Friday, November 26, 2010

The Trinidadian Pirogue

Let's discuss one final boat from Doulgas C. Pyle's Clean, Sweet Wind: Sailing with the Last Boatmakers of the Caribbean before it goes back to the small but stellar Rockport Public Library. It's the pirogue of Trinidad, the southernmost of the Antilles.

All images from Pyle. Click to enlarge.
 Looking, as she does, quite like a big modern outboard skiff, it's still fair to say that the pirogue has clear indigenous roots, for she is indeed yet another extended dugout -- extended in the sense that she has dugout base, to which strakes are added. She is not, however, also expanded, as in the gommier, canot, or Granadian sailing canoe discussed recently -- that is, the pirogue's dugout base is not forced apart in the middle to widen it.

Pyle discusses the construction method at length, which I'll telescope here. The dugout base, which really forms only the boat's keel, is sharp and deep on the outside (see lines drawings below), and hollowed inside. To it are added a long, straight stem and a broad, nearly vertical transom -- wider since the introduction of outboard engines, to provide greater buoyancy aft. The lowest, or garboard, strake is first nailed to the stem, then to the top of the keel, and finally to the transom. But it's not a typical edge-to-edge or lapped joint between the plank and the keel. Rather, the outboard surface of the garboard rests  horizontally atop the keel and is through-nailed to it with galvanized nails. Subsequent strakes are lapped without bevels, and fastened with clenched nails. 

When Pyle observed the process in 1975, there was only one builder on Trinidad, named Taitt, and his methods (which is not to say his workmanship) were so refined that joggled half-frames were cut to patterns before being trimmed for installation. What is impressive is that no patterns or plans were used for any of the steps prior to cutting the frames, so the work that was all done by eye had admirable accuracy and consistency. The boat is finished with the installation of stringers, thwarts, wales, and a small foredeck.

To quote Pyle:

The lines of a Taitt pirogue seem to confirm its hybrid ancestry. The waterlines forward showed much greater hollow than I found in any small craft [in the Caribbean] other than the dugout gommiers and their derivatives, the yoles. Use of the shell as a keel points to a dugout origin here. The odd thing was that raising strakes should be lapped instead of fastened on edge as was done elsewhere with dugouts.
One of Pyle's informants suggested that the pirogue "was of Amerindian origin, that raising strakes had been a development connected to the diminishing availability of large tree trunks for dugout canoes. He surmised that the notion of lapping had been learned from the Royal Navy, whose launches and tenders were always clinker-built."

Although Pyle took the lines himself, and they are presumably accurate, these were from an outboard-powered boat, while the strangely low and long sailplan was based on a sketch from a native informant and seems less reliable. No sailing pirogues were in existence in 1975, engines having completely taken over.


  1. Clean Sweet Wind must be a fascinating book. Hard to find apparently. Amazon has no stock.
    Possibly you have wondered the same thing as I -- by the time these canoes had developed to the point where they so closely resembled European skiffs, why did they maintain the hollowed out keel?
    Of this collection my favorite is the Gommier with it's pretty cutwater.


  2. Michael,
    Sorry about the dud link. You can probably get Clean, Sweet Wind through interlibrary loan.
    Regarding the pirogue, the dugout base serves as a keel, and the hollow provides a bailable bilge. I don't know if that's really the reason for its persistence, though. Part of it, for the pirogue and the others, may be attributed to tradition, habit, or "conservatism" (take your pick). Maybe another aspect is the relative simplicity of adding strakes to a dugout, compared to the alternative of constructing a built-up backbone and cutting the complex rabbets. Not necessarily less work, but perhaps simpler for a builder who is not mathematically literate?