Carving Catboats on Grand Cayman

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

He grew up on the island when there were no roads – only tracks. And on the water, a catboat was de rigueur for moving the mangoes he picked, or catching the island’s 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. But 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 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 has become 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 in recent years – 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? 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’s that gift from the Queen of England. “She gave me the M.B.E. – The Member of the British Empire,” he says. “Because of my work with catboats.”

That could only happen on Grand Cayman.

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