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Jost Van Dyke Bateau Building

May 17, 2010. Jost Van Dyke–The sound of hammers pounding sheets of galvanised metal punctuated the air around Great Harbour on Saturday May 15th, as children and adults were at work building bateau–small tin and wood canoes which were once constructed on Jost Van Dyke.  Visiting tourists looked on curiously, while community members–many skilled boatmen–some, whose lifetime on the water began as children with these simple tin and wood boats – periodically stopped by to offer suggestions, critique the work or lend a tool. A handful of adults continued construction throughout the weekend. The constructed boats will be painted and named (bearing names that have historic or cultural meaning for Jost Van Dyke) by the JVD Primary School children. Finally, the bateau will be raced by Jost Van Dyke youth on Saturday, May 29th. The public is invited to attend.

While many British Virgin Islanders may remember building “bateau-log,“ small rafts constructed from the stalks of century plant stalks, those rafts were replaced with “bateau” on Jost Van Dyke (probably around the late 1940s) when galvanised roofing material was introduced for housing construction. Community members estimate that it has been about 20 years since a bateau was built on Jost Van Dyke. This simple 2010 project ensures that another generation of Jost Van Dykians grow up with this homegrown tradition, while also providing another simple way for youth to get out and enjoy our local waters. “Those days [were] tough, but we had fun. These kids today don’t know how to have fun!” commented one adult as he examined one of the bateau.

To build bateau, sheets of galvanised metal were pounded out, often in the soft mud of salt ponds, which would help muffle the noise (saving the ears of the adults of the community), as one resident remembers. Pieces of wood were used for the transom, a bow post and the rails. The boats would be paddled with scrap wood or other makeshift paddles. One residents recalls “we used to use the lids of export soda cracker tins. Back then, there were so many fish in Great Harbour. We would paddle out East [towards Little Harbour] and the Barracuda would go after [the shiny metal].”

Although today’s group will use marine sealants to patch/seal the vessels under construction, Jost Van Dykians once used tar, which many residents report could be easily collected from around Great Harbour rocks in the 1960s and 1970s. “Our teachers told us it was whale [dung],” remembers Windy Callwood with a laugh, “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that the tar came from oil spills. Sometimes we would see a bird covered in it and we’d notice the sea eggs disappear in the areas around the tar-covered rocks.”

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Numerous community members helped with the project, and it could not have come together without the help of Wendell “Uncle Wendell” Calwood, who was an integral part of organization and construction. Other community members  such as Ronald “Manza” Lewis, Alan “Juney” Callwood, Alan “Uncle Boy” Callwood, Kevin“Yellow” McMillan, Isha Chinnery, Oliver Chinnery, Hermann “Bunn” Chinnery, Philiciano “Foxy” Callwood, Albert “Buney” Lovelock, Tessa Callwood, Baldwin George, Paul Mason and Susan Zaluski all volunteered their time/assistance to help with this project. Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society sponsored the event and provided materials with assistance from the BVI’s National Commission for UNESCO. Jim Kelley of Online BVI volunteered his services to help capture the event on video and also short interviews with some residents who grew up building and paddling bateau. Filming these stories also helps to capture the changing marine environment of the BVI, connecting the natural environment to BVI heritage and culture.  Serendipity bookstore on Tortola has donated gift certificates/books to be used as prizes for the races. A short film of the event will eventually be available on Online BVI and on the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society’s web page. The material will also be shared with the National Archives Unit to help capture a small piece of BVI history.

For more information, call 284-540-0861, contact  by email at susan@jvdps.org or hop on a ferry on May 29th to watch the JVD youth race.

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