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The Heritage, Art and Business of Boat Building in The Abacos
In the Bahamas, Abaco has long been hailed for its unique boat-building reputation. One can imagine that the same driving spirit which led to their courageous search for religious and political freedom, also led to the realization that in order to continue to survive, they would have to turn this drive to the vast resources of the sea. Therefore, you can be sure when the first motivated bands of Loyalist settled on our shores, the mother of invention was on board. Surveying the majestic stands of prime Abaco Pine, the necessity for small sailing crafts to maneuver around the Abacos, would have stirred up the best of their ingenuity. The experience gained from years of natural disasters such as hurricanes, and the relentless demands of making a living from the sea, would have taught these hardy pioneers of boat-building every lesson of trial and error crucial to perfecting the craft which has earned them such world renown.
With this inspiring history in mind it was a real privilege to be able to speak to some of the men who have been keeping this time honoured tradition alive. As is we know the most popular boat-building communities are at Man O'War Cay and Hope Town on Elbow Cay. In Man O'War Cay the Albury families have been building boats for as long as they can remember. I first caught up with Mr. Willard Albury who operates the factory know as Albury Brothers Boat Builders with his son Don and nephew Glen. Mr. Albury graciously took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me. The family business began in 1952. The original boats were constructed of wood, which was cut down and carved to seaworthiness from our own local Abaco forests. Mr. Albury gave me a brief description of the basic method of boat-building, which involves forming a natural crook-rib by hand form the ribs or skeleton of the boat. These ribs are planed to conform perfectly to the shape of a lead-bar template. After the ribs are fastened together, pine wood planks are secured to form the hull of the boat.
However, in the early 1960's, due to the difficulties of procuring enough of the right kinds of woods because of competition from foreign concerns which had entered the Abacos to either purchase whole tracts of pine forest or to operate business which shipped pine logs abroad, Abaconian boat-builders had to resort to purchasing other types of durable woods like juniper, mahogany and white cedar from the United States to keep the business flourishing. The innovative use of fiberglass to build boats also came into being. These fiberglass molds are very expensive but necessitate far less manual labour. The frame of a wooden boat is coated with fiberglass material. This then is used as a permanent mold into which is poured fiberglass to make the outer shell of numerous boats. Today, there are three molds of different sizes: 18.5', 20' and 23' to cater to the more popular demands. This style of fiberglass boat is called the Outboard Runabout (or the Outboard Fishing Boat). Each new boat takes four to five men about a month to complete. The most popular model is the 20' Runabout which sells for about B$30,000 complete with engine or $16,500 without.
Another boat-builder who hails from Man O'War Cay is Joe Albury. He and his late father built boats side-by-side for forty years. Joe build two types of seafaring boats and has also established a business (Joe's Studio) building model boats which are exported to every continent except Asia. Joe designs and build one or two 14' wooden Man O'War sailing dinghies annually and 21' Man O'War speed boat, of which he sells one a year. The model boats are definite works of art, and are in high demand by collectors, particularly as they (are works of the collective experience of) approximately seven generations. He and his late father built boats side-by-side for forty years. Joe build two types of seafaring boats and has also established a business (Joe's Studio) building model boats which are exported to every continent expect Asia. Joe designs and build one or two 14' wooden Man O'War sailing dinghies annually and 21' Man O'War speed boat, of which he sells one a year. The model boats are definite works of art, and are in high demand by collectors, particularly as they evince an art which is gradually dying out.
The other home of Bahamian boat-building is Hope Town on Elbow Cay the Abaconian landfall of the Loyalists and home to the 1997 All Abaco Regatta's Abaco Rage. I had a chance to talk to veteran boat builder from Hope Town who as a self-taught craftsmen has been building boats for more than 40 years. He has always built wooden boats, relying solely on a large and detailed assortment of specialized hand tools. His specialty is building the 12ft. traditional Abaco Sailing Dingy. Although he builds about three of them a year, he usually sell them to visiting tourists or ships them abroad where there is still a strong interest in traditional sailing crafts.
Looking further afield, I was able to find there are indeed other boat-builders working outside the traditional boat building capitals. At the very Southern tip of Abaco, in Sandy Point I was happy to discover Mr. Benjamin Pinder. A tall slender gentlemen with a friendly smile Mr. Pinder works at boat building as a part time job. He learned the trade from his grandfather (Benjamin Sr.) and his granduncle, Mr. Theophilus Thompson. Mr. Pinder's boat-building specialties are the Abaco dinghy and sailing skiff, which are about 14-15' in length. He constructs the frames of his boats with wood, dogwood, juniper, cedar, Madeira and horseflesh from the local forests. He says his boats are used for a wide variety of sports and recreational activities and sell for between $3,500 and $4,000. Mr. Pinder began building boats in 1973 and is happy to know that his first boat is still in use. To his credit , this prolific builder has built 96 boats to date.
With today's high-tech, automated boat-building factories stretching their monopolies worldwide, and with the consumer demand bent on faster, sleeker boats built more fun than utility, one has to wonder how our traditional boat-builders will fare. It is to be hoped that we will have more than showcase models to remind us of bygone days.