Turks and Caicos

 

February 27, 2009

Our plan was to set sail this morning at first light but this was not to be. When we had called Homeland Security / US Customs last night, to tell them we were planning to leave, we were informed that we needed to visit their office in "Old San Juan", in order to obtain clearance documents for presentation to the Grand Turk authorities. The Old San Juan office would open at 0800 hours.

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0730 hours we had dinghied to the marina dock, called for a taxi, threaded our way through the marina workshops to find an unlocked gate and were waiting for our taxi. We arrived early at the Custom's building and after carefully examining our driver's licenses, the security guard announced that we would have to wait another twenty minutes until it was open. Twenty minutes later, he again examined our driver's licenses, to see if we were now different people, before allowing us into the completely deserted office. Ten minutes later an official arrived and we were soon on our way back to DoodleBug, now clutching our clearance documents.

0905 hours we raised anchor and set sail for Grand Turk. The forecast called for light winds in the 10 to 11 knot range but we were gratified to discover that once clear of the lee of Puerto Rico, we had winds in the 14 knot range. These allowed us to sail a beam reach of between 5 and 7 knots. The seas were choppy at 6 to 8 feet as we left San Juan but as the day wore on, the seas subsided. The day was warm and sunny with 50% cloud coverage and altogether a very pleasant sail.

1430 hours; we were slowly passed by a tug pulling a giant empty barge / container. The tug seemed to be heading on the same course as we were, so what was the huge container for? Beer can pickup from the Bahamas?

We passed a pod of some kind of cetaceans close by. The fin shape and color said "spotted dolphins" but the swimming motion was more whale-like. An 18 inch sea turtle waved his flippers at us as we sailed by and we saw showers of flying fish. This was the most evidence of fishy activity we have seen in a while and we would have been tempted to troll a couple of fishing lines, except that the freezers are still full from the last time.

As we headed into our first night at sea on this passage, a nail clipping of a new moon appeared above the horizon with Venus above, like jewels in the dying embers of the sunset. The night was mostly clear and by midnight, the stars glistened brightly; the "Plough" was back in its usual spot in the sky and "Polaris" lay 45 degrees off our course.

We have begun our last 1,000 mile segment to the US mainland and by tomorrow morning, we will be in the same time-zone as Florida.

 

February 28, 2009

We left San Juan, Puerto Rico yesterday morning and set sail for Grand Turk. Our position was N 19 43.5' W 067 56.7' at 1023 hours UTM. All well on board.

 

Last night we had been approached by a vessel with an unfamiliar light configuration. I had to drag out the bible of sailing regulations, "Chapman" and confirm that two vertical white lights on the mast meant that this was a towing vessel. Sure enough, the binoculars showed a dim strobe light some distance behind the strange craft. We were under full sail at the time and I had turned on the deck floods to illuminate the sails, thus demonstrating to anyone looking, that we were a sailing vessel under sail. The tow stayed two miles off and slowly passed us by, the third "tow" we have seen in the past two days. We have probably seen a total of another three in the past six years.

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At 0905 hours, I noted that we had run a total of 146 miles in the previous 24 hours. Also the wind had shifted by near 30 degrees and lightened. For the remainder of the day we motor-sailed, under full sail. Sometimes the wind would pick up and we could turn off the engine for and hour or so, before adding a little "Yanmar boost" back to the propulsion mix again, when our speed dropped. In mid-ocean we might just have slowed down but the weather forecast predicts a cold front is sweeping this direction from the north and might arrive in the next 24 hours. The front would bring strong contrary winds and we would like to be in shelter before this occurs.

1100 hours we are visited by a pod of perhaps a dozen "common" dolphins, who play and jump around the bow for fifteen minutes or so. Always a pleasant interlude.

In the course of tidying the boat, Annette discovered her mouth organ that has been hiding. She hasn't played this instrument in two decades and the second night at sea night began with her practicing to rediscover her skills.
 

March 1, 2009

Position N 21 13.7' W 070 24.3' at 1125 hours UTM. All well on board. 55 miles to anchorage at Grand Turk.

 

Another tow in the night. This vessel did not show the requisite lights but approached us directly and was trailing a faint light, some distance behind it. The towing boat did change course after I turned on the deck floods to illuminate the sails and slowly passed us, less than a mile off our beam. The vessel was short and did not seem to have any kind of bridge, just a couple of towers with lights. The sides of the boat were illuminated by a series of floods as though they were portholes and I never did make out what was being towed. This makes the fourth tow that has passed us, headed in approximately the same direction.

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Dawn showed that we had acquired a large and very dead flying fish on our deck during the night, as well as a desiccated squid. The chart shows we have passed extensive reefs and shallows during the previous night but have seen little evidence of their existence. At noon we are within 12 miles of the island of Grand Turk and can see buildings ashore. We must pass well to the north of the island, as it too lies on a shallow bank, with reefs awash. The waves from astern seem to build as we pass a near vertical submarine cliff and the depth abruptly changes from 2,000 feet to 80 feet. We have "shaved" our approach, in that we will pass quite close to the reefs and we search the water ahead of us for evidence of breakers. The waves are 8 to 10 feet, steep but not breaking and approaching from behind. It is difficult to spot breaking waves from "behind" but the radar seems to show a line ahead and we instantly change course to leave the breakers to port.

We entered the deep Turk's Island passage without losing the roller from behind and changed course for South Caicos instead of the anchorage at Grand Turk. Although this extends our passage by 25 miles, the Cockburn Harbour on South Caicos promises better protection from the predicted frontal systems weather.

The cruising guide warns that an estimated 3,000 humpback whales migrate through the Turk's Island passage in February and March. We scan the waters anxiously for whale spouts but see nothing.

Annette performs her first mouth organ concert for me and plays, "Row, row your boat". I applaud.

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At 1710 hours (2110 hours UTM) we dropped anchor in Cockburn Harbour at position N 21 29.4' W 071 32.3', South Caicos Island.

 

March 2, 2009

There had been a single yacht at the anchorage when we arrived yesterday and we dinghied over to say "Hi" this morning. Aboard "SV Carefree" were Mark and Diane, bound for St. Thomas, USVI. Diane asked us the origin of the name "DoodleBug" and enquired if it had anything to do with seismic exploration. This is the first time anyone has ever made the connection. Diane had worked for Petty-Ray Geophysical in the 60s on a doodlebug crew (seismic recording crew) as a "jug hustler". This does not refer to the female anatomy but to the placement of microphones or geophones as they are called.

Our destination this morning was to check in with Customs and Immigration and we began by calling at the "Sea View Marina" store. Customs could not be raised by telephone and we decided we would simply walk over to their office. As we walked through the village, the evidence of devastation was everywhere, as South Caicos had received a direct hit from Hurricane "Ike", last summer. The population is Negroid, as are many of the Caribbean Islands and if they have received any governmental help to rebuild, then it is not much on display. A crudely printed sign, pasted to the door of the marina grocery store, the biggest on the island, asked for people to pay a sizable cash deposit before ordering building supplies, due to the "economic times". We met several beggars and for many people we met, there was an air of sullen hopelessness. When I had asked at the marina office if there was a place to get breakfast while we waited for customs, the proprietor thought for a few minutes before commenting, "There is nothing like that around here".

We found the Customs office easily enough and checked in. The next stop was to the Immigration office and again, although these buildings were hard to find and identify as government entities, the officials within were friendly and helpful and we admired the fading portraits on the wall of a youthful Queen Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh. The portrait of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, must have been made when he was about fifteen.

We were directed to the Western Union office next to the marina store for tourist information. They had no brochures of any kind but the lady within asked, "What do you want to know?" Annette enquired about the fish processing plant, restaurant and beach for shelling. The lady was able to give vague directions to each but we have seen no maps of the island. The marina office has the only car for rental and the quoted price was US $121 per day. Sorta expensive.

Back to DoodleBug and we scouted the anchorage in the dinghy, using a hand held depth sounder, seeking a spot to anchor that would be clear of the swell. We moved twice and finally set the hook in 9 feet of water, leaving a little over two feet below our keel, so long as the waves did not make us bob up and down. A second yacht had arrived, "SV Sea of Tranquility" and we invited Phyllis and Lonny over for sundowners as well as Mark and Diane from "Carefree".

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Mark and Diane arrived early, as Mark had been swimming below the anchored yachts, picking up conch from the sea bed. Annette has been whining about conch almost non-stop for weeks as we approached Caribbean. She got to sit in the dinghy with Mark while he extracted, gutted and cleaned his catch. Naturally we all had to try the raw product that had been diced and soaked in lime juice. I ate two token morsels, helped along with a Heineken to overcome the gag reflex and can now cross this one off my life list of goals.
 

March 3, 2009

Today we vowed to see the sights on South Caicos. We dinghied ashore and met up with Lonnie and Phyllis (aboard "SV Sea of Tranquility") and began the tour by hitting the (only) local restaurant for fried chicken, fries and beer, three of the cornerstones of the food pyramid. Annette said that the chicken was OK but I am not a big fan of "wings", I've always been more of a "breast" man. The beer was fine and while we ate, Annette found the opportunity to corner three researchers from what the locals call the "Lobster People", actually the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, who have a Spiny Lobster Aquaculture project underway. While we finished our second beer, Annette discovered that a female lobster might lay a one half million eggs in her lifetime with a one percent survival rate. The young lobsters look like crickets shortly after hatching and will change their exoskeleton every three days during their first couple of months growth. The temporary absence of exoskeleton in this early growth period of course makes them extremely vulnerable to predation. By the time they are a foot long at around 18 months, they are considered suitably sized for human predation. As we left the restaurant, our thoughts were upon exoskeletons, thermidor and drawn butter.

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Our next goal was the extensive salt pans on the east side of the island. They are no longer in use and the state of the rusting machinery that controlled the salt water sluice gates, suggested that it has been decades since this was a working entity. The ponds were separated from each other by narrow stone lined dikes and although these were decaying, it was possible to walk along them between the ponds. We were tracking down the legendary Caicos flamingos but although we scared off plenty of cranes and pelicans, we saw nary a flamingo. The decayed machinery to control the flow of salt water between the ponds was fascinating and we puzzled as to what the pile of giant rusting cog wheels, sprockets and drive shafts might have looked like in better days.

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On our return to DoodleBug we walked through the ruins of docks and marinas, which we assumed to have been a casualty of hurricane Ike last year, while Annette anxiously scoured the beach to see if there were any shells she might have missed. As we approached our dinghy, a car pulled up alongside and we recognized the lady from the Immigration office. She informed us that she had forgotten to charge us US$15 for "overtime", since we had arrived late Sunday night. When I pointed out that we had checked in first thing on Monday morning, she said that this made no difference, we must still pay the Sunday overtime charge. Bemused and amused, we gave her the fifteen bucks and waited while she spent the next twenty minutes laboriously writing out a receipt.

 

March 4, 2009

The Caicos Banks are part of the Bahamas platform, formed some 25 million years ago. As far as we were concerned, it is some 2,000 square miles of shallow water in the Atlantic Ocean. We had scoured the guide book, sworn at the author, meticulously checked the charts and decided that we would attempt to cross these banks, on a 50 mile passage from our anchorage in South Caicos to the most northwesterly island, "Providenciales". The hazards were twofold. First the limestone banks have scattered coral heads upon which we might cast ourselves and which can only be located by the sea color - when viewed in "good light". Second, the banks are shallow, featureless and provide lots of opportunity to run aground, simply because there is not enough water depth to float in.

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We raised anchor at 0655 hours and set sail, following Lonnie and Phyllis on "SV Against the Wind" out of the narrow entrance of Cockburn Harbour. The first leg was in open waters along the east side of the islet of Long Cay before making a turn to the west through a gap in the protecting reefs. "SV Against the Wind" draws about 18 inches less water than DoodleBug and we thus parted company as we set course across the "Starfish channel", which promised deeper waters as it lies to the south of the direct route. The trip was white knuckled from beginning to end when we were confronted by dozens of coral heads, appearing as black areas of the aquamarine colored waters. We carefully maneuvered around these, seeking clear gaps and changing course to miss clusters of coral patches. The time was just after 0800 hours and the sun was low in the sky behind us, not providing particularly good light for spotting rocks ahead of us and definitely blinding anyone headed the opposite direction by the reflected glare. Our previous experience with Pacific bombies was of vertical columns of coral that sit in hundreds of feet of water in lagoons and are relatively easily spotted by the water color change. These coral heads were in less than 10 feet of water. DoodleBug draws 6 foot 7 inches. We came to large patches of dark brownish colors and at first tried to bypass them. They were so extensive, this became problematic and we were wandering off our designated course. We tried edging closer to these areas and saw no change in the water depth, indicating that the colors we were seeing were perhaps due to weed. We saw yellowish colors of boulders on the sea bed and changed course abruptly several times to miss "black" areas that skipped away from us. These were cloud shadows. Occasionally the whole sky was overcast and we lost the almost blinding light green color of clear water. The guide book says do not sail in these conditions. We have encountered this before. You get dire warnings and caveats about sailing in "poor light" i.e. overcast but no advice is offered as to what to do in this event. Launch the life raft and drink all the remaining beer while it is still cold? We strained our eyes and tried removing or putting on polarized sunglasses to see if we could penetrate the mysteries of the waters ahead of us. All day the wind blew at between 14 and 22 knots from the beam. The waves were in the 2 to 3 foot range and we motor-sailed. We did not dare traveling with full sail, just used the mainsail. This was because we could go to full reverse on the engine but this is not possible under sail. In addition, the Genoa would have blocked all views on our port side. We were traveling at near seven knots and felt we could not be distracted from our watch for even seconds.

The water colors of this vast shallow bank were simply stunning. Like a giant, sloppy swimming pool. The puffy cumulus clouds were green tinged underneath as they reflected the light from the waters. After 20 miles of this, the coral heads had thinned out and the challenge became that of shallow water. Our depth gauge showed 6.8 feet of water below us indicating that we were aground but I had already checked the datum of this instrument against our portable, hand-held device and knew we had a whole additional 18 inches below us. Of course if we caught a 3 foot wave, we could still touch bottom but this did not happen. For miles we skirted heart stopping shallows and then gradually, the water depth began to deepen towards a "comfortable" nine feet.

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We entered Sapodilla Bay at 1515 hours and dropped anchor at position N 21 44.4' W 072 17.4' DoodleBug had made her first crossing on the Caicos Bank.

There were perhaps a half dozen yachts already at anchor and we were told of a restaurant nearby. We cleaned ourselves up and dinghied ashore. The water was very shallow near the sand beach and we tied the dinghy off on some moored jet-skis, believing that the owners were not likely to return at dusk. A dirt track led to a gravel road and some twenty yards from the beach, we came upon three young adults who were distraughtly searching the area. They had arrived in two separate rental cars and both vehicles had their windows smashed and the contents of the vehicles rifled, whilst the youngsters were on the beach. Although the police station was but a third of a mile away, the police were able to offer no useful assistance. We continued our walk to the Las Brisas resort and had a fine meal. Annette was concerned that we might become mugging victims on our return to our beach landing along the unlit gravel road. As it was, the resort manager kindly drove us back to our dark and damp dinghy and we made the return trip to DoodleBug without incident.

 

March 5, 2009

This morning we listened to a local cruiser's radio net, sponsored by the incredibly helpful Simon, the manager of nearby Southside Marina www.southsidemarina-tci.com . Amongst other information, Simon provided a daily weather forecast and his cast of the entrails confirmed what our GRIB files were showing. It was going to blow hard from the north, for the next several days. Not the wind direction we need for our next leg to the Bahamas. Simon also confirmed what we had suspected, there is nothing in Sapodilla Bay that might constitute "services". Although we are too deep to get into either of the two local marinas, there is a third, "Cooper Jack" that had been under construction. The project was halted a few years ago, leaving the completed basin and approach. Simon suggested that we move to this location and then would be able to access his marina services via dinghy. I examined the approach and noted that the shallowest charted water depth was 7 feet. Low tide was 1 foot above "mean low water", the chart datum and the afternoon high tide would provide another foot, giving a total 9. I decided that we would leave our anchorage around noon, thereby arriving at the shallowest area an hour later, on a rising tide. If we got stuck, the rising tide would eventually lift us off.

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That morning we wandered the beach looking for tiny shells and then set off at noon, keeping as precisely as we could to Simon's suggested route but making frequent course changes to avoid dark patches. About a half mile from the entrance to the marina and in an area marked as 7 foot depth, we touched bottom. Fortunately the bottom here is soft sand and with the engine at high RPM, we managed to reverse our course to Sapodilla Bay. I am sure there is no longer either rust or barnacles on the bottom of our keel. The wind had stayed conveniently at near 25 knots and spray was washing over the foredeck as we traversed the short chop, close inshore. I sincerely regretted towing the dinghy and prayed like the dickens that we would not flip it. Three hours after we had begun, we reanchored in Sapodilla Bay on just about the same spot as before.

The past three hours of shallow reef dodging in shallow water and strong winds had unnerved us and we were just reviving ourselves with cold beer, when we hear a horn being sounded. The second time it sounded, I realized it was an emergency signal and popped my head out of the cockpit to see what was going on. Silence and nothing. Back down below. Again the emergency signal of five blasts and this time I realized that a white sloop was dragging its anchor and was about to hit the sloop "La Dolce Vita" anchored nearby. The white sloop crunched into the side of La Dolce Vita and bounced off. It was obviously unmanned. Annette and I jumped in our dinghy with Annette grabbing a boat hook and handheld VHF, while I started the outboard motor. We zoomed across the water, boarded the errant vessel with ease and let out another sixty feet of anchor rode. By now, other cruisers had arrived in their dinghies and I dug out a second anchor and rode from a forward locker which some kind soul then deployed from his dinghy. What excitement! The dragee was SV Mandara and it now lay safely re-anchored off DoodleBug's port beam.

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The Southside Marina folks had organized a free BBQ for local cruisers with free shuttle from Sapodilla Bay over to their marina. This just about emptied Sapodilla Bay, as anything "free" does around cruisers but when we left at dusk, the owner of Mandara had not yet returned.
 

March 6, 2009

Simon the manager of Southside Marina had arranged for a rental car to meet us this morning at our beach landing and we dinghied ashore to wait. The owner / captain of Mandara (the yacht that dragged anchor yesterday) had surfaced and was also waiting on the beachhead with tales of broken autopilots and 40 hours of singlehanding and handsteering. He was still unaware of yesterday's excitement caused by his vessel.

For the balance of the morning, we collected groceries and shuttled them to DoodleBug before setting off in the afternoon for a tour of the island.

The roads were well surfaced and traffic was light as we headed to the eastern extremity of Providenciales. The Spanish came here in 1492 and determined that the islands were "worthless". They enslaved and carted off the inhabitants and within a generation, the islands were deserted. Today, the limestone that barely rears itself from the sea, supports a dry, low and dusty vegetation. There is scattered new construction everywhere but empty, shuttered, yet to be completed, or boarded up. The island has a forlorn, unwelcoming look. Is this due to previous hurricane damage or to the Global economy? To us at least, the answer is not obvious.

On our return trip, we stopped at Turtle Cove marina and visited fellow Amel owners, Mike and Tracy aboard "SV The Lady T". This marina lies on the north side of the island and they have been trapped here by the strong wind-producing breakers across the marina entrance channel. It is always fun chatting to other Amel owners and this Super Maramu is a later model than DoodleBug wherein Amel experimented with some of the modifications they intended to utilize in the new Amel54 series of boats.

We had a dinner date with Gerald and Diana aboard the catamaran "Whiskers" and we were now running slightly late. As we left the beach in the dinghy, I must have touched the sand bottom with the propeller, as all power was lost. The dinghy would still move very slowly but the when the throttle was opened up, the engine behaved as though there was a slipping clutch. I knew there was no "shear pin" on this propeller but was unsure of the mechanism used to protect the engine. Gerald confirmed that the propeller is held to it's spindle by hard rubber, vulcanized to the metal surfaces. When the propeller is suddenly stopped by hitting something, the rubber vulcanized bond breaks, to prevent damage to the engine itself. The only viable repair is to replace  the propeller. Fortunately I have a spare prop but as it is getting late; Gerald picked us up from DoodleBug in his dinghy for the ride to the beach.

After a fine meal, we parked the rental car at the beach and followed the recommendations of the rental company to leave the car unlocked with the window down. This is to prevent damage to the vehicle caused by enterprising locals smashing the window to break in.

 

March 7, 2009

Busy day. We had attempted to check out of the country yesterday but had been rebuffed. We could not check out more than 24 hours in advance of actual departure time and had been commanded to return this morning at 0830 hours. Of course this ensures that the officers receive "overtime" pay since today is Saturday. "You really will be here at 0830 hours?", I queried again. "Certainly!", the response. Lonnie aboard "SV Sea of Tranquility" had felt that his dinghy was underpowered for the strong winds we were experiencing and had asked me for a dinghy ride ashore so that he too could check out.

At first light, Annette and I raised the outboard motor to the deck and removed the damaged propeller. The replacement propeller was soon greased and mounted but we had to manufacture a new split pin to prevent the propeller nut from becoming loose. This just meant finding a split pin amongst our spares and trimming it to the exact length, without losing

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the blasted thing overboard as it popped off the cutters. The outboard was then remounted on the bucking stern of the dinghy and tested. Back in business! We grabbed our documents and swung by "Sea of Tranquility" to pick up Lonnie before heading for the beach. The rental car was undamaged, which was fine, because although I had purchased the optional insurance coverage, it did not include damage to either tires or glass. Next stop was the security barrier at the port. After some minutes we were informed that although the Customs officer was present as promised, the officer who had the office key was not. We have heard this before! Instead of waiting, we refueled and returned the rental car and then had the rental people give us a ride back to Customs. This time we were more successful and for an overtime fee of US$23 received our port clearance.

At 1210 hours, DoodleBug had been cleared for action and we raised anchor and set sail for the "West Caicos Marina". This was a run of just over 12 miles along the shallow "Sandbore" channel that cleared the Caicos Bank. The winds were still gusting up to 26 knots from astern and it was heavily overcast, with occasional showers - not ideal light conditions for spotting reefs. Fortunately we didn't hit any and two hours later, we were in the open sea and turning to the south to gain entrance to this marina that is not mentioned in our cruising guide. It was another abandoned project; the basin and approach had been completed and then further construction was halted. We had timed our approach for 1400 hours in order to have good light conditions for eyeball navigating the narrow and shallow entrance through the reefs. As it was, 

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the sun appeared during our final approach and we found that the entrance had been marked with red and green navigation buoys. The channel was deeper than expected and DoodleBug sailed into the deserted marina basin and dropped anchor at 1400 hours at position N 21 41.9' W 072 27.7'. There were parked vehicles ashore and several utility building but no other sign of human presence. The wind blew strongly but we lay as though on a mill pond and settled down with paperback books for the balance of the afternoon.