A Race Against Time —
Keeping Bonaire’s Boto Piskado Afloat
by Pamela Teitel
The boto piskado, beautiful small sailboats once used daily for fishing in Bonaire, were the boats that began the Bonaire Regatta — traditionally, the fishermen would take a week off from fishing every year to race. But as motorboats replaced sailboats in the island’s fishing fleet, this cultural icon began to fade, with only the annual regatta to sail in. Facing the high cost of repairs and upkeep for the wooden craft, most owners gave up, leaving the boats rotting away, never to sail again.
Boto piskado is simply “fishing boat” in Papiamento, the community language of Bonaire. There have been many discussions on the island about the fate of these vessels, and even attempts to bring them back, but there was no obvious way to get them back to operating condition and make that sustainable. That is, until a group of passionate, dedicated and committed volunteers and collaborators decided, “We just have to do it now, before it is too late!”
Everyone wanted to see the boto piskado race in the 50th Annual Bonaire Regatta, held in October 2017. Several companies with strong ties to the local culture and to the sea were approached to sponsor the repairs necessary to get the boats back in racing trim. Rather than distributing cash, Budget Marine Bonaire, the Obersi Group, Teal, and Ports of Passion teamed up with boatowners to collect and restore as many boto piskado as possible, supplying materials, support and organization rather than funds. With only two months before the regatta, there was no time to create a solid plan — we had to go with the attitude of “Just do it!”
In short order we found and collected seven boats and brought them to the Regatta House at the waterfront. If you want to “Just do it” you need to involve the entire community. Don Andres, a shipping company, showed up with a forklift to move two boats that were small and close by. For boats that were larger and farther from the Regatta House, a friend with a crane was called, and Boogie Trucking brought the rest of the boats to their new home.
Luckily Budget Marine was close by, as they sponsored most of the materials needed to rebuild the boats. Budget Marine also contacted a supplier, Sea Hawk Paints, which donated a huge quantity of their products to the project.
Next a call went out for workers. Carlos Aguirre Garcia, a former resident who was visiting from Spain, came in to demonstrate some new techniques that could be used to do the restorations quickly and effectively. He and his family worked diligently during his entire vacation. When it was time to go, his nephew and a friend, Rafa and Kate, from Spain and England respectively, remained behind and continued working every day right up to the regatta. Local craftsmen who had originally built the boats with great care joined us to show off their skills as well. Jopi Soliano worked daily to totally renovate his own boat as well as work on and supervise the repairs on all of the others. He took great care with his boat, including the artwork on the sides.
We focused on getting four of the seven boto piskado completed by the 50th Annual Bonaire Regatta, leaving the other three for future races. In an amazing flurry of work, the boats were gutted, cleaned out, fiberglassed, and fitted with new ribs and structures to result in fully restored boats. Ants, termites, trees and cacti were evicted. On some boats, all of the wood had rotted away, leaving only an outer layer of fiberglass as a mold to basically build an entirely new boat in. Passersby were roped in to sand and paint. It was amazing to watch an 80-year-old craftsman guide a 12-year-old on how to do the work needed. Ivan Flores came by to weld one item for Jopi and was so caught up in the momentum that he restored an old, beaten-up trailer so that we could get the boats to the water when ready.
To complete a project like this, it takes a community. People dropped by with bags of fruit, ice, drinks and even a giant pot of soup from Chacho’s restaurant to keep the workers fueled. People on visiting yachts dropped off lines, shackles, sails and other items that could be re-purposed for these boats. Lara Chirino worked like a conductor, organizing volunteers and sponsors and making sure things happened on time.
When tallying up our supporters, we surpassed 20 different companies and countless individuals who made some contribution.
With only seven weeks from arrival of the first boat at Regatta House to the start of the Regatta, people were always asking, “Why did you wait to the last minute?” to do this or that. Well, it was all at the last minute! Doyle Sails in Barbados shifted their production schedule to quickly fabricate sails for us, and the sails arrived the day before the races! During registration for the regatta we were still busy painting with the paint generously donated by Krioyo Paint. Tarzan Welding was cutting and melting lead donated by Stone Crushers to make ballast. With no proper slipway at the launching site, the boats were carried by hand from our newly restored trailer into the water to prepare for their much-anticipated races.
Jopi’s brother Geovanni flew in from the United States to be captain of the Arantsa, but his flight from Curaçao to Bonaire was canceled, so another brother, Papichi, captain of a competing boat, hopped on his modern fishing boat and took the long ride to Curaçao to pick him up.
In time for the first race, we had only three of the four restored boto piskado in the water. During the race, one broke its rudder. But the crew rushed the broken rudder ashore and before the next race a new one was fabricated. In the next race, a metal tiller broke and the welders hauled their equipment onto the boat at the shore and welded it right there in the water. Each race saw some new excitement, and it took till the last race for all four boats to both start and finish!
Fast forward to last December. Budget Marine sponsored a large fundraiser for the project, featuring a sailing regatta, triathlon, 5K run and Santa Hat Walk, and a sport festival. All four of the newly restored boto piskado managed both of the two races this time! To involve the wider Bonaire community, we had space at the event for sport clubs and fitness groups to set up booths to sell things, have activities and give demonstrations to show off what they do. Of course there was a great barbecue and bar to complete the weekend. This was the first step toward restoring the remaining boats.
This year, our goal will be to have quarterly races for the boto piskado and other types of boats, to continue the initiative. The boto piskado are not for the young and inexperienced, so we need to continue to promote all levels of sailing to guarantee that future generations of sailors will be able to handle these small but unique sailing craft. (In 2019 Bonaire will host the Sunfish World Championships, so there is a big push to stimulate the local sailors for that as well.) The development of necessary infrastructure, maintenance programs and educational programs will be paramount to the sustainability of the boto piskado. Beyond our initial goals, we would like to engage and stimulate our regional neighbors to join and embrace their traditions and race with us.
For this effort not to be wasted, we need to sit back now and build a plan of sustainability. A project with such historical magnitude has many aspects that require the financial, material and service support of passionately driven people and organizations. We look forward to your support as well!
For more information contact sponsor@historicalsailingboatBonaire.com
The goals of Bonaire’s Historical Sailing Boat Project are:
• to maintain this important aspect of Bonaire culture;
• to safeguard this extreme sport and the specialized skills required to sail the boats;
• to locate, negotiate, mobilize, restore or fabricate hull, mast, rigging, weights and sails from existing boats and prepare to build new ones;
• to promote sailing and educate the local community of all ages in areas related to boat design, restoration, construction, maintenance, navigation and racing;
• to improve the infrastructure for storing and launching the boto piskado.
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