William “Kem” Jackson is bringing Cayman’s catboats back to life.
In the Cayman Islands, William Kemuel Jackson, better known as Kem, is the first person who springs to mind whenever catboats are being talked about. Jackson’s passion for catboats is evident in his restorations, which are displayed as art and studied for their historical value. Jackson shares his knowledge and zeal about Cayman’s catboat heritage with youth through Summer programmes and speaking at schools around the Island. His dedication ensures that these beautiful and unique sailing vessels are never forgotten.
Cayman Airways Skies caught up with Jackson whilst he was in the process of restoring a catboat for Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa to talk about his passion for preserving Cayman’s catboat heritage, being named MBE and more.
Where in Cayman did you grow up?
My roots are planted deep on Uncle Bob Road in George Town, where I grew up and still live.
How has life changed in Cayman from when you grew up?
Nothing is the same as when I grew up. We had no roads to speak of and we used catboats to visit friends. There were no hotels or condos on Seven Mile Beach. [There was] no electricity or running water. The beach land was not considered useful, as you couldn’t grow your food on it and [no one] wanted a house on the beach when a storm came. Now, it’s incredibly expensive to live there. Simple tasks were also difficult in my childhood because of the mosquitoes. We used smoke pans to manage them — things have changed a lot!
When and how did you become interested in catboats?
I’ve always had a passion for catboats, from the time I was a little boy. After my retirement, I was able to focus on my passion of restoring catboats and learning more about them. I felt this information had to be shared, as it’s a vital part of Caymanian heritage. It was almost forgotten, but then the Catboat Club was formed and the tradition is coming back.
What person has made the biggest impact in your life?
My grandfather, Papa Bob, made the biggest impact in my life. He made me into the man I am today. He instilled his work ethic in me. There were no sick days or hand holding with him. If he wanted something done, I had to figure how to do it and fast.
What were your duties like when you went to sea?
My duties covered everything from galley man to chief pumpman. I’ve sailed on what at the time was the biggest ship in the world — an 85,000 tonne ship.
When and why did you start teaching kids about catboats?
I started working on the boats and the interest grew from the public. I then realised our younger kids did not know about catboats. The Catboat Club decided that had to change. Catboats were built by their great grandfathers and grandfathers and it was how they got around. When kids realise this, they go home and talk to their parents and grandparents about it and ask questions, and our history comes to life for them.
You were asked to restore a catboat for the Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa. What does that mean to you?
I was honoured. It makes me happy to know this nod to our heritage will be proudly displayed at a five-star hotel. Tourists will look up and see this beautiful boat and it will start conversations about our traditions, our heritage and our relationship with the sea. I consider this a great honour not just to me, but to the island.
What was it like for you to be named Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE)?
Receiving the MBE was one of the most important things in my life. To know I had been recognised for my passion… well, I just don’t even know how to find the words. It inspires me to do more, to keep going and to know this work is important. It drives me on. I look at the paper I received, signed by Her Majesty The Queen, and I know the work I do is valued.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment is without a doubt my family. My wife of 57 years is my greatest supporter. Our children are all successful in their chosen fields. My son is a captain with Cayman Airways, and something that gives us great joy is his youngest son is also a pilot. You may be lucky enough to fly with my son and grandson. My older grandchildren work in various areas: mechanical (following in my footsteps), IT, banking, aviation and law. My younger grandsons aspire to be doctors and professional skateboarders.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I have a passion for growing things, especially orchids. I built a large orchid house for my wife several years ago, but over the years it became mine. It doesn’t fit my character to be fiddling with delicate orchids, but I get pleasure from nurturing them and watching them grow. This is what retirement is all about. Enjoying the small things in life and taking time to try new things.