This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the June 1990 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
In the South Channel cruise liners come and go, but the marine historian is prone to visualize swift sloops and schooners, craft of the past which gave the “Somers Isles” renown.
My interest in historic Bermudian sloops accelerated upon gaining possession of a collection of razor-sharp wood carving tools of the highest quality. Without delay I prepared templates for a half-model of an early Bermuda Sloop using red cedar, darling of privateers, smugglers, pirates and, of course, legitimate traders in salt, codfish and rum.
An eminent Swedish naval architect, Frederick Hennick Af Chapman, published in 1768 ship plants including an unnamed Bermuda sloop of 1740. These were enough to start me off, but having no proper cedar, I settled for Thailand teak and hoped its natural oiled finish would do justice to the lovely hull I hoped to duplicate.
What fantastic craft those big sloops must have been with such long main booms and unbelievable jibs. Imagine the skill of Island mariners who handled such extreme creations from the equator to Newfoundland, form the North American coast to Europe, in summer and in winter…. Seamen among Seamen!
The American marine historian Howard I. Chapelle reports the history of the Bermuda sloop to be obscure. The general type originated in Jamaica, but by 1960 was being replaced by superior Bermuda-built craft, principally due to the excellent cedar available there.
Native Bermudian red cedar, a species of juniper, is light, strong and rot resistant- highly desirable for boats and ships. From the onset of its use, craft built of it acquired reputations for speed, weatherliness and fast sailing in moderate weather.
Bermuda sloops quickly found favour wherever they sailed and many were employed by the American colonists during their revolution. In addition, the French and English made them well known even in Europe by using them as Advice Boats-swift dispatch carriers, or mail boats of the day.
The longstanding trade between Bermuda, the Chesapeake Bay and New England starting in 1600 led to American copies of the admired visitors. We can see many illustrated eighteenth century charts and paintings showing that the Bermuda sloop type in American waters was ubiquitous, indeed.
In carving my model, I could well appreciate the good flow lines and how very deep those sloops were. Chapelle attributes their ability to sail well hard on the wind- with cargo, armament and ballast- to these features. What a sight they must have presented as they swept past the less dramatically designed, burdensome craft more common in those days!
Bermuda’s early economy was simple- salt, cedar and sailors. Principal endeavours were carriage of West Indian sugar and rum to England, along with operation of Turks Island and Exuma salt beds to the south.
For six months a year, up to 10 percent of the men left their families at home to sail to the salt island to perform the necessary raking of the beds. The product was then loaded on sloops for the long sea passage north to long established Newfoundland and New England fisheries requiring it.
There are rather strong indications, however, that some of the salt-raking Bermudians branched out to fishing for Spanish wrecks and trading with pirates. One author, Karraker (Privacy Was A Business), describes some islanders as “Sea Hoboes” who bedeviled settlements all along the 700 mile span of the Bahamas. Then came the years through the American Revolution and later which saw no peace at sea, when Bermudians inclined towards privateering could find east riches. Those were years when many of the fine Bermuda mansions were constructed and furnished with fine goods available from Crown auctions of seized cargos.
At one time Bermudian’s owned over 8,000 tons of shipping, a large part being Spanish, French and American Craft captured by swift local sloops having Letter of Marque commissions. This figure represented almost two tons of shipping for every man, woman and child in the 21-mile long archipelago. A sea-supported economy, indeed.
The picture changed in 1820 when British restrictions against the United States in West Indian trading were removed. Overnight New England and Maryland builders produced fast schooners derived from the Bermuda model, and the old Island sloops began to disappear. Many were sold to become Brazilian slavers, and except for small craft, Bermudian shipbuilding went into terminal decline.
Historians record that most Bermudian shipbuilding was done between Flatts Inlet and St. George’s. In various North Shore coves in the Shelly Bay areas remarkably large hulls were built and became water-borne in protected waters inside the perimeter reefs.
Evidence of past industry at Shelly Bay may be the ruins of old chimneys along the shore, possibly associated with the steam bending of large pieces of planking. A walker in the area certainly will appreciate how resourceful those early craftsmen must have been to produce what they did on the irregular coral and limestone at the site.
At St. George’s, the well-known Messrs. Goodrich provided the British Navy with at least 30 successful sea-going sloops and schooners under shipyard conditions that must have been less than rigorous. No doubt the craft launched there could be launched into deep and protected water which allowed the waterborne hulls to be outfitted close to the building site.
Today, of course, despite the durability of the cedar put into them, virtually nothing remains of the large and beautiful sailing craft that made Bermuda known to sailormen anywhere on the Atlantic. True, some very small boats built in this century still exist, but the hundreds of sea-going vessels have long since become food on the reefs and the deeps of two hemispheres.
At the Dockyard, along with small cedar boats, there is the spectacular 36-foot pilot gig to remind us of the marine skills of Island sailormen in sailing days. Also, a model of an eighteenth century Bermuda sloop constructed in accord with Af Chapman’s treatise is of interest.
I have a dream… a big Bermuda sloop built of naturally oiled red cedar is sailing around the Islands, through the Narrows and into the Channel towards Grassy Bay. Who would photograph the most colourful cruise liner with beauty like that sweeping in?