Customs in the Ugly Islands

Boat-pulling

Nobody on Little Ugly needs a calendar to tell when the month is June. Nor, indeed, does any visitor who knows the rhythms of island life. In June, up to twenty caulking hammers echo around Home Bay, as the islanders force fibre in between the planks of their boats. Even if you were deaf, the still air around Home Bay at noon is heavy with the smell of hot tar. June is when the islanders' timber boats are made ready for the next eleven months.

Home Bay Of course, just about everybody on Little Ugly, and certainly anybody who lives within walking distance of Home Bay, most of the population of the Uglets, and even some of the people from Big Ugly would have been there for the boatpulling, so they would know all about the work that is going on, even without the thump of the caulking maul and the smell of the tar-pot.

Early June is the time of evening king tides, a time when calm moon-lit waters lap up the beach, all the way to the Canute grass growing at the back of the beach, in the shade of the tube-palms. As May turns into June, the tides get higher each night, while the evening moon gets fuller and lower in the east, until the waves start cutting a rough cliff in the year's accumulation of wind-blown sand at the back of the beach.

A few adventurous clumps of Canute grass that have been advancing on the water are undercut and die, but the great mass of them cling together, holding their own, defying the tide and earning their name for another year. The sand cliff that the Canute grass makes, as high as a man's waist, will form a convenient shelf for the works that are to come.

As the daily advance of the tides cuts away the sand, rough timber cradles, strung together out of driftwood and rope, are hauled out from their resting places back in the scrub, down over the developing sand cliff, and out onto the beach. The cradles are tied, nailed and patched so they will last one more year, and then dragged out onto the mud flats behind the falling tide a few days before boat-pulling night. Scrap-iron weights are tied to the cradles, rocks are piled on their bases, anchors are rigged to them, and everybody knows that boatpulling time has come again.

At the next high tide, the boats are brought into the shallow waters of eastern Home Bay, fitted into their cradles, and lashed in place. Then begins the heavy job of lightening ship, when every moveable item is off-loaded into smaller boats and taken ashore, to be stored up behind the Canute grass, wrapped in canvas scraps to keep the sand out. The next few days are busy, but they are also an intensely social time. The craft are crowded in close together, within talking distance in most cases, and certainly within easy hailing distance, for this contact is essential. Everybody knows that.

Many larger pieces of gear require two, or sometimes three dinghies, all lashed together to float it ashore, but even without this need for cooperation, everybody knows that hard work demands a break of ten minutes in every hour. There is always at least one conversation floating across the calm waters of the bay. Once the lightening is done, the weights on the cradle bases are replaced with floats. Then the boats are hauled in close to the shore on the morning high tide, and made fast. After that is done, everybody relaxes for a few hours.

By six o'clock, the beach around Home Bay starts to fill with men and women, accompanied by the older children, and the bay rings with the excited squeaks of children attending their first boat pulling. As rites of passage go, it isn't much, but try telling that to a excited twelve-year-olds at their first pulling.

And why are they excited? Well, once you have been to your first boatpulling, you count as an adult for most matters. You even get to vote for Council , although your vote at twelve doesn't count for much. Still, it's a start!


Housing

Most of the older houses are built from sawn blocks of airstone , sawn on one of the Uglets. Typically, these blocks are about 500 mm wide, 500 mm high, and about a metre in length. As the name implies, airstone is remarkably light, being made up of pieces of broken shell, jumbled together.

The blocks are laid out to make walls, much as bricks are laid, but cement is never used, as there is no need to do so. Over the years, the blocks just settle a bit closer together, and when you want to change your house, you can pull a few blocks out and move them around, or tie in a new wall. Of course, these days, most people lay a concrete slab to set their houses on, but there was none of that in the old days, when the airstone was simply laid in a sand-filled trench.

The real advantage of airstone is that it is a rock that "breathes", so that even on the hottest night, there is a certain amount of air getting into the houses, yet the walls are so thick that the day's heat is kept out.

The traditional roofing material was once plaited palm leaves, but these have now been replaced by corrugated iron, which does a better job of delivering rainwater to the water tanks that are needed in most parts of the islands.

Many of the newer houses, especially on Big Ugly, are built from concrete blocks, cemented together, using the same sort of design as the older airstone houses, and also using corrugated iron roofing.


Bellstone parties

Outside most Islanders' houses, you will find a large stone table, made of a slab of bellstone , sitting on lengths of ironwood log, stuck into the ground.

As a party begins, one or two invited neighbours will appear with food or drink, and take their seats at the table, where somebody will start to tap the bell stone with a rounded basalt river pebble. Then others join in, taking up the same simple rhythm, until the whole table is ringing out an invitation to others to come and join the party.

There are some thirty different rhythms which have been recorded in modern times, but older islanders say that there used to be many more rhythms. They also say that originally, the pounding indicated that somebody was pounding meadberries . Many of the older tables slope in from all sides to a central hole, where the berry juices would run, before dripping into a tub, placed beneath the hole.

The idea, they say, was that if you were pounding meadberries, then you must have a batch of mead ready to drink, and so people would gather to help you empty the containers you would need to store the new juice. Today, with mechanical presses, people do not pound meadberries by hand, but the bellstone party tradition continues, with most families having two or three favourite rhythms.


Council elections

These are described in more detail in the Council information .


The main Islands sports

Sailing

Ug-boats

Ug-boats are solid dinghies, made of floatwood , 1.7 metres long, and 1.5 metres wide, with an ironwood mast stepped almost in the bows, a centreboard, and an ironwood bowsprit more than a metre long. Sailed by children 16 and under, the boat carries a crew whose total age must be less than 22 years. Most children on the islands sail single-handed after they turn twelve or thirteen, rather than keep on using younger and younger crew members.

The Ug-boat carries a jib, a mainsail and a spinnaker normally, but can carry extra sails according to the needs and ability of the skipper. The mast can be of any height.

There are many minor Ug-boat races each year, but the two serious races of the calendar are the Plughole Rush, sailed in late May, just before the boat-pulling in June, and the Widdershins Cup, sailed counter-clockwise (or widdershins to the islanders) around both Big Ugly and Little Ugly in early December, starting and finishing at Home Bay on Little Ugly.

This race involves just about every available boat on the islands, with the young people being firmly supported by business-like work boats and fishing craft, and sometimes takes 36 hours to complete.

Screamers

These are basically catamarans built from floatwood logs, hollowed out, although some people have used tube palm stems in the past. The only requirement is that they must be built from two logs, including the mast, spars, boom, rudder, tiller and the two small centreboards that are usually fitted. Sails may be of any size and material.

The name of this class comes from the reactions of their owners in any breeze over 5 knots, although many of the more experienced Screamer skippers also contest their own class in the Widdershins Cup.

Hunky

This is a form of semi-controlled warfare, played by two teams wielding ironwood clubs, supposedly to drive a coconut from one side of one of the Uglets to the other. It bears a minor resemblance to hockey, hurley, lacrosse and all-in wrestling. Be advised: no outsider would wish to be present when the annual hunky competition is in progress, although it has become less dangerous since Hirohito started making traditional Japanese kendo gear and renting it out to the players.

The Leaping Lizards competition

In March, the first meadberry juice of the year has been made in the Uglets, and the meadberries are starting to be harvested on Little Ugly. One week after the first juice is squeezed on Little Ugly, people gather there from all over the islands, bringing tamed and trained leaping lizards to take part in a friendly competition.

Leaping lizards are especially fond of cheese, and can be persuaded to jump very high, if they are offered a small piece of cheese on the end of a thin piece of wire.

There are no prizes for winning the competition, but there is a great deal of honour accorded to the winner, and the rivalry between the three districts can be quite intense. At the end of the competition, all of the leaping lizards are released, although the tamer and better-fed leaping lizards often take several days to leave Little Ugly, waddling around and begging for cheese (or any other dairy foods, for that matter) from any people they meet.

Agenbite feeding race

This event is peculiar to Little Ugly, and relies on the fact that the agenbites on Little Ugly enjoy eating green meadberries, but usually cannot reach them, as the berries are too high off the ground.

A trained agenbite will rear up and open its mouth, if it thinks somebody is about to throw it a green meadberry, so the competition involves seeing who can be the first to get their agenbite to swallow twenty berries. Competitors take it in turn to stand three metres away and throw berries to their snakes, which sit on a high table.

Any berries which miss the snake and bounce off the table are "lost", so it is important to be a good shot, and to have a snake which can track the flying berries and catch them reliably. Any snake which falls off the table is disqualified, but the fallen snakes do not mind, being quite happy to eat the berries that have also fallen on the floor.


Islands special events, Big Ugly

January
Snark hunting, collecting leaping lizards
February
Snark hunting,
March
Leaping lizard competition
April
First meadberries of the season
May
Palm seed collection, Plughole Rush
June
Palm seed collection
July
Ironwood felling season
August
Bender fish processing, palm seed germination
September
Bender fish processing
October
End of the meadberry season
November
Election time
December
Widdershins Cup

Islands special events, Little Ugly

January
Snark hunting, collecting leaping lizards
February
Agenbite feeding race
March
First meadberries of the season, leaping lizard competition
April
Rest month
May
Thinking month, creative month, Plughole Rush
June
Boat pulling, palm seed collection
July
Palm seed collection
August
Bender fish running, palm seed germination
September
Bender fish running, end of the meadberry season
October
Ironwood felling season
November
Election time, floatwood felling
December
Snark hunting, Widdershins Cup

Islands special events, Uglets

January
Collecting leaping lizards
February
First meadberries of the season
March
Leaping lizard competition, palm seed collection in the northern Uglets,
April
Palm seed collection
May
Palm seed collection, Plughole Rush
June
Boat pulling on Little Ugly
July
August
Bender fish running
September
Bender fish running
October
November
End of the meadberry season, election time
December
Widdershins Cup

© Copyright Peter Macinnis, for The Ugly Islands Council,
free use allowed under the conditions listed in TEACHERS.htm
Leaving out the hairyoddities (who have apparently gained some form of cyber presence), you are visitor number

Last revised March 6, 2007.


This site is owned by Peter Macinnis, but if you want to email me, stick my first name in front of that or I may miss you!!