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The Sloop

The Survival – Traditional boat building finds its place in the BVI

“They used to ship cows on these from Tortola to St Thomas, four at a time,” Governor Boyd McClearly told me as we stood on B Dock at Nanny Cay on Festival Tuesday looking at two of the Tortola Sloops that would be racing in that morning’s 9th Annual Sloop Shootout. I imagined the 20-foot sailing boats making the crossing with mooing passengers as well as a full crew. An article on bareboats bvi.com states, “Incredibly, the Tola Boats were often used to carry livestock to neighbouring islands, including cattle, pigs, sheep and goats.”

According to BVI Maritime Museum curator and H. Lavity Stoutt Community College professor Geoffrey Brooks, the Virgin Islands sloops “used to trade all over the Caribbean,” but more specifically, “they would have shipping day once a week when all the sloops would go together to St Thomas.” He said that there would be anywhere from 15 to 25 boats going over. He also told me that Tortola was the “major beef supplier and provision supplier for St Thomas until the 1960s.”


In the 1960s, refrigeration came, so the need for fresh local beef declined on the other islands, Mr Brooks said. He added that at the same time, the boat builders started to run out of wood—white cedar—on Tortola. Additionally, he said, “fiberglass was beginning to become popular, and the economy was changing. We were starting to go into the yachting industry and tourism. Then we became an offshore financial centre,” and boat builders turned their skills to real estate development or switched careers to financial services.

While hanging out at Nanny Cay before the Sloop Shootout, celebrated BVI educator and former legislator Elmore Stoutt told me that the Tortola sloops declined in popularity once the steel barges started coming over from Puerto Rico and that many of the original sloops were sold to other islands for “trips around the island” or “party boats.” He added that when the marinas were developed in the BVI, “they were supposed to have one to one-and-a-half percent wooden boats. Each marina would organize and have one,” but that never happened. In an article for Experience BVI, Clive Petrovic writes, “Unfortunately, with the advent of engines, tourism and economic development, the sloops were gradually replaced. In the span of a single generation, they virtually disappeared. The sloops, once numbering in the hundreds, now number less than 10.”


I spoke with Mr Petrovic about the fate of the remaining sloops, and he mentioned sloops that he’s photographed in Puerto Rico and  display at a Pusser’s in Munich, Germany. He also cited an article he saw in an airline magazine about a fishing village in Haiti with a photograph of what he’s certain is a Tortola sloop. Lastly, he brought up Vigilant, touted as the oldest wooden boat in the Caribbean, which is currently rotting under a shed in Paraquita Bay. He suggested that the BVI Government or a private investor should preserve the boat “and display it in the Government centre or in an atrium—something on display that played such a role in people’s lives. They were the lifeblood of the economy.”


Lately a grassroots effort has begun to reinvigorate the art of sloop building in the BVI. Mr Brooks photographically documented the building of Sea Moon by Watson White in Anegada and published the photographs in a book a few years ago. More recently, he has joined forces with local artist Lutai Durante, design firm aLookingGlass (publishers of this magazine) and sponsor VP Bank to create a new hardcover book project that will use illustrations and designs, along with instructional text, to outline the art of building these wooden sloops indigenous to the BVI.

As Mr Brooks and the BVI Maritime Museum hope to preserve the tradition of sloop building, the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society’s Maritime Heritage Programme “involves the building of a 32-foot wooden sailing vessel, whose design is based on the ‘Tortola Boats,’ a type of sailing vessel that emerged during the Emancipation era and is specific to the Virgin Islands,” the JVDPS website reports. So far, according to the website, this project has provided “over 3000 hours of youth labor-in-training” to Jost van Dyke and Tortola youth. The boat building is still underway at Foxy’s Bar in Great Harbour, and the JVD Preservation Society hopes to secure the final funding for the launch.


Back on Tortola, Leandro Nibbs is building a Tortola sloop with the help of two of his carpenters. “I noticed the culture of the local sailboat industry has been dying out, so I was trying to revive it,” Mr Nibbs said when I asked why he had decided to build a sloop. “I’m not a boat builder,” he said, “but I grew up building boats.” Mr Nibbs went into carpentry instead and trained with Leopold Smith. “My father was a carpenter. Jesus was a carpenter. So, if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me,” he said and added, “I had a passion for it.” Of his two apprentices helping him build the boat, Mr Nibbs said, “They’ve never done anything like this before, but with my instructions, they did a marvelous job.”

Instead of using the traditional methods of Tortola sloop building, Mr Nibbs has made a few changes. “They used to have to go to the forest to cut trees, but now you go to the lumber yard” to source the wood, he said. He also said that he plans to “fiberglass the outside—the part that’s going to be in the water. I want it to look like a real wooden boat, but I want to make sure it’s secure and doesn’t leak.” He also wants to add a small outboard engine in case the wind drops off while at sea. “I’m not a sailboat person,” he said. “I’m a powerboat person. I like to go fast. I like to put one foot on the boat and the other foot on one of the other islands.” So far, Mr Nibbs has invested about $40,000 into the construction of his sloop which he displayed during the Festival Monday Parade as part of his float on transportation in the BVI. After this boat is painted, rigged, fiberglassed and launched, Mr Nibbs said he would not be averse to building another one. “I’d love to build another one for someone else, even better than this one because this one is a guinea pig,” he said. “If I had another one, I’d build it a little different so I could compete with those guys—the governor and the premier.”

At the Sloop Shootout, I watched three Tortola sloops—Sea Moon, Moonbeam and Youth Instructor—battle it out for the trophy. While we followed in a safety boat, Geoffrey Brooks told me that, due to the lack of keel, the boats could be difficult to maneuver without practice. But the skippers proved capable, and the race was tight, with some very close moments around the first mark in Road Harbour. In the end, Sea Moon and the Honorable Premier Dr Orlando Smith won over Moonbeam with Governor Boyd McCleary and Youth Instructor with Dr Karl Dawson, HLSCC President. “Sloop races were once one of the most important parts of the festival celebrations,” Clive Petrovic told me. When accepting his trophy at the 9th Annual Sloop Shootout, the premier praised the race, saying that it was “developing into a real wooden boat race and not just a race between the governor and the premier.” He added, “Hopefully , by its 20th year, there will be 20 boats.”  

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