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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gommiers of the Windward Islands

The Windward Islands -- i.e., the southeastern string of islands in the Lesser Antilles -- were populated by the Carib Indians when discovered by Europeans. Although subject to oppression and attempts at extermination by Europeans, pure Caribs communities and culture lasted longer than many other native New World cultures, due, it is said, to their ferocious resistance to European incursion, which resistance lasted several decades into the 18th century. Communities of Caribs, mixed with other races (predominantly Blacks) but still recognizably distinct, are still in existence on several islands, and a reservation of relatively pure Caribs still exists on Dominica.

The dugout canoe was the indigenous boat of the Caribs, and like the people themselves, it remained in existence well into the modern era, modified, but still recognizable. While the pre-Contact versions were "pure" dugouts -- i.e., possibly expanded, but not extended -- their more modern derivatives are all extended with the addition of strakes above the dugout base.

Most of what follows is from Clean, Sweet Wind, by Douglas C. Pyle (International Marine, 1998).

Gommiers were still in use in Dominica, the northernmost of the Windward Islands, in 1975. Their construction was fairly typical of dugouts around the world. The hull was hewn from a tree called gommier in several of the French-speaking islands. After the tree was felled, it was flattened on one side, and that side turned topmost. Coals were placed on the flat surface, then the charred area was scraped away -- originally with stone and shell tools, more recently with iron and steel. The process was repeated until a sizable amount of wood was removed, then inspection holes were bored in the bottom, along the centerline, and wood removal continued until the bottom was 3" thick and the sides 1". The bow was cut sharply vertical, and in the modern version, at least, the stern was cut square . After the holes were plugged, the hull was filled with water, into which were placed fire-heated stones. When the wood had softened, the sides were forced outward in stages with temporary thwarts of steadily increasing length. Wash-strakes were edge-nailed to the top of the dugout hull and a few frames added.


Gommiers in Dominica. Note how the top of the sharp, tumblehome prow of the dugout hull extends a bit beyond the base of the added strakes.

The gommier tree was still common on Dominica in 1998, but it was scarce on Martinique, and some Dominican builders would tow unfinished log hulls to Martinique for sale. As of 1972, there were more than 2,000 of them registered in Martinique, mainly used for fishing, but the movement was already well under way to replace them with yoles -- very similar in form, but plank-built and hence easier to obtain and more economical.



A 20'6" LOA gommier in Martinique, used for fishing by a crew of three. Note the very sharp bow and hollow waterlines fore and aft. Although the forefoot defines the forward perpendicular, the strakes fair into the dugout hull at the bow, unlike the setback of the strakes in the Dominica example shown above.
   

Sailplan and sections of the Martinique gommier shown above. In spite of their very round sections and nonexistent bilges, these boats are used in rough waters well offshore for fishing and for carrying cargo. (Douglas Pyle said this particular boat had been used to carry as much as a ton of cargo over 25 miles of open sea.) The small sailing rig is supplemental to the outboard engine which is its normal means of propulsion. The mast is unstayed, the sail a perfect rectangle, and the sprit bamboo; as Pyle says, "all very simple to set, stow, and sew."
 

These gommiers appeared in the February, 1959, issue of National Geographic -- before the outboard engine was adopted widely by the fishermen of Martinique. They were launched through surf off the beach, powered by oars set in tholepins; the sailing rig was raised once through the surf.



In this detail of the photo immediately above, note the extended bow of the dugout base, similar to the Dominican example. As beach boats, these are unusually fine and narrow compared to these examples from Portugal and Kerala, India, and Vietnam. Note how the stern man is as far aft as he can possibly be, and the rest of the crew is also fairly far aft -- evidently to help the bow rise over the waves.
  

More gommiers in Martinique in 1959, with the extended-prow dugout base. Note the widely-spaced frames.
 
(Black & white photos and drawings from Pyle; color photos by Charles Allmon, National Geographic, Feb. 1959)

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