Name of sport (game)
Name in native language
Place of practice (continent, state, nation)
Martinique, Dominica, Santa Lucia
Gommier is a traditional Indian boat from the Caribbean, which at first neither had sail nor rudder. It was used for fishing and transport. Without a doubt, this is the oldest type of boat in Martinique.
Gommier is a traditional boat, today built by using the same techniques as in the past. There were such boats used by locals to fish and move between islands, even before Christopher Columbus reached West Indies.
Boat’s construction technique is connected with the presence of Native Americans who once inhabited Western India. Gommier had been the main transport for the Caribbean people since population appeared in this region of the world, until the arrival of settlers in the 16th century.
Gommier is used all over the Martinique coast. During the Second World War (1939–1945), young residents, responding to General de Gaulle’s command on June 18, 1940, joined the free French armed forces in Saint Lucia and Dominica, using this type of boat. This period of Martinique's history is known as "la dissidence" (resistance). During this period, the ban on cutting trees contributed to the prevalence of the gommier-like boat called Yole. The shortage of trees made them gradually replaced by motor boats.
Gommier is a one-piece ship made of trunk ("bwa fouyé") and is named after this tree.
Both boats (Gommier and Yole) do not have a keel, that is why there is the need to use "bois dressés" as a counterweight. Gommier is considered to be more unstable and therefore it requires more work from crew members. With unqualified crew, overturns are frequent. The Gommier boat usually measures 5-7 meters.
Yole is built from a frame on which boards are installed. The boat is guided by long paddles placed on the back of the boat. During competitions, Yole crews consist of 15 crew members and have sails up to 80 m2. The Gommier crew consists of 10 people and their sails have from 55 to 60 m2.
Technical differences do not make Yole boats better than Gommiers because in sailing, with the exception of crew competences, motivation and experience, as well as work organization; the quality of the material and the weight-power ratio of the boat are essential. It is not always enough to have the biggest sail in order to win.
Gommier is a very demanding team sport in which the crew must show endurance, flexibility, discipline and technical skills.
Anthropologist Thierry Letang has analyzed the materials from which boats were made in the Caribbean. According to him, Taino-Arawak of the Great Antilles or Kalinago of the Lesser Antilles built their boats called kanawa or kanaoa, using different materials:
1. Cedrela Odorata, local mahogany, red mahogany, mahogany cedar, red cedar, large combat pirogues.
2. Dacryodes excelsa, Gommier blanc tree (white), was used to build large boats, although the size of the trunk is generally smaller than the red mahogany. Its resin or rubber was also used to seal gaps.
3. Bursera simaruba, called Gommier rouge (red). In the end of 1690, Labat claimed that, contrary to what other researchers have said (i.e. Du Tertre), this material is not useless and many used it to build the boat.
4. In the Great Antilles for the production of pirogues Ceiba pentandra was used, which could accommodate up to 150 rowers. On the continent as well, it is possible that residents could do the same. We have the knowledge that they have made small offshore fishing boats and "cassava boats" intended for transporting sand or flour. The canoes had to be dry to avoid rotting the wood, which was called "flo" (light).
5. In the Great Antilles was also used Figuier maudit, called "bwa flo" (Ficus indica or citrifolia); as well as Ochroma pyramidale called fwomajé, pripri, mapou, bwa flo, balsa.
6. For boat production Taino people could also use mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) or galba (Calophyllum calaba).
7. Guillaume Coppier, as one of the few sailor writers, mentioned Hymenea courbaril, which was used for the production of boats in the Lesser Antilles.
8. Elements of the boat called chimalouba in the Caribbean (which are also found on the Gommier, except the fact that they are fastened with nails) were made with white mahogany (Simarouba amara) and their sides were covered with Ischnosiphon arouma.
Bursera simaruba - Burseraceæ - Gonmyé, gonmyè wouj, gonmyé bayè.
"I visited our forests and soon found a tree sufficient to be used to build a boat: thirty-eight feet long, five feet wide in the center – it was Gommier.
That tree is called a Gommier because it self-ejects, or when an incision is made, a significant amount of white rubber – fragile when well dried, usually waxy, with an aroma that burns perfectly, regardless whether it burns directly or with a candlewick. The smell of it is pleasant. Nothing better cleanses the air, or a place that has been closed for a long time, than burning this rubber. The inconvenience is the fact that its smoke is thick and very dark. That is the reason why few people make candles…
We realize how big these trees are when seeing the size of the boat. They are even bigger than the ones I used. I found one of them much later. It was about eighty feet in trunk, round, as if it has been rounded, and straight as an arrow…
The point is that Gommiers, until I was in Les Isles, were used only to build a boat. Residents did not even use it for the fire, claiming that it was difficult to cut them into pieces, and that it made a dark flame out of the fire. I was the first who appreciated Gommiers’ importance and found ways to use them for different purposes."
Jean-Baptiste Labat, 1742. Nouveau Voyage aux Isles Françoises d'Amérique, Paris. (Rééd. 1972, Fort-de-France, éd. des Horizons caraïbes).
There are two varieties of a rubber tree, or "dacryode hexandra", according to its botanical classification, differing only in tree bark: one is red and the other one is white. The white species have almost shiny and smooth bark, while the bark of red species is wrinkled and cracked. The trunk can be very thick and tall despite its irregular shape. Composition of the wood is very dense and durable. It also has a waterproof and very aromatic resin (with incense fragrance). The ships, of course, received the name of the tree from which they were created.
The red cedar - Cedrela odorata - seems to be the first wood used for Gommier production. There are examples of cedar ships that look like Arabian boats. Cedar is a tree larger than a rubber tree, therefore it allowed the builder to produce larger boats carrying more passengers or goods, however due to their size it was poorly maneuverable. Besides these two types of trees, the inhabitants of the Caribbean used other varieties of trees to build not only the hull, but also ship equipment.
The Gommier boat construction process
The tree cut was traditionally carried out during the new moon, because a tree that is cut some other time quickly breaks down and is easily attacked by pests. The place where the tree fell was thoroughly cleaned, and the branches were removed so they would not damage the trunk. In this way, the trajectory of the fall of the tree was controlled, which allowed to avoid endangering human life and damaging the material. Loaders attached to the tree and ropes attached to the branches helped to direct the fallen tree, as well as slowed down the fall.
When the tree was already on the ground, it was peeled, then the unevenness was smoothed to give it its proper shape. On both sides of the tree the part was cut to a certain length. Afterwards, it was tightly bind by lianas.
If the branch was slightly flat on one side, the hole was cut in there. If not, one side had to be slightly flattened. By using an ax (now saw) a recess was formed in the middle, then the middle was burned out (around the hole wet mats were put, so that the burn would not spread to the whole boat).
In order for the tree to retain its properties, it was necessary to protect it from intense sunrays, as well as from the influence of the earth (eg. moisture). That is why they were placed on beams about five-six inches above the ground, while dowels were put in the center.
At each ends and sides pins are dug into the ground to support and stabilize the hull. This position is perfect to hew the hull – very gently so it would not damage the whole structure. The bottom have to be flattened from the inside, so it is usually thicker than the sides. Similarly, the front and back are slightly thicker than the center. The front is slightly tapered, and the back is taller and diagonally cut in order to place the hinges, on which the rudder should be placed. The stability of the boat mostly depends on the precision of the hewing, on the accuracy and proportion. Too thick walls will slow down the boat, too thin will cause the overturn.
Afterwards, the boat is turned, smoothed and polished. During the work the boat should be in the shade and immediately after it is ready it should be launched.
This construction process allows to create a boat about 7 meters long and about 50 centimeters wide. But the builders tried to expand these boats to make them more comfortable and more spacious. Two methods were used to widen the internal part. One of them was to fill the interior with stones and sand, then with sea water. Over the following days, the edges widened, which was caused by the weight of the material and the rays of the sun. It took about 30 days to achieve the desired effect. The second way is a lot faster (it is used especially on Santa Lucia): it is to fill the interior with water. After a few days of soaking, small branches, sawdust and dried banana leaves are burned inside. The heat expands the sides of the boat. This method takes one day. In both cases, the builder must control the process so that the sides expand evenly and are parallel to each other. These techniques are almost doubling the interior of the boat. Regardless of the chosen method, knowledge of wood, control over heating, it is important to watch this process very carefully, because the bursting of wood destroys the whole boat.
However, the process of expanding the boat is usually successful. Then the finishing works begin, which do not have to be performed by the same people. Currently, the hulls made on Santa Lucia are finished in Martinique, because they are used by its inhabitants. The hollowed hull forms the bottom of the boat and can reach from 7 to 9 meters, although it usually ranges from 5.2 to 7.2 meters, the width after the extension is about 90 centimeters, and the depth is about 40 centimeters. The center is slightly lowered towards the front, which is the effect of expansion. The front is therefore taller, ended with a spur with a triangular profile on Dominica and rectangular on Santa Lucia.
The sides gently lead to the stern. The keel is marked by light ribbing.
Inside the hollowed hull, five or six ribs are fastened to maintain the shape of the boat. On the outside a wooden belt is installed, going along the hull (wider in the middle part), often made of different wood.
Nowadays, many associations contribute to the popularization of this traditional sport. About 18 regattas are organized every year. The most important regattas often have thousands of viewers (75,000 people in Schoelcher during the Yole regatta in 2004), and the whole island is focused on this event. In August the most important event in the race calendar takes place: Tour of Martinique.
Association Gommier et Tradition, Bord de mer, Quartier Californie, 97232 Lamentin (Martinique).
Tel/Fax 0596 39 71 56 - 0696 25 55 30
Sources of information
A. Guillou, A. Lagin, Engins et techniques de pêche de la Martinique, http://archimer.ifremer.fr/doc/1997/rapport-1120.pdf
G. Blanchet, B. Gobert, J.-A. Guérédrat, La pêche aux Antilles, Institut de recherche pour le développement, Paris 2002
Source of photos used in this article and gallery: