The Legacy of Trinidad’s Harold La Borde

Harold and Kwailan La Borde. Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Chinese Facebook Page

The Caribbean island of Trinidad is not well-known for his adventurers, but today, June 12, marks five years ago that one of our most beloved adventure characters passed away.

Harold La Borde grew up in this small corner of the world, yearning for the sea’s endless beyond. La Borde was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1933 and was one of 16 children. He knew from an early age that he was not meant for a life of the ordinary. He was determined to build something different for himself.

As a teen, La Borde discovered his calling as a sailor. He worked on local boats, raced them, and spent most of his time reading books about boat building and seamanship. He wanted to accumulate a wealth of seafaring knowledge for his fledgling career. 

First boat at 16

At just 16, he built his first boat, a 3.35m dinghy called the Lark. He eventually sold it to finance the construction of its successor, a Snipe Class dinghy called Whip.

He continued to grow, both in boat size and experience. After Whip came Revenge, a 5.5m dinghy that kickstarted La Borde’s fame and sailing career. On the Revenge, he sailed 145km engineless from Trinidad to the island of Grenada. 

Harold and Kwailan La Borde. Photo: Kwailan La Borde

After secondary school, he secured an apprenticeship in cartography. He then moved onto an official job as a geological draftsman at Dominion Oil Company. His wife Kwailan worked at the same company and became his first mate on his voyages.

At first, she did not have as fervent a passion for the sea as her husband. That changed in 1960 when the adventurous couple and their friend Buck Wong Chong set out to cross the Atlantic, from Trinidad to England in an eight-metre plywood ketch called the Hummingbird, which Harold had built himself. 

La Borde latched on to a hummingbird motif, perhaps because Trinidad itself is referred to as the Land of the Hummingbird. The little bird not only captures the essence of the island’s kaleidoscopic beauty but also the Trinidadian spirit: joyful yet restless.

Harold had no navigational system except a book on celestial navigation. Along the way, they encountered everything from doldrums to gales. They arrived in England after 36 days, a world record at the time. They then sold the Hummingbird to finance the eventual construction of another, still larger boat. 

Circumnavigating the world

First, however, a break was in order. In 1961, the couple wrote books, and the Nigerian government recruited them to promote adventure to its youth. After two years in Nigeria, they returned to Trinidad. They had a son named Pierre and took three years to build the Hummingbird II, a 12m plywood ketch. Always entrepreneurial, they chartered the boat to foreigners in order to raise funds for their biggest adventure yet: a circumnavigation of the world. 

Pierre La Borde sailing in 1986. Photo: Midnight Robber/Wikipedia

In 1969, Harold, Kwailan, and five-year-old Pierre set out from Trinidad. Between 1969 to 1973, they became the first Trinidadian sailors to circumnavigate the globe. (The La Bordes were already the first Trinidadians to cross the Atlantic.) The feat earned them Trinidad and Tobago’s highest award, the Trinity Cross. They returned home as national heroes. They sold the Hummingbird II to the government, which wanted to display it in a museum. 

From 1984 to 1986, the family circumnavigated the world once more, this time in the opposite direction, from Brazil to New Zealand. They called their latest vessel, a 16m ketch, the Hummingbird III.

These circumnavigations did not consist of only sailing. They made stops to resupply, repair and rest, for example, in Polynesia. Kwailan earned extra money teaching English for brief periods and helped her husband write articles and books. This lifestyle involved many sacrifices, she said, but it was worth it. Harold and Kwailan had another son named Andre around this time, who was born in New Zealand.

Active retirement

Back in Trinidad, Harold went on to officially “retire” and establish the Hummingbird Marina, which trained local people to build boats and make repairs. However, his restless spirit could never ignore the call of the sea. He went on a few more voyages, particularly with his sons. The La Borde boys became quite the adventurers themselves. They competed in many races and Atlantic crossings and built boats themselves. 

Harold working on one of the Hummingbirds. Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival

In 1992, the La Borde family sailed the Atlantic again in the Hummingbird III, carrying the Trinidad and Tobago flag to the Olympic team in Barcelona. In 2000, Harold sailed again from Trinidad to Spain, this time with his son Pierre and another sailor.

By now, age and health had started to wear him down. He decided to fly back to Trinidad instead of sailing. 

In 2016, on June 12, while on vacation in Grenada, Harold slipped, hit his head, and fell into the marina. He was gone at the age of 82. His sons sailed his coffin back to Trinidad on the Hummingbird III. The whole nation paid tribute.

Today, his legacy lives on. His family continues trying to inspire the country’s youth to pursue the adventure that awaits them out there.  

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About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.

Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.

Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration.

Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

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Paul Pereira
Paul Pereira
2 months ago

Great article I live it

+2
Robert E Riley
Robert E Riley
2 months ago

As an American growing up on Trinidad, they were my heroes.

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Henry Crichlow
Henry Crichlow
2 months ago

An extraordinary family..great.

+1
K R
K R
2 months ago
Reply to  Henry Crichlow

Yet another reason to be a proud Trinbagonian.

Thx for sharing!

Raphael

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