The Boat Builders of The Virgin Islands

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Boat Building sketch

Long before the emancipation of 1834, the Virgin Islands emerged as one of the major boat building centers in the Caribbean. Africans, both free and enslaved, honed the skills of boat building, unique skills no doubt learned from the 18th century Navy and passed on, not through any formal process but by word of mouth. By the mid 1800’s, largely as a result of the imposition of a controversial “Cattle Tax”, riots broke out across the islands, plantations were burned and many residents, including the administration, fled to other neighboring islands, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves.

Motivated to build a sustainable economy, the communities, utilizing natural skill sets, turned to charcoalHistoric photo sloop production, farming for ground provisions, cattle ranching and boatbuilding for economic survival. The need to transport cattle and produce for trade with other islands, drove the need and expansion of an expert boat building industry. Specializing in small light craft that were ideal for the sheltered waters of the Virgins the “Tortola Boat” as it was called, became the life-blood of the emerging economy. These sailing craft were purchased both by local farmers and businessmen, needing to transport goods to neighboring St. Thomas in order to supplement income, and by residents and farmers of other neighboring islands. The sloops enabled the BVI to become a major supplier of cattle and produce to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The typical Tortola Sloop was built of local white cedar (the BVI’s national tree) about 20’ in length with a moveable rock ballast, generous overhangs fore and aft and a mast and boom of about the same length as BVI stampthe boat with a “leg-of-mutton” sail-plan. These unique local craft transported cattle and ground produce until the need for fresh meat was gradually impacted by the introduction of refrigerated warehousing, after which their use continued mainly to ferry passengers between neighboring islands. The vessels, largely unchanged from their original design, were built and launched with regularity through the 1970’s when, as a consequence of economic development, the advent of small motorized craft and the need to respond to the growing demands of the tourist trade, the building of the original sloop came to an end. Local builders evolved the design to better accommodate a large outboard motor for use as fishing boats. The mast and rig disappeared and finally the hand-built hulls, often seen under construction beneath a crude tin roof by the water’s edge, were replaced with more cost-effective fiberglass hulls.

Today there are very few Tortola Sloops remaining and only two are still actively sailing. In an effort to preserve both the integrity of design and building heritage two distinctly different preservation initiatives are underway. The H. Lavity Stoutt Community College at East End, Tortola, control the two remaining sailing vessels and are active in bringing both funding and awareness to sloop heritage.

On Jost Van Dyke behind Foxy’s Beach Bar, the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society is building a modernBoat Building Under Cover version of the Tortola Boat, the Endeavour II in an effort to advance environmental stewardship among the youth of the BVI. The Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society is a non-profit agency dedicated to the preservation of the history, culture and the natural environment of Jost Van Dyke. The immediate goal is to launch Endeavour II by December of 2013 and to accomplish this they need the support of fellow sailors to raise the estimated $45,000 needed to finish outfitting. Once launched, the Endeavour II will be used as a sail training program for the youth of the BVI and to support and house environmental education programs that the Preservation Society has offered since 2009.

Please take a minute to visit the JVDPS website to follow the progress of the building of Endeavour II and explore various projects under its stewardship. The program to date has largely been funded by charitable donations from visiting yachtsmen, local businesses and volunteers. If you wish to join us in the support of this project, the following link to the non-profit, tax-deductible site is noted below.

Links and downloads:

Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society - seal

Read the Article by Executive Director Susan Zaluski - A Mighty Endeavour (Something old becomes something new on Jost Van Dyke).

For further information on this project or information regarding donations, call Bruce Donath at 617-974-1368 or email 


Visit and sign-up for the Preservation Society newsletter and learn more about the scope of the programs to educate the youth and protect the local environment for future generations


With your help, the Preservation Society is mobilizing sailing advocates to complete the Jost Van Dyke Endeavour project and support ongoing environmental educational programs  (

Sketch, Tortola Sloop