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I was a teenager in 1977 when Cayman Energy Ltd. Began its ship-to-ship oil transfer operations in the waters around Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.

Premier Hon. Alden McLaughlin

Published 23rd January 2021, 1:0pm

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; most importantly seafarers, good afternoon.

It is a distinct honour and privilege to be with you this afternoon.

They say it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good and I think I can say that in this context because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cayman Brac gets to have its own Heroes Day celebration and I am especially pleased about that as I myself celebrate my last Heroes weekend celebration as Premier.

Given the importance of our Seafaring Heritage, our celebrations will not end on Monday but we will continue throughout the rest of this year with a calendar chock full of events, activities and initiatives.

There was a time when every male was expected to go to sea. Going to sea was more than a way of life back then; it was a rite of passage for young men who often started their careers in their mid-teens. Indeed, there are some stories told by many and some of which I believe I have to take credibly because my mother told me of them of conspiracies by various people even in government to do what was necessary to allow young men or young boys to leave even before they were 18. The conspiracy was about the date on which they were born because of the critical need that many understood their families had for an income. So many young boys left at 16.

Being called to join a ship was a time for leaving boyhood behind and starting the journey to becoming accepted as an adult, making an honest living and helping provide for your family. It was also an opportunity to make something meaningful of your life.

When I graduated from high school in the late 70s I too wanted to go to sea. Indeed about 10 of my schoolmates left but the industry was then waning in Cayman and I had a most difficult and uncomfortable conversation with my father about this because he had gone to sea and sailed for 10 years.

My father was not one who was given much to crying, but when I told him this is what I want to do he did cry. And when I saw you form a seafarer’s march down the aisle, I remembered that occasion. And he looked at me and he said ‘my son, I did that so wouldn’t have to. Go back to school’.

Really from the earliest settlement of these Islands, all three of them, Caymanians from looked to the sea for a livelihood, sustenance and also for enjoyment.

Brackers were renowned seafarers, indeed for its size and population. I don’t think it exceeded a population of 2,000 ever in its history. Cayman Brac had an incredibly large number of officers, particularly sea captains - the monument outside the Veteran’s and Seaman’s Hall, just down the road from here, lists over 200 sea captains and over 200 seamen of different ranks. That is an extraordinary accomplishment and I believe must be some kind of world record.

In addition to sailing the seas, Cayman Brackers were active and inventive boat builders, using native hardwoods to build magnificent schooners and boats of various sizes.

As we all know, it was here in Cayman Brac that the distinctive and renowned catboat was first created when Capt. Daniel Jervis designed and built a short, wide, planked boat that was much more maneuverable than a canoe.

In no time at all turtle rangers on all three Islands were using the distinctive catboat and the vessel was so prevalent that over time it became recognized throughout the Western Caribbean as a symbol of Caymanian ingenuity and boat building craftsmanship.

High praise indeed and it started right here in Cayman Brac.

Not only was the Brac famous for its catboats, but there were also a dozen or so locally built and owned schooners, some of them three-masted.

And of course, as the sloops, schooners and ships were built, they had to be launched. I am sure that many of you in this company will remember the launch of the Trial in 1967 at Watering Place. This was the last of the ships built by Capt. Keith Tibbetts and indeed the last ship launched in Cayman Brac.

After the end of World War 2 fewer Caymanian ships were built and our seamen took to working onboard foreign ships.

In the late 40s, 50s, 60s and even 70s, hundreds of Caymanian men left home for better pay on merchant ships, particularly the large bulk carriers and tankers owned by National Bulk Carriers. The increased income earned on these vessels not only supported the needs of families at home but also greatly improved their lives and in so doing boosted the development of Cayman Brac as a whole.

Of course, our seamen will also have seen their fair share of storms and challenges while at sea. We as a people have known the heartbreak caused when a ship is lost at sea and loved ones did not return home.

One of those lost at sea was Talbert Smyth Tatum whose ship, the SS Tunisia, was destroyed by a German bomber in World War 2 off the coast of Ireland in 1941. His name, alongside many others, is engraved on the Tower Hill Merchant Seaman’s Memorial in London. I’ve been there and I’ve seen it as well as the names of many other Caymanians. He is being remembered here today with a Memorial Scroll. Talbert’s sons - Cardel, Don and Arlin - all went on to become seafarers with their own distinguished careers.

As hard and dangerous as going to sea could be, it did provide tremendous opportunities that were not available at home at the time. But many of our seafarers longed to work closer to home and their families.

I was a teenager in 1977 when Cayman Energy Ltd. Began its ship-to-ship oil transfer operations in the waters around Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. This was a Godsend to Brackers then as good-paying jobs that required seamanship skills were available right here on the Brac. It also allowed the Government to earn much-needed revenue from the trans-shipment royalty, while Cayman Brac as a whole benefitted through greater employment and the money spent onshore by crews of visiting ships.

And so, seamen like Capt. Harold Banks came to work for Cayman Energy, serving as the company’s chief mooring Master and manager. He did eventually ship out overseas, but in his later years Capt. Banks worked as chief pilot for Bodden Shipping, guiding huge cruise ships safely into George Town Harbour. We are delighted he can be with us here this afternoon.

Capt. Radley Scott also worked with Cayman Energy and today he is still plying the waters, working out of the United States. Capt. Radley is the oldest and only captain from the Brac who is still at sea. Our youngest active seafarer is Gentry Tatum, who is sailing on articulated tug barges in the United States.

Though we no longer have hundreds of seafarers still active at sea, the Cayman Islands still plays an important role globally on the maritime stage with our Cayman Islands Shipping Registry, which provides flag-state services to ship owners and their vessels.

The registry was started in 1903 and from its records we can learn a great deal about the history and tradition of the Cayman Islands’ seafaring and maritime past - including vessels built in the Brac. These include the early schooners such as the Explicit, built and owned by Joseph Taylor Ritch of Cayman Brac in 1916 and the Armistice, built-in 1918, and others, that were involved with the turtle trade, alongside thatch rope; two of our first real means of international commerce. Turtles and thatch rope were for many years our chief exports.

Those boats, alongside the names of Nunoca, Cimboco, Lady Slater, the Arbutus, the Clara C. Scott and many others found in our shipping register, remind us not only of the incredible number of boats built in our Islands but also how significant they were to our commerce, including the vital link for transporting people and freight between our three Islands, Jamaica, Central and South America, and Florida as well as other parts of the southern USA.

And they remind us also of our famed Caymanian boat builders such as James Arch, Rayal Bodden, and Capt. Keith Tibbetts among so many others. They are all being honoured and remembered.

It is vital that we do remember and honour the history of our great ships and shipbuilders as well as our brave seafarers – they are all an integral part of our proud history; a history that reminds us today how much we owe to that great generation of Caymanian men and women.

The Cayman Islands Government Report for the Years 1953-54 provides good insight into the number of Caymanian men at sea in the 1950s when it noted, Quote “The business of the Dependency nowadays is the export of seafaring men”. Unquote.

Succinct but true.

So important was the economic activity created by our seafarers and the remittances they sent home that our first commercial bank, Barclays Bank, started operations here. As our economy grew, and as tourism and the development sectors were beginning, our seafarers were able to use the skills learned aboard ship to get work at home, or to start businesses, and so the need to go to sea for a living dwindled.

Seafaring that served as the backbone of the Cayman economy well into the late 20th Century increasingly became unattractive as a way of life. It was a tough and dangerous job that left fathers separated from their families for many months and at times for years. I know my father’s first voyage he was gone for three years. And so, our seafaring way of life gave way as opportunities at home increased.

Nonetheless, the seafaring period of our history remains stitched into our very being. We are reminded of it everywhere, even in our national symbols.

Our Coat of Arms with three stars, representing our three Islands, resting on blue and white ‘waves’ above the words from Psalm 24 “He Hath Founded It Upon The Seas” remind us of it.

Our National Song, 'Beloved Isle Cayman', written by Mrs. Leila Ross-Shier of blessed memory, speaks poignantly to being in far off lands and longing for home.

I am sure in many ways the words in that great song express how our seafarers must have felt on board ship, far from home and counting the days until returning to our beloved Islands ‘set in blue Caribbean Sea’.

Cayman Brac’s own Andy Martin also summed up these feelings in his popular song in the 70s ‘Letter from Sea’, which was a massive hit not only in Cayman but all across Central America and the United States, especially the southern states and I look forward to hearing from him shortly.

I thank all of you for taking time out of your busy Saturday to be with us here today to celebrate and remember and pay tribute to our seafaring men and women and to honour our seafaring heritage.

I thank those whose hard work has made these celebrations possible – Minister Seymour and Acting Chief Officer Nellie Pouchie and the staff in the Ministry responsible for Culture, Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose, the Protocol Office, the Celebrate Cayman Committee, and the many others on Cayman Brac and in Grand Cayman who have given of their time and talents.

I also thank the members of the Cayman Island Seafarers Association in Grand Cayman as well as the members of the Veteran's and Seafarers Association of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, for not only helping make this Heroes Day a success but also for the work you do every day to keep our seafaring heritage alive and to provide assistance and camaraderie to our seafarers who remain. I thank the members of both organisations for your service.

Our celebrations continue tomorrow as we honour our seafarers from Bodden Town, East End and North Side. On Monday we will be in Heroes Square honouring our Seafarers from George Town and West Bay. I will also have some exciting news to announce with regards to important plans that will, I hope, permanently cement in this nation’s psyche the importance of seafarers and seafaring to our history.

As we honour and celebrate the efforts and achievements of those who have gone before us and those still with us contributing to the well-being of our Islands, let us also acknowledge the blessings of the present and look to the promise of the future with excitement, expectation and optimism.

May God bless all of us and may He continue to bless these Cayman Islands that He hath founded on the seas and established upon the floods.