Anguilla, as yet, has no maritime museum, which is curious, for the island’s history is indelibly shaped by events that unfolded at sea. David Carty, acclaimed boat- builder (though, strangely, he never built a racing boat) and raconteur of perhaps even greater ability, wrote the national sport’s seminal work: Nuttin Bafflin’. A decade later, he followed it with a documentary film of the same name. He made the point that while other Caribbean islands have entombed their histories behind high stone walls, pinned them down in dark, sterile rooms, or displayed them on manicured lawns, Anguilla has chosen a more active preservation of its own—a living history, through boat racing.
Anguilla’s maritime exploits were perhaps foretold by the events of the battle of Anguilla in 1796. Faced with almost certain annihilation at the hands of the invading French forces from St. Martin who, after landing on Rendezvous Bay, and over the course of a few days had driven what remained of the Anguillian resistance east to Sandy Hill.
The desperate governor Benjamin Gumbs sent what was only recorded as a “fast Anguillian sailing ship”—probably a fishing boat—to St. Kitts for help. The plan worked: the boat’s expert crew got to St. Kitts in enough time to allow a British frigate, the H.M.S Lapwing, to come to Anguilla’s aid, destroying both invading ships, Le Decius and Le Valiant, in the process.
In the decades that followed, having no significant plantation economy—then, as now, Anguilla was susceptible to devastating drought –Anguillians had no choice but to look to the sea. From that necessity emerged excellent seafarers, boat builders, sail-makers and riggers, all of whom left an enduring legacy.
Salt, then phosphate, mainly from Sombrero Island, offered economic respite for a time, bringing trade with Nova Scotian vessels. More importantly for this story, it also brought a transfer of technology from the Canadians, who were expert ship builders to the Anguillians—themselves a quick study.
At the conflux of new income and technical knowledge emerged a thriving Anguillian maritime economy. In fact, it remained the only proper industry, as efforts on land bore little fruit. Phosphate mining eventually ceased in 1890, proving nearly catastrophic for the roughly 4,000 denizens. Anguillian boats, hauling cargo up and down the Eastern Caribbean for inter-island trade, were the only relief.
Fortunately, the emerging Dominican Republic sugar industry provided another means of income for the island’s men. Moreover, it gave the island’s burgeoning fleet of schooners and sloops an additional route to ply. It was this ferrying of cane cutters to Santo Domingo around New Year’s Day, and back in July, that laid the foundations for Anguillians’ passion for racing. Crew and passengers got caught up in the race to and from Santo Domingo: wagers were placed, and victorious captains became folk heroes. Faster boats commanded a premium and were always full. On the return trips, wives (typically, since able bodied men and older boys would go to work the cane fields) and children would wait expectantly on the beach, gazes fixed on the horizon.
One of these return voyages led to the most amusing story of early boat racing. One Sunday morning, during worship at Bethel Methodist Church, whispers spread through the congregation that the Warspite and Ismay—two of the more famous schooners of the time—were approaching, locked in a tense battle to dock into Sandy Ground first. One by one, the worshippers left the church, leaving the pastor by himself. The Ismay won that day.
THE FERRYING OF CANE CUTTERS TO AND FROM SANTO DOMINGO LAID THE FOUNDATIONS FOR ANGUILLIANS’ PASSION FOR BOAT RACING.
The first organized race happened when Melrose MacArthur “Mac” Owen and William Elliot Carty, cousins and good friends from North Hill, gathered all the fishing boats, already used to ad-hoc races in their respective villages, together in Sandy Ground in 1940 for the first August Monday boat race. Food, rum, wine and bragging rights were enough enticement, and a tradition was born.
Another force that nurtured Anguillian boat racing was Anguilla’s ‘Prohibition’— alcohol wasn’t illegal, but tariffs made it so expensive that it might as well have been.
So, fishermen by day become smugglers by night. Under cover of darkness, the boats would set out for St. Martin, load their contraband, and return before dawn. This smuggling tradition led to the development of the racing boat’s easily collapsible rig—mast, sail, boom, and all else—as no self-respecting smuggler would want a 30- or 40-foot announcement of his return.
After Mac Owen and Elliot Carty’s first August Monday race, the sport and the passion for it grew. In the 60s, adoption of outboard motors on fishing craft meant that a sailing boat in Anguilla now had a single purpose—racing. Builders began aggressively improving hull design and materials to make boats even more competitive. The emerging tourism economy of the 80s brought relative wealth to the island, allowing more fans to get directly involved and finance their own boats. The number of races also grew; what started as August Monday and Thursday holiday week eventually became a full week of boat racing.
Nearly eight decades later, the sport is, arguably, more popular than it’s ever been. The number of participating boats has grown yearly, though the number of classes—five in 1940—was reduced to three, and latterly just two: A-Class (28’) and B-Class (23’).
Technology has left its imprint on the modern sport. Winches, turnbuckles and high-tension steel cables have replaced ropes;sailcloth is also high-tech, as the canvas of vintage boats gave way, first to Dacron (a polyester), then to materials such as Kevlar, with higher strength-to-weight ratios. Mast and boom are now aluminium, not wood. Boats are now wider and deeper, from sheer (the boat’s top surface) to keel, mainly to accommodate the taller masts—over 60’ now. Ballasting, once done using granite rocks shed out of Road Bay—a holdover from the days of salt trading when the Nova Scotian schooners would dump ballast at Sandy Ground to make room for salt—is now done with lead, molded to fit precisely in the hulls.
The larger boats now require more crew. As recently as 25 years ago, 7 or 9 crew could get a boat race-ready. Now, dedicating fewer than 16 men to the largest boats is pointless, though only the same 7 or 9 are needed to sail them. The rest become, essentially, ballast. Sand is still used as moveable ballast, but while you can legally dump that to lighten the boat mid-race, it’s now against the rules, and maybe just a bit too cruel, to jettison crew in times when the wind just isn’t enough. Not for nothing—the story is told of one such race when, dead in the water with no wind and only yards away from the finish, the crews of two boats locked in a tense battle to the finish, one by one, ran to the stern and dove into the sea. The momentum of each man pushing them ever so slightly forward, both vessels empty as they crossed the finish line.
Modern Anguilla boat racing is a costly diversion: a brand new boat can cost up to $100,000. With prize monies and sponsorship never having even approached such numbers, boat racing is very much still about bragging rights and village pride.
Surprisingly and, for traditionalists like David Carty, thankfully, the boat design and building process hasn’t changed significantly. Epoxy sealing and marine paints aside, the Anguilla racing boat is still a simply constructed, wooden makes the national sport unique. A skilled boat-builder, of which there are many, can take a boat apart, fundamentally change the shape of the hull, re-plank, epoxy and paint it, and have the boat back in the water in a matter of days. This is impossible or prohibitively expensive in a modern, fiberglass boat.
WROUGHT FROM THE FIRES OF DESPERATION AND SHAPED BY WILL TO SURVIVE, BOAT RACING IS A CELEBRATION OF THE ANGUILLIAN IDENTITY.
Further evolution is inevitable. But the future is not to be feared, as none of the developments and improvements so far have done ill to the passion for or popularity of the sport. Technology will continue to influence competitiveness, each boat looking to eke out just that little bit of extra speed. There’s also development on broadcasting front; efforts like The Captain’s Lounge aim to show the races live on big screens for beach-bound fans, and perhaps to homesick Anguillians in the diaspora.
The history of Anguilla boat racing, wrought from the fires of desperation and shaped by a people’s iron will to survive, today manifests as a celebration of the Anguillian experience and identity. Looking at the past 75 years leading to this point creates an anticipation of what the next three-quarters of a century might bring. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say the national sport is on a good course, and its forward man can still shout with confidence, “Nuttin’ Baflin”.