The Launching of Free
By Maiwenn Beadle
In a sea of people, I press my face to her stem and whisper a self-conscious blessing. Sail fast little boat, sail fast and keep your people safe. She is a strong boat, well built, with clean sweet lines. Her frames are hand cut from island trees, her planking Silver Bali. She is strong but light. She does not need my blessing. We will race against her in Antigua and she will give her sisters a run for their money, you can see it in her deep forefoot, her beam, her sheer.
There is no discussion. These boats, built by hand and eye, their timbers hewn with an adze, are unbelievably fast and fleet. A Carriacou sloop, her hull shaped by tradition, is like nothing else to sail. She is built to work, to fish, to stay ahead of the Customs man. She is built with the pride of a village in every plank and every seam. In an island where there is precious little to inspire the youth, here is a tradition handed from father to son. Craft and skills taught, and, most important of all, a lesson of patience. For even in a world of iPhones and tweets, a world of constant communication and immediate gratification, you cannot hurry the build of a wooden boat. Each frame must be shaped, each plank. Each seam must be caulked and the ring of the caulking iron is steady and monotonous and will not be hurried. From model to sailing she is a lesson in the old ways.
But she is not a boat yet, not until she has tasted the water. Now she is a heavy solid box, and to make her into a boat the whole village will need to help her across the 150 feet of beach and through the shallows until she floats high on the ocean.
Three days ago she was a bare hull and in a week she will be underway to Antigua, 300 miles to the north. All the patience of her build is gone now, and there is a flurry of activity. Everyone will help. A goat head sits on the workbench and there is blood on her deck from the kill, a sacrifice that the boat demands. Later the priest will sprinkle holy water on her and bless her. The builders’ mouths are dry from the sun and the shot of Jack Iron Rum shared to send her on her way. A last lick of sunshine yellow paint is going on her hull and somewhere in the island a truck is searching out utility poles for the rollers. An anchor is found, big and old and rusty. It will take the entire load on the line used to haul her from the beach. A flurry of articulated discussion ensues. How far out? Here, No there, Don’t be stupid mon, it need to be there. Will it set? Is there enough line for the tackles? No? No problem, we will find more. Here you can clearly see the juxtaposition of two cultures. All the villagers know she will float by sunset; all the outsiders are unsure and concerned, missing the organization that peppers their lives. Where else could you find a village who will all turn out to drag a boat across a beach, not even for one of their own but for a complete stranger. For the last 150 years they have launched boats here in this way, and many have been much larger. There is nothing to be said, only work to be done.
Here is Cal Enoe, calmly in charge, the builder. Beside him Alexis Andrews, filmmaker and champion of these boats. We watched his amazing film Vanishing Sail last night in Hillsborough, the hall ringing with laughter and gentle ribbing. Hey Hopey, you a movie star now. To one side stands Thierry, the St. Barth restaurateur who will be this sloop’s owner; his face is tense now but it will relax in the biggest grin when he sees her floating. The boat is a dream conjured up between Alexis and Thierry at the West Indies Regatta, always very generously supported by Thierry with a dinner for all comers at his fabulous beach restaurant, La Plage, where she will be the hotel’s day charter boat.
The crowd is drinking beer and rum and the advice is in coming stronger and more animated. A massive braid line is slung around her middle and tied in a knot, no, lots of knots. Well if you are not sure of your knots tie lots. Chocks are hammered into her pristine paint and the front of her keel is jacked with a car jack. The rollers have arrived and skids are run down the beach. Under the chocks poles 4 inches in diameter take her load on the port side, and as she lists gently on to them the barrels that have supported her weight through the build are removed. A massive plank is nailed on the turn of her bilge where she will lay on the rollers. And then the heavens open. Not just a light shower, but a drenching tropical downpour. At least if nothing else the skids will be well lubricated for her launch.
Here is the priest and the band. She is blessed and christened and her name unfurls on the flag. Free in St Barth. Now we must set her free. Behind me I hear a voice say, either wistfully or resentfully, I am not sure which, “once we launch her we will not see her again, she will go off to Antigua and not come back” and indeed this is true, these boats have become so expensive to build that they are no longer island fishing boats and cargo boats, they have become yachts. Sadly, the islanders who build these boats can no longer afford to keep them. Gentrification has allowed the building tradition to continue where it would have died, and the future will always be different from the past but there is a tinge of sadness in this amelioration. Here is the dichotomy that, in keeping something alive, we have changed it irreconcilably, but with the price of timber doubling in the past few years the only way for the traditions to live on is for outside money to come and buy these boats. This boat is the first boat built by Alwyn Enoe’s sons, the first boat built by a new generation of boat builders; with her the skills have lived to be passed on.
And so the Cutting Down commences. Three axes come down in unison on the bases of the poles, chop, chop, chop and she slips six inches as the bases narrow and break off in the sand. Chop, chop, and down she comes one lurch at a time until she rests on her keel and the turn of the bilge. Like a great whale lying on her side. Once the paint on her keel is touched up and the last welding is done on her rudder all hands start to pull and push her. Can it really be possible to move her like this? More hands to her transom and another haul and she lurches forward on the skids. She is headed to the sea. There is no choice, she must float now, she cannot go back. With each effort she moves a little closer, until she is poised at the steep slope of the beach. The line holding her back, slowing her headlong dash to the sea snaps but she stops just in time. Over the rise she goes, and down with a crack. Again and again the crew on the line haul, then wait while the heaving anchor is reset. Her bow is pushed around by the power of many hands and once again the hands on her transom shove. The impossible is happening and she is moving inexorably toward her natural element. In the twilight she takes to the water not yet floating but close. A powerboat takes her bow line and Free is free from the land. A massive cheer erupts, tense faces relax and the bottle of rum is passed. She floats high and she is a beauty.
In a week I will see her again in Antigua, the impossible achieved, her rig stepped and a 44-hour trip covering the three hundred miles between English Harbour and Windwardside under her belt. She is a flyer all right, amazingly fast and by all accounts strong and comfortable. Thierry’s face is grinning now, and Cal cracks a shy but proud smile. The tension of the launch is gone. Here on a dock usually frequented by megayachts and rock stars sits a beautiful little Carriacou sloop, and in her the story of an island tradition.
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