Wednesday, November 7, 2007

TCI yesterdays..Richard Forbes

We woke as we usually do (before dawn) and had our coffee outside while we watched the sunrise and planned our day. Looked like a good one.

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We were kinda wishing we had laid in a supply of fresh conch before laying up the boat for repairs. We take conch pretty much for granted, as they are still in pretty good supply here. In fact, conch have been one of the main things people could count on in these islands for a long time now. I was reading an interview with a long time conch fisherman..

There are three weekly local newspapers here. "Weekly" is not an exact measurement of time, by the way. It's to be considered...descriptive. Recently a local writer named Gemma Handy published a brief interview with a retired fisherman here named Richard Forbes. He was born on Provo in 1932, making him 75 now. I thought his words painted a good mental image of life here for a local man back when Preacher was just a boy and there were only a few hundred people on Provo:

(Mr. Richard Forbes, as told to Gemma Handy)
"I was a fisherman until I stopped working nine years ago. I used to go on voyages to French Cay where I would stay for about two weeks to catch conch. That was how I made my living.

We would get the conchs by hooking them up from the seabd. it would take about 20 minutes to catch maybe 100. that was the easy bit.

The hardest bit was bruising and drying them. We would beat them with a piece of wood by the hundreds. Sometimes you had as many as 500 to bruise: it could take two hours to get through them all. Then we'd hang them up to dry.

After that I'd carry them to Haiti to sell. The trip by sloop took around two weeks. Once I got to Haiti I'd head straight to the market. You could get $ 1 for 100 conchs. Sometimes I had as many as 1,000 to take with me.

I'd sell the cargo, the whole boatload, to the market. With the money I made I would buy mangoes, oranges, and other fruit to take back to Grant Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos to sell there. "

Mr. Richard Forbes, Providenciales

That really made me think...sailing to French Cay in a Caicos Sloop. There's most of a day right there. And the local sloops were not as large, nor as well appointed as the Haitian sloops I have been talking about. Caicos sloops were basically open boats, gaff rigged with one raggedy sail.

Then a day or so of catching and processing conch, camping on French Cay. Then another two weeks on that same boat going to Haiti and back. For maybe $10. at a penny a conch. Then do it all over again. Through summer's heat and winter's storms.

I read that powered boats did not start showing up in these islands until the late 60's. That put it in perspective for me. How very strange it must have been for these people to watch John Glen's Friendship 7 splash down off Grand Turk in 1962. And the whole technology of the US Navy suddenly showed up in a culture that was just hearing rumors of the outboard motor.

The trade in conch is still very much alive, but you won't go home with much for one cent. I think it sells for something like $5/pound in frozen 12 lb. blocks. But we have never purchased conch outside a restaurant.

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There are still plenty of guys down here who spent a large part of their early lives essentially living and working year round from inside the hull of a simple handbuilt wooden sail boat. These guys down here know boats and the ocean. I love to listen to their stories. I also tend to take their advice. They might not understand GPS, but they know that when the stingrays are jumping out of the water there is bad weather on the way.

And they always seem to get where they are going just fine.


Anonymous said...

This article on Mr. Forbes is one of my favorites that you have posed on your blog! I couldn't imagine making a living the way that man did!

How did he navigate to Haiti and back? Maybe he had a compass or used plain dead reckoning, some people can do that!

I hope Mr. Forbes has an easier life now! Stories such as these belong in books!


Anonymous said...

That weekly newspaper has been printing those "voices from yesteryear" type of articles lately. They interest me, too. The one this week is about an European who has been here 40 years. Coming from Scandanavia, the differences between the TCI of the 60's and Europe was huge. There were three bicycles on this island then. That was it for mechanical transportation. The roads we have now were footpaths. there were about 450 people here.

I wish there were some way to pick that text off and re-print it here.