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As hard and dangerous as going to sea could be, seafaring provided tremendous opportunities for Caymanians that were not available elsewhere at the time.

Premier Hon. Alden McLaughlin

Published 24th January 2021, 4:0pm

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and especially seafarers good afternoon.

I thank you for joining us as we celebrate our National Heroes and honour our Seafaring Heritage.

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.

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.

And so, from time immemorial, Caymanians from all three Islands looked to the sea for a livelihood and sustenance and also for enjoyment.

Caymanians were not only renowned seafarers but also excellent builders of schooners and ships who made fantastic sailing vessels. Two that instantly come to mind for many Caymanians are the CIMBOCO, built in 1927, and the Goldfield, built in 1930. There were many more.

There was a time when Caymanian boats with Caymanian captains and crew plied the waters between or fished, ranged for turtles and carried goods and people to and from our Islands, and sailed across the western Caribbean to Jamaica, Cuba, Central and South America and the southern United States. It was our relative isolation, when we were the Islands that time forgot that drove the need for our forbearers to become such excellent shipwrights and sailors. It was this seafaring heritage that led to the birth of our Caymanian pioneering spirit.

However, by the end of World War II fewer Caymanian ships were being built and our seamen took to working onboard foreign ships.

In the 1950s and 1960s 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 all three Cayman Islands.

In addition to the early development of the economy the Islands, our seamen also passed down their knowledge and helped grow the seafaring industry.

Seafarers, like fishermen, all love a good story. I fondly remember the many seafaring stories I have heard or read over the years. You often never quite knew whether they were real or not but they were often entertaining.

One story, as told to the Cayman Compass by Andrew Eden of Savannah noted that he joined his first crude oil tanker, the Dea Maris, with National Bulk Carriers at the age of 17 as a messman, but he quickly worked his way up the ladder making chief engineer at age 25.

He recalls a scare on his first trip to sea when just after 6 in the morning the fire alarm screamed and the mess hall was full of smoke.

An oil line in the engine room had burst and caught fire.

“Luckily we had one guy from Cayman who was an oiler at the time and he stayed down there to eventually get the fire out whilst others fled the engine room, including the 3rd engineer. Luckily the Caymanian oiler stayed down there and really saved us.”

And in North Side people may recall John “Jackie” Miller, a pastor, farmer and who is also considered one of our most proficient shipwrights who along with his son Wilbanks had a shipyard near the private Miller Cemetery. They not only built 17 schooners but they also rigged and sailed them. 

Keeping with the North Side Miller family, Capt. Ned Miller of blessed memory joined the S/S Bulk Trader in January 1954.

In his notes, which he submitted to the crafters of the book The Southwell Years, Capt. Ned wrote that his first ship took him between Pennsylvania and the Persian Gulf and it was the extreme cold in the winters and searing heat in the summers that convinced him to rise in ranks quickly to get off the deck. And so he studied and applied himself.

It was on his second ship sailing from Japan via the Panama Canal to the Bahamas that his desire came true.

Sporting a new pair of cowboy boots and making a racket while walking on deck, Capt. Ned was summoned by the captain to the bridge.

“Of course, I hastened to get to the bridge, not expecting to hear what I heard,” his notes read. “The Captain said ‘Mr. Miller, you walk on this ship as if you own it.’ I said, I’m sorry sir, I’ll change the shoes. To which he replied, ‘It’s OK, I have something to say to you. I am promoting you to Third Officer.’ No one but me will ever know how I felt at that moment, Capt. Ned confessed. This was the launching of my ambition to one day master my chosen profession.”

I believe that what Capt. Ned said at the end of his writing summed up just about what every other seaman was thinking during the Southwell Years.

“National Bulk Carriers was a real Godsend to the Cayman Islands during the Southwell Years. However, it must not be forgotten that the Caymanian seamen were also good for National Bulk Carriers. Cayman seamen needed National Bulk Carriers’ jobs while National Bulk Carriers needed Caymanian seamen to operate their ships.”

And the family tradition of keeping our Seafaring Heritage survives with Capt. Ned’s grandson Ned Jerris Miller III who has honed his boat building skills at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States. He was the first recipient in 2011 of the Gwen Bush Memorial Scholarship, which was created to revive the boat building trade.

But not every story has a happy ending. Like all seafaring countries, we also know the heartbreak caused when a ship is lost at sea and our loved ones do not return home. This brings me to the tragic story of William Smiley Connolly of East End. Smiley was married to Eunice, who was a widow, and she and her two children moved to Smiley’s home in East End in 1877.   

Sadly any expectation of a happy family life was dashed when the couple and the children embarked on a turtle-fishing voyage to the Miskito Coast. The journey was disrupted by a powerful hurricane and they all perished.

These are more than mere stories, they tell of real lives and are a reminder of a time now long gone when our men, and at times our women, took to the sea to seek opportunities and to provide for their families.

As hard and dangerous as going to sea could be, seafaring provided tremendous opportunities for Caymanians that were not available elsewhere at the time.

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 here. These include the early schooners such as the Explicit, built and owned by Joseph Taylor Ritch of Cayman Brac in 1916 to the Armistice, built-in 1918, and others, that were involved with the turtle trade; one of our first real means of international commerce.

Those boats, alongside the names of Nunoca, Cimboco, Lady Slater, the Arbutus, and many, many others found in our shipping register, remind us not only of the incredible numbers of boats built in our Islands but also how significant they were to our commerce, including the vital link for transporting people and freight.

And they remind us also of our famed Caymanian boat builders such as James Arch, Rayal Bodden, Joseph Ritch, Keith Tibbetts, John Miller and 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 provide 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 at times a dangerous job that left fathers separated from their families for many months and at times for 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 Psalms 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 down 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 ‘Letter from Sea’ and I look forward to hearing from him shortly.

I thank all of you for taking time out of your busy Sunday 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. I thank the members of both organisations for your service.

Our celebrations continue on Monday where 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 as we start a yearlong celebration of our seafaring heritage.

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