Historian Uncovers Truth About Virgin Islands Sloops

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The Virgin Islands Sloop and the African Question

The Virgin Islands developed early in its history as one of the four major boat producing islands in the Lesser Antilles. The other three are Anguilla, Bequia, and Carriacou. Each of these Islands is known for a particular design of boat and in each case, we know where the influence for that design originated—at least in three out of the four. In the case of the Virgin Islands Sloop or Tortola Boat as it is called, the origins remain a mystery.

In Anguilla, they specialised in schooner construction and were influenced by the constant visits of Nova Scotia schooners to pick up salt.

In Bequia, they make whaling boats (sloops) which have a distinctive type of gaff rig on the mainsail. Carriacou is known for trading sloops and both islands are influenced by North American and European designs. In fact Carriacou was settled by Scottish sailors who mixed with the local African population and today names like McLaren are common and still building boats in the village of Windward.

In Tortola, sloop construction began in the 1700’s and came with the establishment of the sugar plantations and the arrival of enslaved Africans. These Africans brought with them already established skills as shipwrights and it is now believed [at least by this writer] our unique design of boat.

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What is different about our boats?

In 1957 Professor Edwin Doran Jr. from the College of Geosciences at Texas A. and M. University arrived in Tortola and began a research project into the characteristics and origin of our local sloops. He spent nine years studying them and the results were published in the Mariner’s Mirror a prestigious magazine in 1970.

In his research, Professor Doran established the fact that the design of sloop built here was unique in the world. There are five basic things that are distinctive about our boats. First is the absence of a bow sprit. Second is the shape of our mainsail. It is called “Leg of Mutton” which means that the distance of the height and the length are the same. This makes for a very long boom, which extends way past the stern of the boat. Third, the boat has a very long bow and although the mast is stepped a third of the way along the keel, it gives the impression that it is in the centre of the boat. Fourth the stern goes straight down to the keel with no counter as is found in most sloop designs. Finally and probably the most distinctive feature is called ‘Moon Shear’. The hull when viewed from bow to stern has a fatness in the middle which resembles the shape of a full moon.

These five characteristics combine to form a design which is immediately recognisable from a great distance and has distinguished our boats throughout the Caribbean for over 200 years. However, Professor Doran’s research was incomplete in the fact that he was unable to find the origins of this unique design and this has led to controversial debate which continues today.

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This leads us to the next major attempt to answer this question, which began in the 1970’s in St. Croix. Douglas C. Pyle initiated work on a book which would study the design and origins of all the traditional wooden boats being built throughout the Lesser Antilles. His book Clean Sweet Wind first published in 1981 is now considered the ‘Bible’ of wooden boat construction in the region. Pyle travelled from Island to Island all the way from the Virgin Islands to Grenada. He took measurements and made architectural drawings of the various designs. He went to Texas and met Professor Doran who taught him how to measure boats and specifically implored him to find the origins of the Virgin Islands Sloop.

I’ll let Douglas Pyle himself tell you the results and I quote from pages 267-8 of Clean Sweet Wind:

“We have now accounted for all the local small craft except for the Tortola Sloop. It was my hope that leaving it until last would somehow make the riddle easier to solve. Forlorn hope, I should say…There is great irony in this setback because it was the difficulty of assessing kinship of the Tortola Boat that caused Pro. Doran to wish that someone would make a survey of all the sailing craft of the Lesser Antilles. Well, someone has now done said survey, and the origins of the Tortola Boat are still obscure…”

I have been investigating this mystery for over 10 years now and it has remained heaped in debate. I have been in contact with both Douglas Pyle and Professor Doran’s late son Mike along with local and regional experts.

The opinions have been as varied as you can imagine and each person seems to be passionately convinced that they are correct.

This has led to many heated arguments over the years and here are the major theories presented: First it was said that the design came from Bermuda and Bermudians were very proud of their contribution to our culture. Others said that the design came from Dutch vessels involved in the salt trade in Anguilla. It has also been asserted that it was designed from a Bristol Packet Boat which travelled to and from Antigua. The problem is, none of these boats match our design.

The distinguished East End shipwright, the late Haldane Davies once told me that the design was brought from Wales by his grandfather John, but when I did the calculations, it appears that the design was already established when he would have arrived here. Some people are convinced that Scottish sailors brought the design here, but there is no evidence of that.

The one thing that all of these experts and researchers have in common is that they all look to the same basic source or geographical location if you will—that is Europe and Europeans. I however, have opted for a different path to the great mystery—that is Africa.

When I first began my research at the College in 2003, I was led to believe that the skills of the shipwright were taught to the newly arrived enslaved Africans by the European plantation owners, but time and study has proven that wrong. The skills of the shipwright were brought with them from West Africa where today there still exists a strong tradition of maritime activity and boat construction.

It only makes sense that our unique design came over with them as well. If the design originated in Europe, why haven’t we found a match?

I have been studying the coastlines of West Africa for the last two years and have found remarkable similarities – I share with you a photograph taken in the Cape Verde Islands which shows boats with an almost identical hull shape to ours.

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I am currently working on a book about the Maritime History of the Virgin Islands and it is my hope to be able to prove this theory and end once and for all the great mystery behind the origins of our sloop design.

Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

Geoffrey is the curator of the Virgin Islands Maritime Museum. He pioneers and takes part in many of the initiatives related to the traditional art of sloop building.
Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

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