Local Talent of Turning Wood into Ships Dates Back Centuries
The history of boat building on Roatan is as long as the history of the island’s inhabitants. Paya Indians used to make large cayucos, dug out canoes up to 30 feet in length. These boats were used for turtling, fishing, and transport of goods & people.
In the 16th and 17th centuries pirates used to careen and fix their boats on the biggest of the Bay Islands. There was plenty of fresh water, game and fish to eat and the Paya Indians helped with cutting of wood for boat repair and shelter. Careening Cay in Port Royal was one such place. Roatan, and especially Port Royal, was full of 100 foot tall Honduran Pine trees. Two men were barely able to wrap their arms around them.
When the Spanish forcibly removed the Paya from Bay Islands in 1650 boat building on the island stopped for almost two centuries. Very few people lived on the island and boats would only occasionally stop by to replenish supplies of water and wild fruit.
According to the December 31, 1831 census count of the Cayman Population, the islands had 2,000 both white and black inhabitants. The black slaves outnumbered the whites 5 to 1 in the Cayman Islands and many plantation owners there were afraid following the events that shook Haiti in 1804 after France abolished slavery and the entire white population was massacred.
The Cayman Island slave owners were also offered land grant in the Bay Islands. Displaced white settlers were eligible for a three acre land grant and ex-slaves were eligible for one-acre land allotment from the British Crown. Dozens of Cayman islanders left for the virgin land south and began arriving on Roatan in 1831. By 1843, 24 White Cayman families arrived in the Bay Islands, most of them decided on Roatan and by 1855 a census showed 700 ex-Caymanians living in the Bay Islands Archipelago.
All these islanders needed reliable boats and in 1840 Roatan’s first boat was built. According to Truman Jones, a Roatan shrimp boat captain and business owner, it was a 50’ schooner. In the 1800’s many other 40’-50’ schooners were build in French Harbour and Oak Ridge. In the late 1800’s a boat called Rubicon was built to transport copra from Roatan to the US. Some boats were meant to be used to travel between communities on Roatan: Oak Ridge, French Harbour and Coxen Hole. Other boats were built for journeys to places further like Belize or Honduran Coast. Some vessels were big enough, 100 foot or more, to brave the 1,000 mile passage to the US coast.
The first boat building families on Roatan were the Arches, Elwins, Coopers and Goughs. Henry Arch was a known boat builder in the Cayman Islands and he brought his skills and knowledge to Roatan. “Back then when the father was building a boat, the son was helping him,” said Jones. In 1900 a 100 foot boat called Racer was constructed in French Harbour. “She could carry one million coconuts,” explained Jones. Back in the day and even until 1960 many Roatan coconut groves would produce over 1,000 coconuts a week. Racer was build for the Roatan to US run, but her destiny led her to a Colorado reef north-west of Cuba where she ran aground in the 1940’s.
One of the more curious boat building commissions was a Mexican coast guard boat built on Roatan in 1910. The vessel, according to Truman Jones, was built by the Cooper family.
In 1941, a 90 foot Gwendolyn was built by Bob Forchie, a Roatan born son of a German-American immigrant. While Gwendolyn, commissioned by Winfield McNab was being build, a powerful hurricane hit French Harbour from the South-East. After the hurricane “we didn’t know if the boat was washed out or not,” said Jones. While the braces got washed out the boat stayed in place. Other parts of French Harbour weren’t so lucky: 20 houses, or nearly one-third of town, were destroyed.
In 1952 a 45 foot wood vessel called Mensajero was build to aid evangelization efforts of the Seventh Day Adventists in the Americas. Mensajero sailed towards Orinoco River.
In 1958, where Romeo’s restaurant now stands in French Harbour, a boat called MV Judy was built for Myrl Hyde. “All her ribs were built from Roatan wood: red mahogany and moho,” said Jones. The pieces had to be bent not cut to form the base for the hull of the vessel being constructed. “This was our first boat that we used for international cargo,” recalls Kern Hyde, who’s uncle, Hersel Elwin, build the boat. French Harbour townspeople came out to witness the launch of the MV Judy in April 1958 along with the architect and builder, Hersel Elwin and Cardy Elwin, Homer Wood and Charlie Thompson, Robie Woods, Irwin Jones, Cleary Dixon, Harry Dixon, Dick Dixon, the main carpenters. “Several days before the launch, the vessel was turned 45 degrees with the bow crossways the main road. The only wheels in town were a few wheel barrows and bicycles,” Kern Hyde remembers. “Signal was given to ‘release and pull’ and in a few minutes the Judy was off.” She transported cargo between US and Caribbean for many years.
Wood used in the ship building was Honduran pine
In 1965 Hersel Elwin build the first shrimp boat on Roatan. It was a 65 foot wood vessel christened Captain Ted. For the first few years islanders would sell their shrimps to American shrimp vessels fishing in the nearby waters. “The [Honduran] government didn’t care whose shrimp it was back then,” explained Jones. Around the same time Lloyd Cooper build another shrimp boat for Jack Abbott.
Hurricane Francelia damaged the island in 1969 and Fifi hit Roatan hard in 1974. “Back then we had no warning of hurricanes. We would see the water recede and then just got ready for the storm,” said Jones. In this days, boat travel was also a risky affair. “We would go to Caymans and we would get lost for days on the way there and even longer coming back.
Navigation was so bad,” remembers Lyonel Arch, a boat builder from French Key. The Arches are now into their fifth generation of boat builders on the island. It all started with Henry Arch who came to Roatan from Liverpool. His son Wilson Leo Arch continued to build boats on Ezekiel Cay now called Fantasy Island. “He build a giant wheel that six men would use to pull boats up to work,” remembers Sherman Arch, a boat builder in French Cay.
Wilson Leo Arch’s six sons continued his legacy. “I watched my father build boats and never seen him draw down a contract. His only contract was a handshake,” remembers Sherman Arch. “A man’s handshake was his bond.” Soft-spoken, with blue eyes and a gray moustache, Mr. Sherman is quintessentially what Roatan used to be – hard work and honesty.
Wilson Leo Arch sold Ezekiel Cay to Albert Jackson in 1967 and Arch family boat building operation moved westward to French Cay. The timing was fortuitous as on September 2, 1969 a devastating hurricane hit Roatan from the south. “For eight hours it hammered the island. It devastated the entire south side,” says Sherman Arch recalling the massive category five hurricane. “She had more force than any hurricane before, or after.” Roatan got hit again in 1974 by Fifi and in 1978 by Greta, both coming on shore on September 12.
Sherman Arch, 64, has been working on building boats since he was nine. “I would work in the afternoon and go to school in the morning,” reminisces Mr. Sherman. In 1978 he build his first wood boat – Flamingo 1.There was plenty of wood used in the construction: mahogany, cider, Santa Maria,” remembers Mr. Sherman. We used to do sailboat repairs,” says Mr. Sherman. “That was their way of living. They had to buy boats or build boats.” “Over the years they even build entire boats about of mahogany when it was plentiful and not so expensive,” remembers Lyonel Arch. The wood construction eventually gave way to fiberglass. “I started doing fiberglass around 1980-81. It was at first just for myself,” remembers Mr. Lyonel.
It all started with Henry Arch who came to Roatan from Liverpool
Today the leafy mangroves of French Cay provide shade and a good anchor points for the dozens of semi-finished, and salvaged boat hulls. Sherman’s biggest project to date is a 67 foot long and 24 foot catamaran. What he really enjoys is building fast narrow boats, 37 foot Pangas are the optimum in speed and comfort. “You could go 50 miles an hour in it or faster,” says Mr. Sherman. He is building two small glass bottom boats and fixes up old boats, like a neglected Boston Whaler. His boat yard is full of dozens of hulls, boats in different states of construction. “The materials are cheaper in the States. Here the government wants to rip you off,” says Mr. Sherman who’s current favorite boat he built is Miss French Cay a 36 foot boat with eight foot beam that he takes fishing and patrolling for poachers at night.
Oak Ridge was a boat building center run by the Coopers since mid XIX century. “There was a wood shop to mill the wood – pine, Rosita and mahogany that came from Mosquito Coast,” says Mrs. Cooper. The Roatan oak was used mostly for planking. Roatan grown sun-wood, one of the toughest woods around, was also used. The Coopers came from England via Jamaica, Cayman Islands and Belize and eventually settled on a Cay across from Coxen Hole. As John and Thomas Cooper were into boat building they looked for a more suitable place to build boats and found it on the other side of the island in Oak Ridge. “Calabash Bight had the Cooks and Greenwoods, in Fidler’s Bight it was the Boddens, Oak Ridge it was the Coopers and the Goughs and Jonesville had the Joneses,” says Oak Ridge’s Jessie Cooper, now 93, remembering the old days. She remembers when the Oak Ridge dry dock was used to do boat modifications. In one such refitting a boat called Albert was cut in half and extended 10 feet.
Most of the wood used in the ship building was Honduran pine. Mahogany was used for interiors. The boat building was a matter of trust. “You could mail a letter in US and it would get in French Harbour in six days,” says Truman Jones. There were no banks and one would give cash to a boat-crew for them to purchase engines and boat equipment in the US and bring it back with the next transport. It took about a year to complete a boat. The caterpillar motors would arrive via boat and would be fitted onto the hull.
Some from the younger generation of boat builders are also leaving its mark on the tradition of boat building on the island. Darcy Martinez is another Roatan boat builder who has made molds of the Edwardoño hull, a quality Colombian boat maker. “My boats are different than the Edwardoño. We don’t put as much reinforcement in them,” says Martinez who operates a boat building business in French Harbour. “Martinez boats are built well, they hold their value,” says Autie McVicker, owner of Mango Creek Lodge in Port Royal, who owns seven boats built by Martinez. “He produces quality product without any of the technology available in the US. If he had that he could compete with anybody.” The next generation of Arches is not quite jumping into the boat building business. “They like to use them, but they don’t like to build them,” says Mr. Sherman Arch.