The Sipriz docked in front of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum
Dutch novelist and Sipriz owner Geert Van der Kolk and Dr. Jerry M. Gilles
Crewmembers Laguerre, Samedi, and Alexandre welcome visitors aboard the Sipriz
Voyage of the Sipriz: A Haitian Odyssey
Mr. Geert Van der Kolk, a Dutch novelist, wanted to capture the brave voyage of Haitian immigrants across the Caribbean Sea to the U.S. while displaying the craftsmanship involved in Haiti’s boat building industry.Only in Haiti are wooden sailboats still being made, Van der Kolk explained to those who came to view his Haitian vessel, the Sipriz, docked along the Intracoastal River at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum. Those who construct these ships are the keepers of a craft that has vanished elsewhere. These wooden sailboats are a big part of the Haitian economy as they are used to fish, to move people, as well as to move merchandise. Van der Kolk’s Haitian Odyssey began on Ile Lavache, Haiti where he recruited Jean Oblit Laguerre to build the Sipriz . It took Laguerre three months using non- powered tools. Laguerre brought years of experience to the undertaking, having built more than 100 ships. He described the different types of sailboats built in Haiti. Those with multiple sails are called Gwalèt. Smaller ones with a covered deck that transport people are called Bato. Another type called a Bay has an uncovered deck and is used to transport merchandise.A journalist told Mr. Laguerre that in the U.S. a person who has built that many ships would be sitting on a handsome sum of money. Laguerre explained disappointingly that in Haiti, he can only make just enough to eat. Boat building is a craft not taught in Haitian schools . It is another skill passed down from our forebears. The art dates back to the 16th, 17th and 18th century, when production and maintaining of sailboats were a sought after skill in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe, the main ports during the Trans-Atlantic Trading of People as Slaves. As with many other Haitian ships, the boat was built using wood from the Dam Mari tree. Trees with a natural curve to their stems are sought and the wood is cut in the middle and the two pieces of lumber are placed symmetrically on opposing sides of the ship. Constructing ships with multiple pieces of lumber is a departure from the African dug out canoes that were built from a single tree trunk . Depending on the size of the trunk, these canoes could hold more than 100 passengers. In Africa, paddles were used to navigate these vessels. The Sipriz is painted in an African style with patches of different colors. This method is related to the way that Africans made cloth in patches set along side each other in parallel or at right angles to each other. An artist from Jacmel painted a bird on the sail of the Sipriz. This bird is called Sankofa. The artist explained to Mr. Van der Kolk that the Sankofa was a bird that followed the ships that brought Africans to Haiti and the bird would return to Africa to tell family members that their loved ones had survived the voyage. The Ghanian people, called Nanchon Aminan in Haiti, describe Sankofa as a bird with its head turned backward as it looks at its egg. The imagery reminds us that we should not forget the past as we live in the present and move into the future. Vessels like the Sipriz have a long history of craftsmanship behind them. They merge European and African 17th Century know how in shipbuilding. They use sails and when necessary paddles. The work of paddling is arduous. The crew of the Sipriz occasionally blew on a conch shell to elicit the aid of the wind. Jean Emmaniste Samedy, one of the navigators of the boat, indicated that blowing the conch shell works like a charm. Gracien Alexandre, the crew captain, explained that the most difficult part of the journey was crossing the windward passage, kanal divan. They felt their lives were threatened by the high waves and powerful Norther winds, Norde. At night, they could not see around them and certainly, they could not see beyond the wall of waves in front of them. Large ships with glacier busting equipment could not see them, and were it not for their flashlight; one such ship would have pierced through their vessel.
Jean Emmaniste Samedy, explained that God was on their side (Bondye pou nou) , making them survive the 800 mile journey, but he said they would never do it again. When they left home, people told them that they were boarding their coffin. Mr. Alexandre said fortunately they did survive but truth be told, they did catch a few glimpses of their coffin on the high seas. In the Bahamas, they were harassed and their passports were confiscated but fortunately, they were able to regain them. Their voyage from Ile Lavache to Florida took 5 weeks. With favorable winds, they could reach a top speed of 7 knots per hour. One journalist asked if they were amazed at what they saw in the US and they all agreed that they were only delighted that they got to travel to the US and that it is as beautiful has they had been told. Never did they think that they would have gotten a chance to travel here. For now, they simply miss their family in Haiti. Their navigation skills, their craftsmanship, their courage, and the story of their journey gave us greater insight into the trip made by countless others. Mr. Van der Kolk made the whole thing possible and he documented the ship building and journey on video and will show it across the country. He told us that he hopes to find a permanent place for the ship at a prominent museum or university. We wish him all the best in bringing the story of the Haitian Odyssey to the world.