Shipwrights of Shermans

by Jackie Faine & Craig Burleigh  
July 1977

Boatbuilding must have been necessitated from the time of the early inhabitants of Barbados. For St. Peter's Shipwright Selwyn Douglin, his career began in 1937, and for this generation of ship builders, boat building has been booming since then. Demand has been growing with time. "When things begin to roll fast, everything gets faster, even in the building of boats," Selwyn Douglin reports.

Mr. Selwyn Douglin brings a new Barbados Fishing Boat into shape July 1977 cd1-1-11

Mr. Selwyn Douglin brings a new Barbados Fishing Boat into shape July 1977 cd1-1-11

Many of them have had no formal schooling in a craft that is as old as civilization. Some of them have never, and may never experience a fishing trip at sea, and their labours may keep them away from knowing what it is to eat a fresh fish at sea: that is eating a fish as soon as it is caught; before it begins to deteriorate on the floor of the boat. Fish that when you start to clean it the heart is still beating.

But without them, hundreds, perhaps thousands, would be without a livelihood. Thousands of pounds of fish would still be in the ocean. Those who could afford more than $30,000 would have to resort to fibre glass crafts, or import their fishing vessels at a much higher price.

Prospective owners commission the shipwrights to build their boats at $25 a day, or less, depending on the financial status of the owners. Boat building is a craft few Barbadians now possess; a craft fewer are willing to learn. For the shipwright is an almost forgotten man, ignored until one hears the beating of his hammers, the grating of his saws, or watches him carving out of raw, crude timber, sea-worthy vessels to exploit the sea and bring ashore, sometimes large catches that feed an estimated 238,000 Barbadians.

Boats in Various Stages of Construction cd1-2-26

Barbados Fishing Boats in Various Stages of Construction cd1-2-26

Shipwrights are scattered around Barbados; at the south at Oistins and Silver Sands in Christ Church; to the east at Bath, St. John, and at other locations where villagers make a living out at sea. Shermans in St. Peter, is one of the oldest and still the main boat-building centre in Barbados.

Correspondents Craig Burleigh and Jackie Faine visited the area and talked to the boat builders there, and reported on the fulfillment shipwrights at Shermans enjoy.

Boatibuilding must have been necessitated from the time of the early inhabitants of Barbados. For St. Peter's Shipwright Selwyn Douglin, his career began in 1937, and for this generation of ship builders, boat building has been booming since then. Demand has been growing with time. "When things begin to roll fast, everything gets faster, even in the building of boats," Selwyn Douglin reports. 

The Curves of a boat hull 1977 cd1-2-19

The Curves of a boat hull 1977 cd1-2-19

The life of a shipwright is a particularly interesting one; from the selection of the wood they use, to the launching ceremony that is spiced with a gallon of locally—blended rum.

Their choice of timber comes from pine or green heart (Guyana); mahogny (Barbados), or sometimes white wood from St. Vincent or Dominica, which the shipwrights say, is well rated. "The sea water almost seems to preserve it," they say. The idea is to use a hard wood. Pine, usually imported from Belize, is used mainly for constructing the keel and planking. Green heart is used at the base of the keel, as this timber is extremely durable and can take the wear when hauling in or launching the boats.
Mahogany, which is felled locally from plantations, gullies or woods, is used for the stem, dead woods, horn timber, stern post, frames and transom. It absorbs less water than most woods.

Mr. Douglin and tool box he shares with another shipwright

Mr. Douglin and tool box he shares with another shipwright cd1-4-07

Mr. Babb cuts a rib by hand - these have multiple angles to maintain

Mr. Babb cuts a rib by hand - these have multiple angles to maintain cd1-1-07

Shipwrights of Shermans - Mr. Babb July 1977 cd1-2-14

Shipwrights of Shermans - Mr. Babb July 1977 cd1-2-14

After the keel is placed on a level, the stem, dead woods, horn timber, stern post and transom are constructed in that order. The centre frame is made up and placed. The shape and curve of this frame is used to determine the shape of the following frames. Battens, thin strips of wood, are placed temporarily, running from the stem via the centre frame to the transom, nine or ten battens to each side. These form the basic shape of the hull.

It takes about 20 frames, one foot apart, for the construction of an average fishing craft, and a metal rod, which is used as a flexible template, determines the shape of each frame.
While wood–working tools are a must for shipwrights, their eyes are the most important asset of their profession. The curve of each boat is checked by sight.

Mr. Douglin shapes a rib

Mr. Douglin shapes a rib cd1-4-10

They conform with Government regulations, a floor, which must be kept painted, is built in the boat, so that catches cannot be contaminated with diesel used to operate engines.

Shipwrights not only construct boats, but theirs is a responsibility too, to maintain them, and every year, during the month of August, at the end of the traditional fishing season, the boats are hauled from the sea, checked for defects and repairs made.

The floors are painted; the interior cleaned and repainted, and the boat bottoms, which collect crustacea, mosses and other microscopic marine creatures cleaned. If there is a leak, cotton wick, soaked in ordinary paint is forced between the gaps to make the bottoms water tight again, and then dry putty applied and later painted over with a special anti~fungus marine paint.


Shipwright Mr. Douglin shapes a rib

Shipwright Mr. Douglin shapes a rib cd1-4-05

Since the late fifties, there has been a marked transition from sail to engine. While half the cost of building a boat (between $26,000 and $30,300 Bds), is spent on the engine, it is found that engines are safer than sails, and no one today dares substitute the idea of an engine with sail.

Sails threw away too many lives, and on very windy days it was not unusual to lose one or two boats. Engines are reliable and are often checked. Some owners have their own mechanics, and Government engineers also check to ascertain the sea-worthiness.

Boys who help haul out the boats get to have a ride! cd1-3-28

Mr. Babb gets the curve for next rib cd1-2-10

Mr. Babb gets the curve for the next rib cd1-2-10

Mr. Douglin - Another Day at the Office! Aug-1977-cd1-4-14

Today, there are less than 40 shipwrights in Barbados. Few of these are young adults. There seems no interest among the young in learning the shipbuilding skills. A few have tried, but they all get weary and disheartened and give up in resistance to the great physical exertion needed, as well as patience.

So as Mr. Douglin puts it: "All young people want to do is push a button." Boat—building requires patience. It is all manual labour, but the perseverance of the shipwright is striking. His is a skill and artistry that should not be allowed to die.

Government tractor perpares to haul out another boat cd1-3-29

Government tractor perpares to haul out another boat cd1-3-29

A Barbados Fishing Boat awaits an engine and some finishing touches. July 1977 cd1-1-20

  • Hi my name is Dr. Shelly-Ann Cox, Chief Fisheries Officer. We’re celebrating our 80th Anniversary this year and would love to feature the images in a slide show at an upcoming event. Please email me at Shelly-Ann.Cox(at)barbados.gov.bb

    • Ronnie – so glad to hear from you! I never knew your dad’s first name (weird thing with the English formality of calling everyone by their last name – same at school) – now I can add that to the article. Would be great if you and your family could write up your memories – could add in as a related post.
      Are you all on the East coast – I’m about 20 mls south of San Francisco. Planning a trip home for Sept – Oct timeframe – time to get passports renewed!
      Look forward to getting to know you all better and to hear some of your stories about your dad.

      • I live in New Jersey but my mom and sisters live in Massachusetts. if you are ever in the newyork area shoot me a email and we could get together for a chat..by the way my mom’s dad was also a boat builder..His name was Egbert Briggs..

        • Hey Ronnie – that’s fantastic – I think I have pics of Mr. Briggs – standing painting – check the grid above – I think the second row at right and then a close up at the very bottom right corner of the grid – click on the image to enlarge –

        • Sorry – I think pics mentioned below are of Mr. Broome – but I know I have a mention of Mr. Briggs – could he be the guy caulking – I’ll see if I can find the mention – if it wasn’t in the actual story I may have seen it in the photo captions that I had writen

          • I didn’t see my grandfather in the pics..if you want first hand info about boat building..Go to Half Moon Forte..my uncle Collin still lives there he competed with my dad building boats and he was very good at it ..tell him I sent you..

  • Beautiful images and really informative article! Thankyou for putting it online. I’m writing this from Shermans, where I’m about to go round to the house of one of the current Six Men’s boat builders (research for a wider project about boat building). Really glad the tradition is ongoing, even if not on the same scale as in the days of Douglin and the Babb brothers.

    • Thanks for the comment David – sounds like a nice project you’re working on. I have to get a few of the color photos I have up on the article – not too many, but a few that I took around 1980.
      Glad to hear that some boats are still being built and that some of that expert knowledge is still surviving.
      Keep in touch.

  • Mr. Babb and his brother (The Babb Brothers) Richard Taylor Dockie””built my Dad’s boats back in 60s and 70 “Limbo” and “Samofa”

  • Exquisite sepia textured photos, Craig, thank you and Jackie. Puts me right there, right then. Talk about home-made–just remarkable what Mr. Babb, and Mr. Douglin were able to do. Boatwright plainright cool. The curves of the boats–still can’t believe they could measure and get that just exactly right. I love the sea and everything to do with it. But these stories and photos put them right outside my window. Thank you!

    • Hi KT. Happy you are enjoying the photos! I just found some color slides of Mr. Babb that I think are more recent – have to scan them and also find any others from the same batch. Haven’t done any work trying to find their families – I believe I was at school with either a son or nephew of Mr. Douglin.

      • Hi Craig,

        This is brilliant work. I would love to see the more recent colour slides of Mr Babb who shares the same last name as me.

        My last name comes my father who grew up in the Six Men’s area in St Peter, near to Sherman’s. Ironically enough my father makes his living off of the ocean, and he grew up next to the sea.

        It’s possible that the guy you photographed may be a relative and this is very exciting for me. Let me know if you have any more details.

        Kyle Babb

    • Hi Lynn – I quess I was always drawn to the beauty of boats – and boat building – one of my first memories was my Dad hitting his head while building a dingy in the living room at the Farm – I assume the winter of 53 and once we were in Barbados being around boats was pretty easy. There was a racing dingy class called the ‘sprat’ that my Dad hada boat built by the Guys east of Oistins – that boat PeeWee became out runabout from about 1962 or so until we started standup surfing in 1964 – surfing was all we wanted to do after that!

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