Roger Cox: Traditional boatbuilding skills a wonder to behold

Unlikely as it sounds, there is a place in the Caribbean where many of the locals claim Scottish descent; a place where the boat builders' remarkable skills are said to have originated with Scottish settlers, their identities now long-forgotten; a place where, whenever a new boat is launched, there is a 'traditional' launching ceremony at which an animal is sacrificed and My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean is sung.

Boat builder Alwyn Enoe in a still from Vanishing Sail
Boat builder Alwyn Enoe in a still from Vanishing Sail

That place is the tiny island of Carriacou, also known as “The Land of Reefs”, and it is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Vanishing Sail, which is due to have its UK premiere later this month at An Lanntair in Stornoway, as part of the Hebrides International Film Festival.

The story told by director Alexis Andrews and producer Justin Sihera centres around Alwyn Enoe, one of the last wooden boat builders in the village of Windward. Approaching his seventies, and with no more orders coming in, Enoe sets out to build one last boat – a traditional sloop – in the hope that it will inspire his sons to follow in his footsteps. Over a period of three years, we see him hauling trees out of the forest, developing a design using hand-crafted scale-models and slowly but surely seeing this final project though to completion.

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Sihera and the rest of the film crew were amazed by Enoe’s deep, almost instinctive understanding of boat design. “When he was making these [scale] models,” Sihera tells me, “I saw him mark on the waterline. I asked him ‘Alwyn, how do you know the boat’s going to float there?’ He said ‘Justin, it’s just measurements, man.’”

How these skills found their way from Scotland to Carriacou isn’t exactly clear. Andrews and Sihera certainly make mention of the Scottish connection in the film, but they decided to focus on Enoe’s story; as Sihera puts it, “we felt that the narrative of Alwyn’s journey was more important than fully exploring the Scottish connection.”

Perhaps the person who has come closest to solving the so-called “Windward Mystery” is the children’s author and travel journalist Patricia Cleveland-Peck. Writing in Scotland magazine two years ago, she told the story of a visit to Carriacou where she had met Enoe and his sons and watched them building a boat, observing that “the methods used are traditional and the horizon still serves as a spirit level.”

She noted that in the 18th century many of the local cotton and sugar estates in the area were Scots-owned, and found evidence in written sources to suggest that shipwrights may have been brought out from Scotland by the plantation owners to build vessels for ferrying supplies between the various Caribbean islands. She also speculated that indentured labourers from Scotland, or indeed prisoners “transported” there for being Jacobites or Covenanters, could also have brought boatbuilding skills with them.

Perhaps the most enticing nugget thrown up by her research is that “Craigstoun and Meldrum estates in Carriacou belonged to the Urquharts of Craigston Castle near Aberdeen, and it is known that boats were still being built on the beach [as they are now in Carriacou] in this part of Scotland within living memory.”

Beyond the mystery of Carriacou’s Scottish connection, there are plenty of other reasons to love this film, not least the ravishing cinematography. Sihera describes how shooting with hand-held DSLR cameras allowed them to make the documentary “much more personal” when it came to recording interview footage, and no doubt that’s true, but it also allowed them to achieve some wonderful angles of boats at sea, shooting from the tip of the bowsprit looking back, and from the top of the mast looking down, in ways that would – to put it mildly – have been a headache with full-size kit.

The old wooden boats are wonderful, too, particularly when we see them in action at the fiercely-contested local regatta, which has been going since the 1960s. As one of the locals puts it, “It’s that important to win – not for money, not for nothing, it’s just they have a point to prove.” The real star of the show, however, is Enoe – quiet, dignified but clearly unsettled at the prospect of the great tradition of boatbuilding dying out in Windward after he’s gone. With any luck, his fears will prove unfounded, and the people of Carriacou will still be launching boats to the strains of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean for generations to come.

Vanishing Sail has its UK premiere at An Lanntair, Stornoway on 14 September, as part of the Hebrides International Film Festival, with further screenings on Uist, Barra, Harris and the village of Ness on Lewis, |link to site}