Kem Jackson, Cayman's Catboat Keeper
At a time when young boys often stole away in 'borrowed' cats to explore Big Blue, Kem's grandfather, 'Uncle Bob,' taught him everything he knows about building and repairing catboats.
Words by Katrina Wilmot
While winding along a rural road in West Bay, Grand Cayman, I spy three upturned catboats resting on workhorses under an open-air shed. I have arrived at the home of Kem Jackson, who today, like most days, is to be found in his garden workshop lovingly tending his ‘cats’.
An avid seaman, mechanical engineer, treasure hunter, diver and veteran boat builder, Kem’s love affair with the sea, and catboats in particular, began when he was a small child. Always eager to share a tale about long ago Cayman when catboats were the heartbeat of the islands, he relates that, “Going fishing in a cat when I was a little boy was the biggest thrill in the world.”
Integral to the development of the Cayman Islands, these unique boats enabled people to “…move, eat, and, ultimately, live on what was a small rock in a vast sea.” They were also a welcome alternative to awkward donkey rides, which were a common form of transport due to the poor condition of the roads.
At a time when young boys often stole away in ‘borrowed’ cats to explore Big Blue, Kem’s grandfather, ‘Uncle Bob,’ taught him everything he knows about building and repairing catboats. Recounting an occasion when he ran Uncle Bob’s boat aground whilst out fishing with friends, he reveals that “Uncle Bob would stand over you till you fixed your mistake and that’s how we learnt. We didn’t have super heroes back then; I had Uncle Bob. We learnt how to survive from our elders.”
In a similar spirit, Kem, in his role as Vice President of the Catboat Club and various outreach efforts, works to establish a connection between younger generations and Cayman’s unique maritime history, hoping the experience of sailing and restoring catboats will infuse them with the magic that he once experienced while tending to his cat.
Crafted from the curved branches of pop-nut or mahogany trees, which could only be felled on a full moon, building a catboat required patience and knowledge; knowledge that could only be acquired through hard work and collaboration with elders. With their final shape ultimately determined by their purpose, Cayman’s catboats were typically one-sail wooden boats that ranged in length from 14-28 feet with the wide beam approximately half the length of the boat, a centerboard, and a single gaff-rigged sail which was often sewn from repurposed flour sacks.
Whilst boats made for turtling had a spyhole box enabling fishermen to spot their prey and were designed to tip more easily so that the turtles could be effortlessly pulled on board, boats used to transport people and goods had flatter hulls rendering them more stable. Hulls were also painted to reduce the glare and disguise them from below. The main and lower part was painted blue to camouflage with the sea while the top two layers, painted white and black, were meant to replicate the sky and the stars. To facilitate agility and cutting quickly through the water both ends were tapered.
It is rumoured they take their name from the silent movements of a cat hunting its prey. Kem, like many others, however, believes the name originated with fisherman Daniel Jarvis of Cayman Brac, who is credited with creating the distinctive craft and is said to have discovered a litter of kittens sleeping in his hull of his catboat, The Terror.
With only six catboats remaining today, Kem works tirelessly to pass along the knowledge he has acquired over the years to ensure Caymanians continue to take pride in their unique aquatic heritage, whilst experiencing the magic of Cayman’s catboats.
Visit the Catboat Club at Whitehall Bay, Harbour Drive. For more information on hours, please call: 345.947.1812 or 345.949.3476.
To arrange sailing in a catboat, please contact Kem Jackson at: 345.925.7212.
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