On Île à Vache, a small island off the south coast of Haiti, I built a 21-foot wooden sloop. With a crew of Haitian and American friends I sailed the boat to Florida, a five-week, 800 mile voyage. We wanted to explore and celebrate traditional Caribbean boat building and seafaring skills, and highlight the vibrant arts and crafts of Haiti. The expedition was also an attempt to reconstruct the experience of the countless Haitian "boat people," who each year try to escape from poverty and hopelessness by going to sea in small boats.
 
The Creole word for a migrant boat trying to reach Florida is "kantè." It's a succinct version of "Quand on trouve la terre," and based on the mistaken belief that Haitians, like Cubans, can stay in the US once they reach land. Boats the size of the Sipriz routinely carry twenty people or more. On the day Sipriz reached Florida, a 30-foot kantè was intercepted off Key Biscayne, with 73 people on board. A week later another kantè went down off Palm Beach, where we landed. Twenty people were rescued; nine drowned.
 
Click on the pictures to enlarge them, or look at the slide show. For more information on the project, click here. Additional pictures of the boat’s construction are here.
 
  
The Sipriz Expedition
The Sipriz (Creole for surprise) was built on Île à Vache, a small island off Haiti's southern coast. The wood is danmari, a tree native to Haiti.
Oblit, the shipwright, and his brothers did all the cutting, sawing, planing and planking with hand tools. Île à Vache does not have electricity.
All frames are made from naturally curved branches and tree trunks. To achieve symmetry, each branch was cut lengthwise to make a pair.
Oblit determined the shape of the hull by eye. He clamped the top boards to a central pair of frames, and bent them towards each other with a rope.
The planks were soaked in the sea for a day to make them easier to bend. Montraye fills the seams with rags and covers them with melted tree resin.
Ayiti is the Creole spelling of Haiti. It means "high country" and was the Taino and Arawak Indian name for their mountainous homeland.
The Sipriz is launched from the beach in Kakòk on August 31st, 2008. The construction took almost three months and was several times interrupted by tropical storms.
Marcarti and Papouch paint a Sankofa on the main sail. A mythological bird from Ghana, it is usually depicted flying forward and looking back.
The bird followed the slave ships to the Caribbean, and then flew back to Africa to bring news to the families who stayed behind.
The Sipriz proved to be a very fast and seaworthy boat. It’s not primitive at all, but embodies hundreds of years of boat building and seafaring experience.
On the Sipriz the crew was never larger than six, but it was pretty crowded anyway.
The Sipriz was stopped nine times by Bahamian authorities and citizen-vigilantes, who threatened the Haitian crew and searched the boat.
The Haitian crew of the Sipriz, left to right: Jean Oblit Laguerre,
Gracien Alexandre, and
Jean Emmaniste Samedy.
Sipriz under sail near Bimini, our last stop in the Bahamas before crossing the Gulf Stream to Florida.
Before launch the Sipriz was measured by a nautical engineer. These drawings represent the first accurate documentation ever of a Haitian sloop. (Drawing by Nico van der Kolk)