally grew in the shape he needs. He says it is stronger that way. Laying around in various spots under the shade of the tree, I could see a number of oddly shaped branches that he uses for boatbuilding.
He also told me that the best wood for boatbuilding comes from trees high up in the surrounding mountains. It is important to get the wood from trees located atop the ridgelines, because they have grown up being exposed to winds from both directions—the Atlantic side and the Caribbean side. This gives them the all-around strength necessary for a good seafaring boat.
I'm very glad that I finally got the chance to meet with this skilled (but humble) master craftsman. If I had an extra $15,000, I'd be tempted to have him build a boat for me. There aren't too many of these old school, everything done by hand, high quality boatbuilders left. He lamented that the young men don't want to take the time or make the effort to learn this trade. I hope I wasn't witnessing the end of an era, because it would be a shame for this island tradition to disappear.

1 comment:

  1. I have great respect for the talents of those who work with their hands. Wood working is one of my many things I love to do. The money he sales them for does not do him justice because it takes time to turn them out. It doesn't say how long it takes from start to finish he spends on each one.