“Boy, you hear that crispy sound?” Jamel “Fiyah” Davies said with a smile as he stepped off the brightly painted sailboat Youth Instructor. “That the sound of new sails. The sound of money.”
He, Dale Durrant, Martin Van Houten and Geoff Brooks were busy preparing the restored sloop for its inaugural voyage off the docks of Nanny Cay.
For about two and a half years, the Virgin Islands Sloop Foundation has been restoring four historic sloops that were damaged during Hurricane Irma.
Youth Instructor, one of four remaining traditionally built Tortola boats, took to the waters on July 13 with members of the foundation and those who helped restore the boat.
Rain set in that day and gusts of wind reached up to 18 miles per hour, but as soon as the sky cleared a little toward noon, the crew got busy setting up to sail.
Mr. Davies, chairman of the foundation, was busy figuring out whether or not to “reef” the sail in case of high wind gusts. Without an engine or any other modern technology aboard, the all-wooden boat would have to be steered using a tiller and the winds.
“If a big gust comes it’ll flip the boat over,” said Mr. Brooks, who nurtured a fleet of sloops for many years as curator of the VI Maritime Museum. “That happened to me once.”
Shipwright Tenissha Roberts, 21, watched from the dock while gathering courage to go out on the sail. She was one of three young women who initially began working on the restoration of the sloops and the only one remaining.
Last year, when the foundation first launched and she began her training in woodworking and boatbuilding, she was adamant about staying on land since she didn’t know how to swim.
She needed some convincing to get on Youth Instructor, but it was a moment she was eager to see.
“It’s exciting to finally go on something that I’ve been working on for two years and experience all my hard work,” she said.
She’s been painting and replacing wood even through the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s something she enjoys doing, she explained.
“I feel that there needs to be more locals [in boatbuilding], especially females,” Ms. Roberts said. “I think some females are scared to try different stuff, but there’s a lot of things to do in the VI.”
Sailing the waters of the territory has been in the history of its people for centuries.
Trading sloops designed and built in the VI, also known as Tortola sloops, were used by local entrepreneurs as early as the 18th Century to ferry passengers and cargo around the Caribbean, according to the VISP website.
The site also states that the boats became a “solid cornerstone around which grew the culture and economy of the VI” and the design of the boats became easily recognisable as they sailed between islands.
“This important piece of VI maritime history was almost lost when many of the vessels were sold or abandoned to rot after the advent of more modern sail and motor crafts,” the site reads. “The Virgin Islands Sloop Foundation’s aim is to preserve the maritime heritage of the Virgin Islands by ensuring that the history and knowledge of traditional wooden boat building is passed onto future generations.”
There are currently three boats still under restoration through the foundation: Intrepid, Sea Moon, and Esme. Each boat, including Youth Instructor, has its own history and connection to the VI.
Mr. Davies saw his uncle build Youth Instructor more than 20 years ago, not knowing he’d be restoring the same boat after Hurricane Irma sunk it. Since then, he’s been eager to get back on the water and race in the sloops, especially against Mr. Durrant, who also helped restore the boats.
“All they wanna do is race,” joked Mr. Brooks as the rest of the crew prepared the sails and added ballast.
When they finished, the boat was finally ready for her first sail.
‘The boat feel good’
The crew took it easy, keeping low against the wood and quickly adjusting to sail smoothly out of the marina.
Catching the wind right outside the marina, the boat sped up in the waters heading towards Norman Island.
Ten minutes into sailing, Mr. Davies said, “I mean, the boat feel good.”
Mr. Brooks added, “She better after all that work!”
“We cruising right now,” Mr. Davies said. “Me, I done be truckin’.”
Halfway into the sail, a gust of wind hit the boat and tipped it far over. Mr. Davies scrambled to grab the mainsail, which came loose in the moment, and quickly disengaged it.
The boat stabilised, heading back toward Nanny Cay. Within an hour, the sloop made it more than halfway to Norman Island and back.
The purpose of the trip, Mr. Davies said, was to get a feel for the boat and see how she sails. He saw minor room for improvement, but overall he said the boat is in good condition to sail and race.
Within the coming days, Intrepid will be out on the waters as well. The crew spoke about getting the premier and other government ministers to race eventually.