26 January 2012


by Andy Weddington
Friday, 27 January 2012

                                                "Dreaming men are haunted men." Stephen Vincent Benet

On a spit of Elbow Cay's high ground with less than a couple of hundred yards between high tide marks, separating the scenic Hope Town harbour anchored by its kerosene-fueled red and white candy-striped lighthouse to the west from the Atlantic Ocean to the east, sits the quaint Hope Town Harbour Lodge.

Eight years ago, after an evening of fine dining, drinks, and camaraderie at the Lodge restaurant, an arrangement of dozens of framed old black and white photographs (going back at least 60 years) decorating three adjoining walls that formed a cozy nook caught my eye. On closer inspection, there were some of boats--beautiful wood sail boats; one beached and listing to port taken in the early 50s was especially striking. And most of the shots were of local sites and candid pictures of the people who'd called the cay and the settlement of Hope Town home. One stuck out--a head and shoulders portrait of a beautiful woman taken about the same period as the boat. The boat's name was not on the accompanying caption. The striking woman's name was Violet.

The photographs of the boat and Violet, which I've seen every year since, seem like good ghosts. They haunt me for different reasons. The boat because it's a painter's dream--beautiful lines and rigging. Craftsmanship. Character. It was built to sail but it's a work of art meant for canvas, on a wall, not just furled or up a mast filled by wind. And then there's Violet. Born in 1923 as the caption read, she, too, surely had beautiful lines. Her natural good looks--any movie star would envy--and warm gaze haunting. I wonder what her life was like and what became of her. As analogy what comes to mind is a photograph of Jane Seymour in her role as actress Elise McKenna in the timeless 1980 romantic science fiction film 'Somewhere in Time.' Playwright Richard Collier, played by Seymour's co-star--Christopher Reeve, was smitten. He met her in a time warp.

On a recent trip to the cay, and after each of a couple evenings of fine dining, drinks, and camaraderie, I wandered over to look at the photographs yet again. And I wondered.

A few days later, through dumb luck, I finally learned something about the boat.

That story...

A twenty minutes motor boat ride to the northwest through the shallow crystal clear emerald green waters of the Sea of Abaco from Hope Town's harbour, Man-O-War Cay has a different look and feel. It's not so hectic with visitors--at least not this time of year. Boats are moored in the harbours. Boats are tied to piers. Ashore the equipment of seafarers lays about, without rhyme or reason--at least to the unfamiliar eye, indicating it's a working island. The stuff--equipment, tools, and so on, is not necessarily attractive yet it's beautiful. And yet the beauty is lost on those whose lives revolve around it and hard work. But the beauty is not lost on a painter's eyes.

The little more than 400 people who live on Man-O-War (about 2.5 miles long and in many places less than 100 meters wide) are busy so they use golf carts and mini vehicles to make the most of time. You don't see many on bicycles. And less walking.

Following lunch at the 'Dock & Dine,' a leisure stroll, and dropping in a shop or two, George, a friend and skipper of 'Zelda Belle' walked over and asked, "Andy, how's your back?" Daydreaming and not sure what he said or meant, I replied, "Pardon?" He said, "Your back, is it okay? Any problems?" "Oh, no, no problems, my back's fine." "Great, let's give these two guys a hand."

So we walked over and offered a couple of older gents a hand moving a big piece of furniture. I told the one closest to me I was as strong as an ox, almost as smart as one, and we'd be glad to help them. He laughed and accepted our offer. They seemed relieved.

So the four of us took awkward hold and lifted the bulky and damn heavy handmade cabinet from the flatbed of a mini Hyundai truck (probably lighter than the cabinet) and moved it up a cottage's narrow flight of cement steps and, after re-gripping a time or three, finally settled it in a narrow space on the front porch. And there it's to rest until interior renovations complete.

I doubt those men, in their 70s, could have handled the lift by themselves--at least not as easily nor as quickly. We were happy to help. They thanked us and we parted ways.

About ten minutes later along the same narrow street and less than 50 yards away I was standing under the shade of a large tree sketching--boats and water and small buildings etc.--when the man I'd made the ox comment to saw me, walked over, and asked, "Would you be interested in seeing some boats I'm building?" "Sure." As we walked towards his shop he said, "I'm Hartley." I replied in kind and as we continued walking George (and our wives) joined the parade.

Approaching the shop, outside, was a dinghy named 'Hesperus' up on blocks. She was under repair. A handful of ducks and a couple of cats, each not minding the other, were walking guard. "Guard ducks?", I asked Hartley. "Yes, they're vicious and do a good job," he said chuckling.

All sorts of roughly cut wood from assorted trees, destined to be Abaco dinghy or something that floats, was laying on the ground, propped against this and that, and some big logs, we saw later, were purposely submerged, strewn about haphazardly, in the harbour--curing.

Hartley led the way into a naturally lit but dim workshop and flipped on the bank of overhead fluorescent lights. Amazing! What a sight--accompanied by the pleasing smells of raw wood. He showed us a couple of Abaco dinghies he (and his brother) are building. Each, in a different workshop, were early in the skeletal stage but their beautiful lines clear. Craftsmanship. Old school.

In his distinctive Bahamian accent, he talked about the stages of building; offered particulars about the woods (e.g., Madeira; Dogwood; Cypress; Birch; Cedar); showed how some parts are cut and shaped, as one piece (for strength), from natural curves in limbs; discussed boiling woods for ease of bending; and demonstrated how a long heavy but pliable lead rod is used to figure rib shapes. It was an education for sure.

Hartley started building dinghies when he was a boy. He learned by watching and helping his father. He couldn't remember how many he's built. And he's built other boats--beautiful sail boats (like the one in the photograph) and speed boats, too. Hartley's children, grown and off pursuing other careers, were not interested in learning the craft. He seemed a little disappointed saying that--knowing an art, a tradition, may be dying.

We talked a little about another nearby beached dinghy--it was his father's last boat. He figured it was about 25 years old. I noticed the dinghy interiors were painted a peculiar green--a green (not seen in nature) I remember on the walls of a textiles mill I worked in during my youth. I always thought it unattractive and mindful of blue-collar industry but it looked great on the dinghies--especially in contrast to the stark white exterior with deep dull red (complement--the success of color depends upon context) belly and keel and crimson and gold trim. I asked Hartley about the green. He said it was traditional for the boats--the only color he remembers being used. And we talked about another dinghy that was in the water rigged and tied to the dock. He said a hundred pounds of lead made her sweet under sail. That boat, he thought, may be heading to the Mediterranean--a buyer in Greece. The Abaco dinghy is a popular boat.

Hartley had the strong roughed hands of a builder. Snow white hair, piercing pale blue eyes, and color from working in the sun completed the look of someone you'd imagine as at home on the sea. How interesting to listen to a man who knew his craft, who spoke humbly about it, and who was gracious enough to offer a peek into his world and answer questions. 

Hartley said he'd lived on Man-O-War most of his life. I commented it must have been quite something to grow up on the cay. He smiled and said it was wonderful--swimming and sailing and boat building and so on. He pointed to a plot of land not 8 feet square that his brother's six year old grandson had roped off and marked as his boat yard. A simple wood sign hanging a couple feet off the ground suspended by rope looped around a tree limb read, 'Jeremiah's Boat Yard.' A block of wood with "Open" printed in black marker on one side and "Closed" on the opposite was the only note for business hours. This day the boat yard was closed but Hartley said Jeremiah spent much of his free time there--especially during the summer. Perhaps another generation boatbuilder? Maybe.

I told Hartley there was much on the cay that caught my eye and I wanted to paint it but there was not time this trip. I told him I'd be back next year. He thought that was fine and said if he was not in his shop working when I arrived to ask anyone for Hartley. That I will do.

He thanked me again for helping move the furniture. We shook hands, again, and bid farewell till next year.

Hartley--a Man-O-War boatbuilder. My dumb luck, and good fortune, to have made his acquaintance and to see and hear about his art. And that would not have happened if not for George's gesture to lend a helping hand to a couple of strangers. George, a decade my senior, has been visiting the cays since his youth and had never met Hartley. Oh the great things that can come from a small act of kindness.

Hartley did not build the boat in the photograph at the Lodge but his father and uncles and other kin just may have. And young Hartley just may have been watching, handing tools, and learning. 

Oddly enough, as 'Zelda Belle'--with George at the helm and first mate 'Petty Officer' Stepper offering commentary--made her way about the Man-O-War American harbour we came upon a moored boat quite similar to the one in the photograph. Though in need of some maintenance, she was a beauty--her distinctive sweeping lines that of a Man-O-War boat. So I quickly sketched her from both sides, and opposing approaches, and shortly thereafter painted from the sketches and memory.

My mind's now at ease about the boat--a good ghost. I'm glad to know something about her and to have met a man of the talent and skills as the generation of men who built her. Now the boat in the photograph makes sense to me--it means something. And I will paint her again. And again.  

Now to learn something about Violet--another good ghost. Her photograph haunts me and I'm not sure why. Perhaps because, like the boat, I'd have liked to paint her in her day. Probably. Who knows, perhaps somewhere in time something about Violet will come my way. But like Collier meeting McKenna, I'll surely not meet Violet in a time warp. There's the movies, and there's reality--at least as we know both on earth.

I'd not thought to ask but it just dawned on me maybe George knows something about her. George?

Or maybe someone reading knows the story of pretty Violet?

Post Script

When visiting Man-O-War be sure to stop by 'Sally's' and 'Albury's Sail Shop' and the grocery store, too; all a visual treat.

There's also a soft-spoken, long time boatbuilder who works in Hope Town. Keeping to tradition, he's old school--no power tools. More than once through the years I've strolled by his cottage and shop and heard him shaping wood--nice sounds. Though never interrupting, I've been tempted to introduce myself and ask permission to sketch and paint him at work. It really should be caught on canvas. Maybe next year. Interestingly enough, Hartley mentioned his name and remembered him, in his youth, visiting Man-O-War to watch his father work. Small world. The Abaco cays smaller.  

Latest paintings from the Bahamas (most from Hope Town--a few from Man-O-War): http://www.weddingtonartgallery.com/Bahamas2012.html

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said Colonel. Now you have me intrigued as to the story behind the vivacious and beautiful Violet. Hope Town .. Man-of-War and other special little islands in the Abacos are filled with wonderful surprises, warm and friendly people with interesting stories .. and beauty in every sense of the world. Thanks for bringing it all to life both through your painting and your words. Hugs from Trudy .. still fortunate to be on Elbow Cay for one more week.