It is many, many years that I am to write a column like the following, which is about sailboats and how it used to be here when I was a child. But I have always, always put the subject aside and dealt with other material. One of the reasons I have always put the subject of sailing and boat racing aside is I have considered the subject an intricate, technical, difficult one to explore adequately for those who are landlubbers, as they say.
I finally decided to take the bull by the horns and attack the subject after I read of how important speed was in the sailing craft which the British were using to intercept slave ships from other nations after the British themselves had abolished the slave trade in 1807, while other European nations persisted. (At the end of this column, I will reproduce the passage in question from the David Olusaga book which I have been quoting from recently.)
When I was a child growing up in Belize in the 1950s, sailboats were still the dominant feature where fishing, travel, and transportation were concerned along the coastline of the colony. There were boats with inboard motors which had been around for some time, such as the Heron H, the Maya Prince, the Africola, and others, in addition to the tugboats which the mahogany contractors, most prominently BEC, used to tow mahogany logs chained together down the Belize Old River and the Haulover Creek to the Belize City harbor for loading in steamships.
Also, the secretive world of bootlegging, which involved moving rum and whisky (legal in British Honduras) to the American Gulf ports in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and so on (Prohibition made rum and whisky illegal in the United States between 1919 and 1933) had relied on motor boats. Bootlegging in the colony was the precursor of the marijuana and, later, cocaine trade – criminal, and profitable.
But outboard motors and skiffs did not begin to take over fishing and transportation in Belize until the early 1960s, I would say. And the movement of cargo and construction material along the coast from Belize City down to Gales Pont Manatee and Mullins River was dominated by sailing lighters. (I am fascinated by the story of Mullins River, a village which has declined to anonymity after being so very lively and famous in the first part of the twentieth century. Mullins River is midway between Gales Point Manatee and Dangriga.)
The Baron Bliss Harbor Regatta was a very big deal in my family when I was growing up. My father loved sailboats with a passion, and my mother’s brother, Buck Belisle, was the greatest racing captain of his day. (I am biased, needless to say.) I can remember my mother, a seamstress, staying up late sewing or altering sails in the nights before the Ninth of March races in the harbor.
When it came to sailing boats in the 1950s, there were working boats and there were racing boats. Professional fishermen such as my granduncle, Louis “Sleepy” Belisle, used what were called sailing “smacks,” which had “wells” in the middle of the boat where fish could be kept alive during the trip to the Belize City Market. Remember now, refrigeration was primitive back then (only block ice), so the wells were vital for the delivery of fresh fish. The wells involved square, box-like containers encasing holes bored in the bottom of the boat.
The wells were part of the smacks’ hulls. The sea was literally, then, inside of the smack. As children, we couldn’t figure out how this rude technology worked: how come the smack did not sink?
When it came to the racing boats, there were men in the civil service and merchant class who built sailing boats to race against each other. These men included people like “Artie” Barrow, the pharmacist father of Belize’s present Prime Minister; “Karlie” Menzies, the founder of the Karl H. Menzies business firm; Willie Longsworth; and Telford Vernon, Comissioner of Income Tax before he became Comptroller of Customs. Mr. Denys Bradley was also a big yachtsman. These racing craft were mostly called “sloops,” but Seagulls also became popular. When I was a child, the sailing doreys’ section of the Baron Bliss Regatta was insignificant, if it even existed, but in the 1970s and 1980s, that section became the most exciting part of Baron Bliss Day.
Back to the class of sailing sloops. When it came to this category, 28 feet and up, Baron Bliss Day used to be the showcase for three absolutely beautiful sloops from either Caye Caulker or San Pedro Ambergris Caye, I’m not sure. They may even have come from Sarteneja. I remember their names – Aventurera, Estrella, and Cruzita. I assume they must have been used for fishing purposes in the remainder of the year.
You must understand this, that there was a mystique surrounding the competitive sailing of boats, the determination of which were the fastest, which designs and “rigs” were the best, and which captains had the best judgment, skill, brains, and guts. The mystique lay in the fact that sailing speed on the sea for centuries and centuries had decided life or death where the lucrative business of piracy was concerned. The pirate ship had to be the fastest, and the pirate captain had to be the best, because pirates chased down prize ships to make a living, and pirates, in turn, ran away from the law (the gallows, to be specific) as represented of the ships of the various national navies. It is not so easy to communicate to those of you who are outsiders, the intensity of the local boat racing rivalries involving owners, captains, sailors, and their fans. During the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the most high-profile sloop and dorey rivalry was between attorney/politician Dean Lindo and attorney George Brown, who later became a Supreme Court judge. And, how could I forget the great Eckert Lewis?
I can see where this column will get out of hand where length is concerned, so I will offer you a couple stories/jokes before I close with the paragraph from David Olusoga’s book.
My late paternal grandfather, Jim Hyde, told this story at Spanish Caye one time. (Storytelling was very big when we were children, because there was no electronic media except for a boring government radio station.) I guess the guy in this story, the host, must have been the lighthouse keeper at one of the remote cayes in the colony. He and his family saw a sailboat coming in the distance, on a Christmas Day, would you believe. In between your spotting a tiny sail and the actual arrival of the boat was an extended period of time in sailing boat days. Eventually, two fishermen disembarked from the boat when it eased up to the “bridge”.
The host, the man of the island, was expansive and gregarious, especially so because he had Christmas dinner on the table. He invited the two fishermen into his house and around the dining table, where, it is for sure, there must have been some “bottle pan table, draw di cork” business. My grandfather had become a teetotaler in his older years, so I do not remember his specifying the bottle and cork business in his tale, but we would have read between the lines. (The sea and the demon rum have historically been inseparable companions.)
In any case, the food was dished out, and Mr. Expansive and Gregarious made it his business to urge on his two guests. “Eat, man, eat, no mind unu no gat education.” Now, the host did not have any education himself; he was only funning and joking. One of his uneducated guests, however, took things to heart and stopped eating. There was a certain sadness in this joke, but it was a joke nevertheless.
The other joke is on me. My Uncle Buck, the younger of two brothers, loved me a lot, but he could sometimes be a roughneck kind of guy. When he was already in his eighties, just a couple years before his death, he had his youngest son drive him to my home for my birthday. He brought a bottle of wine with him, and it was so great to see him.
My son-in-law, Mark Espat, who is not a seaman, was at my home with me. I’m not even sure if he had ever met Uncle Buck before. As the conversation entered the realm of sailing and fishing, I remarked proudly that my other maternal uncle, Roy Belisle, had made me a captain at the age of fourteen by giving me a boat, the sloop Kitty, to sail.
My uncle jumped up and lashed out as follows: “Roy could never make you a captain, because he was never a captain.”
I said to him, My Uncle, you have come to my house on my birthday and shamed me in front of my son-in-law. My Uncle Buck could do me anything and it would be all right, you understand, and my son-in-law is not someone who would throw this in my face. I do bring it up with him once in a while, and we have a good laugh.
I checked with my father as soon as I could, of course, and he confirmed that Uncle Buck was not telling the truth: Uncle Roy was definitely a captain, and a good one. But in my Uncle Buck’s critical eyes, his older brother was an inferior captain, and he took it out on me. Rest in peace, my beloved Uncle Buck.
Hereafter follows the Olusoga paragraph I told you about (pages 196, 197, BLACK AND BRITISH: A FORGOTTEN HISTORY, David Olusoga, Macmillan, 2016):
Although largely forgotten today, Britain’s mission to suppress the slave trade was celebrated at the time. Ships that were particularly successful interceptors became momentarily famous, along with their captains. A handful, most notably the Black Joke, enjoyed longer fame. She gained her formidable reputation in early 1829 after a thirty-one hour, night-and-day pursuit of the Spanish slave ship the Almirante. The Black Joke, a sleek Baltimore-built clipper, was a former slave ship. Under the flag of Brazil and the name Henriqueta, she transported over three thousand Africans to the New World plantations, but ran out of luck one day in 1827 when she was intercepted by HMS Sybille. Caught with five hundred and sixty-nine captives on board there was no need to resort to the Equipment Clauses and the Henriqueta was claimed as a prize, sold at auction in Freetown and purchased by the navy. Poacher was turned gamekeeper and she became the fastest ship in the squadron. In her action with the Almirante, Black Joke pounded the larger, more powerfully armed ship into submission, killing fifteen members of the crew and liberating 466 Africans from the hellish conditions of her fetid slave decks. That epic pursuit and victory against the odds, combined with the subsequent capture of three further slave ships and the liberation of over a thousand more Africans, made the Black Joke a legend, the subject of excited newspaper reports and admiring paintings. The Black Joke was as famous in Freetown as in London. In 1832 it was discovered that some of her timbers were rotten and the Admiralty ordered that she be destroyed. She was burnt in Freetown on 3 May. A British writer who visited the city the following year claimed that, “So efficient were her services, that many a negro who had been liberated by her is said to have wept on beholding the conflagration.” He claimed that there were “feasts and rejoicings amongst the slave-merchants” of West Africa as they celebrated the “destruction of their scourge.”