Carving Catboats on Grand Cayman Island

Seventy-nine-year-old Capt. Kem Jackson is a Grand Cayman Island treasure.

He grew up on the island when there were no roads, and only tracks. On the water, a catboat was de rigueur – for moving the mangoes he picked, or catching sea turtles.

“We’d ride donkeys – and take out a catboat,” he says.

He learned to build them too, out of a tree called a pop nut. “We’d cut that on a full moon,” he says. “The moon must pull the sap up.”

There’s no formal plan for a catboat. It’s 18 feet long, and hollowed out of a green piece of pop nut, though very few are being made these days. “These young people come to my yard and say: ‘You gonna cut that?’ he says. “They can’t believe what I’m doing.”

What he’s doing is carrying on a Grand Cayman Island tradition, shaping and tapering a boat that’s tailored to a turtle’s back. “The whole thing about a catboat is that it’s very unstable,” he says. “That’s because a 300-pound or 400-pound turtle is hard to get in.”

The main means of turtle fishing and transportation on Grand Cayman since the 1800s, the catboat is becoming a rarity today. In the 1950s, their sterns were cut off to accommodate motors. “It was the beginning of the end,” he says. “But I started putting the sterns back on about 20 years ago.”

He’s saved four catboats since then – one of which, the Miss Ola (named for his wife) is now suspended from the library ceiling at Kimpton’s Seafire Resort on Grand Cayman. Why name it after a woman, he asks? Because, he quips, it takes a lot to keep them.

Not to mention restoring them. “It took me 400 hours,” he says. “The blue color – that’s the color of a catboat. The turtles can’t see them, because on the water it looks like the sky.”

He’s earned the attention of royalty with his catboats, taking the king of Sweden out for a sail. “I said: ‘You’re going to get wet,” he says. “He said: ‘So?'”

Then there was that gift from the Queen of England. “She gave me the M.B.E.,” he says. “The Member of the British Empire. Because of my work with catboats.”

That could only happen on Grand Cayman Island.

[slideshow id=1748]