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Boating Traditions

Throughout the world, cultural traditions tell a story—the way people interact with their land, nearby bodies of water, and the social, political and economic circumstances, making history and culture important to a wider understanding of the natural environment. JVD is no exception, where cultural traditions reflect a close relationship with the sea and natural materials found on land, while the ruins of past residents leave us with physical clues about the island’s past 800 years.

Starting with the pre-Columbian Amerindians, JVD residents have always had a close relationship with the surrounding waters, looking to the sea for food and transport to other shores. Desire for trade and socialization with nearby islands promoted seafaring skills throughout the Caribbean.

Sailing, rowing, fishing and boat construction flourished on Jost Van Dyke; islanders became skilled sailors. In the 1918 book The Virgin Islands, Our New Possessions and the British Virgin Islands, DeBooy and Farris wrote, “When locally constructed sloops ruled the waters, the BVI was said to have the best boatmen in the Lesser Antilles, with JVD men reputed to be the best among those.”

Fishing, boating, sailing, boat construction and repair have all been an important part of island life. For play and recreation, many types of toy boats, made from natural materials, such as coconuts have been used.  “Bateaux” building was popular on JVD during the second half of the 20th century—galvanized roofing material and wood, patched with tar found around rocks made these makeshift canoes.  

Young bateaux builders finish their craft in Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke. All photos by Susan Zaluski.

Older residents recall that the tradition of building bateaux was born sometime in the 1940s, when galvanized roofing materials were introduced and started to replace traditional thatch roofing. No Jost Van Dykians seem to remember were the name came from, but bateaux, the French word for boats, is probably connected with “Frenchies,” the community of St Thomian fishermen of French descent.

Bateaux were mostly associated with the island’s children.  “We were too poor to buy boats like they have today. Those days were hard, but they were fun.”  The noise of pounding out the galvanized metal to build the bateaux is loud. One resident recalls, “We used to drag them back into the salt ponds and pound them out in the soft mud so it wasn’t loud [for the adults].” One resident, Dalvin “Din Din” Callwood, fondly remembers how during summer rainstorms they would turn over a bateau and hide underneath the makeshift shelters, listening to the sound of the raindrops pounding on the galvanized. Dean Callwood recalls paddling out to visiting yachts in the early days of Jost Van Dyke’s growing tourism industry (these were some of the first charter yachts to visit the BVI).  He laughs, mentioning how they would hope that tourists would give them cookies or other treats.

  A JVD Primary School student puts on the finishing touches.


They would use anything to paddle—their hands, old scrap wood that they might leave rough or shape. More than one resident remembers using the metal lids of Export Soda Cracker tins. Gerald Chinnery on that topic relates, “We were brave! That was dangerous back then!” Referring to the health of the local reefs, residents recall this item and remember how many fish there were and how the barracuda would dart at the shiny metal tin lids as they dipped into the waters of Great Harbour and the bateau paddler might risk having a finger bitten.

Plywood and galvanized roofing material are the two main materials used for making bateaux. 

How to Build a Bateau:
(The following method was used by Jost Van Dyke Primary School students in 2010.)

1.    With hammers, rocks, mallets and sledge hammers, pound out an approximately 20-foot long sheet of galvanized roofing material until it is flat.

2.    Cut the galvanized into two sections to create two boats.  

3.    Cut a “v-shaped” notch and then angle a 24” piece of 2×4 stock to form the bow post.  Bend the galvanized around the bow post and then screw and nail into place.  

4.    Cut a “u- or v-shaped” transom for the stern.  Pull up the galvanized around the shape and then nail it into place.  

5.    Seal the bow and stern with marine sealant (traditionally, tar was used).  

6.    Attach 110” x 1’’ strips of wood to each side of the bateau and nail/screw into place.  

7.    Cut a “v-shaped” piece of plywood for a small decking section to give the bateau added strength.  This piece is optional and will increase durability but was not used traditionally.
8.    Name the boat. Examples of names given to bateaux by the students of the Jost Van Dyke Primary School: The Red Hind Rocket, The Cutlass Cruiser, The Man’O-War, Holy Cow!


Foxy Recalls Traditional Boats on Jost Van Dyke
(as told to HLSCC student and JVD resident DeShawn Donovan in 2010)

"Well…my name is Philliciano Callwood better known as Foxy, and I was born on Jost Van Dyke in 1938. I was brought up meeting my father which was Christian Callwood going fishing and raising livestock such as cattle, and the boat/sloop that I remembered going out with my father in had no deck and no engines. Only a while after is when they started to build the boats with decks. Later on, I even came up to be my very own captain, the skipper, of one called the Sea Gull which belonged to Benjamin Soare. The last person I could remember owning the Sea Gull was Abe [Coakley] which is the owner of Abe’s by the Sea of Little Harbour, Jost Van Dyke. After a while it ended up sinking in Gardner Bay. There were also other sloops that I remembered sailing on named the Lolita, The Providence, and The Reliance which was all Tortola Boats built on Jost Van Dyke. I sailed on just about all of them! I could recall when I was young we used them for transportation to get to Tortola and other neighboring islands and to buy goods such as Pampers, which were diapers in those days, for our children and the one in particular which was The Providence that I used to transport bags of charcoal which I burnt to St Thomas to be sold. I sailed on a sloop at one point in time where it “ran aground” and what the men did in that situation was pushed it off as quickly as possible and another story to be told is one time when the Customs was only in Tortola and was not yet situated over at Jost Van Dyke, so there were these guys who came from out of St Thomas that were coming in to Jost Van Dyke in two sloops but apparently they did not go to Tortola to clear in, and because they didn’t clear the Customs somehow heard about them and came over and seized their boat. After the Customs seized their boat they were towing them on the way to Tortola, they were going good all the time but when they reached almost by the Thatch Islands those boats high sailed and one went this way and the other went that way and they cut themselves loose and haul ass to St Thomas!"

Foxy Callwood, perched on a pier, watched the bateaux racing. Photo by Susan Zaluski. 

"Like I said, we used to use the sloops for transportation, to get the livestock like sheep, goats and cows and food provisions from one place to another, to [go] fishing (setting fish pots), as vessels or water taxi, to carry passengers and just to get around and make a little living. When carrying livestock, food provisions, and cargo we would make two shipments in a month. That is what they were used for in those days and those are some of things that the Endeavor II sloop that is under construction is going to be used for when it is finished [being] built except it is going to be used for the main purpose of training and teaching kids how to sail a boat."

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