By Alister Hughes

Per head of population, you'll find more locally built sea-going vessels in Carriacou, than anywhere else in the Caribbean. There are no statistics to prove this, nevertheless the signs are there. Judging from the number of vessels of every size, in every stage of construction on almost every bay in the island, this boast is not far from the truth.

Carriacou may be called Grenada's "specialty port", because, not only does this 13 square-mile, sister island of Grenada continue to launch first-class craft produced by local, top-flight boat designers and builders, but Carriacou has also a proud, efficient work force of shipwrights and seamen. The numerous Scottish surnames liberally sprinkled throughout the island's less than 5,000 population suggests that, originally, boat building skills were introduced in colonial days by Scottish settlers.

Whatever the source, handed down from generation to generation, these skills have been carefully preserved and make little use of modern tools. nor, usually, in the building of Carriacou vessels, are there prepared formal plans. Rather, out of his head, the master builder defines the specifications. He decides the length of the keel. He fixes the width or beam of the boat. And he draws in the sand, for the guidance of the shipwrights, his choice of the shape of the bow. He does the same for the stern. Then, also, he draws the key ribs which will produce the shape of the craft he pictures in his mind.

This time-honoured system works perfectly. And the proof is clear. When, finally, the vessel is launched, she floats perfectly upright without a list. And, more than that. She floats exactly on the water line which, under the master builder directions, was painted on her sides before she entered the water.

Through the years, Carriacou vessels have transported a variety of cargoes. Traditionally, the island produced and exported crops of cotton and limes but, mirroring a regional problem, producers of these commodities have been handicapped by their inability to control or cope with conditions in the international markets.

Carriacou is a small hilly island where agriculture is essentially a manual operation. The mechanizing of agriculture in developed countries, which have large tracts of flat land, has lowered the world price of cotton to a level which makes it impossible for Carriacou to compete with crops produced by 19th century methods. Squeezed out of the market, this industry died some 18 years ago, and Carriacou vessels no longer carry cargoes of cotton and cotton seed to Antigua, Barbados and Trinidad.

The Carriacou lime industry suffered a similar fate. In 1970, some 70,000 gallons of lime juice were produced. This was then a flourishing industry and, by Carriacou vessels, this stock was exported to Dominica where it was converted to lime oil. Then, a double tragedy struck.

Five years of severe drought hit the island and, just about that time, the Dominica producer stopped drawing its supplies from Carriacou. That producer was bought out by a British Company which found cheaper supplies elsewhere and, once more, the Carriacou schooners lost another cargo.

More recently, the marine emphasis has changed to meet the needs of today. Carriacou is developing as a tourist destination. Guest houses and hotels are being constructed. Not only are foreign visitors arriving in greater and greater numbers, but Carriacou has become a popular vacationing and shopping area for people from Grenada The principal need is no longer for vessels to export produce.

What is required is transport which offers speedy, comfortable accommodation for visitors from the mainland.

The plane service to Carriacou, limited by the tiny airport, cannot meet the demand even if it could offer competitive passenger fares. Instead, challenge is being met by steel hull ships imported from the United States and Norway.

Already five of these ships are in service. They are each about 100 feet long and have a displacement of 100 tons. These additions to the Carriacou fleet each carry over three hundred passengers together with a couple of vehicles and such cargo as is available. Passengers are offered restaurant and bar service, these air-conditioned ships make the 40 mile crossing between Grenada and Carriacou in about four hours, and are an outstanding advance in travel comfort over that provided by the 40 to 60 ton auxiliary schooners of yesteryear.

Introduction of these foreign built steel hull ships may, however, threaten Carriacou's boat building tradition. The need for, and so the day of, the inter-island auxiliary schooner may have passed. But the new ships must be manned, and there will always remain the demand for the outstanding seamanship for which the men of Carriacou are known. And there remains the demand for smaller craft. Fishing boats, tenders, small sloops, and pleasure boats to serve the tourist trade. And so, at Carriacou, Grenada's "specialty port", while the island has adapted to 20th century needs, the master builder still has his role to play. With the extraordinary skills bequeathed him by his ancestors, he will still draw, in the sands, the specifications of the craft of his imagination