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Carib Canoe Gli Gli at the Antigua Classics

It turned out to be a most propitious encounter. A surprise meeting on a bus trip in the Dominican countryside led to the building, launch and subsequent expedition of traditional Carib canoe, Gli Gli.

British Virgin Islander, artist and sculptor Aragorn Dick Read was traveling through Dominica when he met fellow artist, Carib Indian, Jacob Frederick. Together they hatched the idea to construct a traditional ocean-going canoe and sail her south to Carib homelands in Venezuela and Guyana, stopping on the way at various islands to promote and celebrate Carib culture. It is a tribute to the Carib Indians that in this day and age the pre Columbian canoe has endured and is still widely used in many islands in the Caribbean’s Windwards as well as along the northern coast of the South American continent.

The island of Dominica is home to some 3,000 Carib Indians, one of whom is master canoe builder Etien Charles. ‘Chalo,’ as he is more commonly known, was delighted to undertake the managing of the project and steered it through the many stages of construction to completion. The work started with the selection of the right size ‘gommier’ tree. Then the huge trunk was hollowed out, ‘opened’ with rocks, fire and water, ‘boardage’ was added to increase the height of the topsides and then frames were added for strength. Finally rudder, mast, oars and thwarts were completed and Quantum Sails generously supplied the sail.

The project soon caught the attention of the world and New York film-maker Eugene Jarecki undertook the production of a documentary highlighting the building process, the historic voyage and finally tracing roots and cementing links through etymology. The film was subsequently shown on BBC television and there have been numerous newspaper and magazine feature stories published internationally.

The canoe is at the heart of Carib culture. The building and operating of a large canoe is very much a tribal occupation with many members of a village required in the process from tree felling through building to launching. Once the canoe is in the water, a team effort is needed to sail the vessel efficiently – diligence and discipline are essential in keeping the canoe balanced and preventing capsize. It is a tribute to the seamanship of the Caribs that they managed to range far and wide in the often rough seas between islands.

On April 20th the Classic Yacht Regatta in Antigua kicks off. This event has slowly increased in size and stature since its inception in 1987. There will be many traditional and classic yachts taking part in a number of different categories, not only showing off their polished brass and gleaming varnish but also their turn of speed around a race course. And although spectacular yachts from around the world strut their stuff there has never been a purely indigenous craft amongst the fleet. This will change in 2006 – Carlo Falcone, owner of the marina in Falmouth harbour and host of the Classic Yacht Regatta, has invited Gli Gli to take part. She will be sailed by a crew of Carib Indians from Dominica and will undoubtedly be conspicuous on the water. She is likely to come first in class too since it is doubtful that any other contenders will be present. It is interesting to note that in nearby Guadeloupe and Martinique canoe racing is a popular and exciting sport. These vessels, called ‘Yoles,’ of similar design and rig as Gli Gli, are very fast and require hiking out on struts or oars wedged into stringers where split second timing is essential. Perhaps Gli Gli will inspire a new class in years to come.

It is hoped that Gli Gli’s participation in the event will highlight the contribution of Caribs to West Indian culture. Besides canoe building, basketry, calabash carving, and interesting art forms are all a part of Carib life.

In October, to mark the ten-year anniversary of Gli Gli’s launching, a second ocean going expedition will visit islands in the Leewards, specifically St Kitts/Nevis, once a stronghold of Carib Indians, St Barts and St Martin before sailing back to home base in the British Virgin Islands. This expedition is being planned to commemorate Carib culture and spread awareness of the truly indigenous Caribbean people throughout the region.

Note: ‘Gli Gli is a small, aggressive hawk revered by ancient Carib warriors as a totemic symbol of bravery.

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