April 29th – May 13th, 2014 (-4 on UTC)
We departed San Juan for what would be our only multi-day sail of the season; most unusual! The weather was perfect and we had a full mainsail and reacher on a starboard tack for the expected 48 hour trip. As the day progressed, the winds picked up and just before sunset we saw a large power boat 10 miles ahead of us on a reciprocal course. It was a 210 footer going 20 knots. No worries and we spotted her a half mile to our west as she passed. Then I heard a radio call to us (by name!) from \”Lady M\”. It turns out that this was to be a stunning small world story!
Friends Chris and Geoff (who Nikki and I had met in Colundra north of Brisbane two years ago) were crewing on this mega yacht and helping take the boat to Mallorca – for them a 7 day trip! They saw our boat name on the AIS and knew immediately it was us. They were heading to San Juan to fuel up and then would head across the Atlantic. We have been in email communication for several years, met once and now were literally passing ships in the (almost) night. We chatted briefly and said we\’d continue to keep in touch via email. Their sailboat is on the US East Coast and they may head to Europe upon their return from the delivery. It doesn\’t get any smaller world than this…
The sail was non eventful and the weather cooperative. We would have done the 385 miles a bit faster, but as Grand Turk was a low lying island and had lots of reefs, we felt this would be a better approached at first light. As such, we kept a single reef and no headsail up our last night as to slow down and arrive around 8-9 am.
Grand Turk geographically is much like Barbuda in the Leeward Islands including a large interior lagoon. A member of the Rockefeller Family tried to dredge and keep open it\’s shallow and narrow entrance to make a marina, but the project has been abandoned. Like many places in the Caribbean, the global financial crisis took it\’s toll. We would see lots of evidence of this throughout the Turks and Caicos Islands.
We anchored off South Dock which turned out to be a cruise ship dock. The place went from absolutely empty to South Beach (Florida) in one hour as a cruise ship arrived just after we did. They even have a Jimmy Buffet\’s \”Margaritaville\” restaurant here – open only on cruise ship days. We went ashore and after a bit of a hunt found customs and immigration. The two gals were in charge and a bit officious, but the guys who did the paper work were a delight.
We found the people of the Turks and Caicos to be perhaps the friendliest in the Eastern Caribbean. Just uniformly so throughout the entire group. We moved to Cockburn Town, the main town which was only a backtrack of a few miles. The anchorage was quite shallow and we could only get within 250 yards of the beach. The town dock was under repair as well so it would be a \”wet landing\” (one where we have to get at least a little wet to get ashore). The waters around these islands go from VERY deep to VERY shallow in the space of a less than a quarter mile. We were anchored in 8 feet of water and less than 300 yards seaward of us, it was over 2,500 feet deep.
Grand Turk seems an odd name for this island but it made sense once we heard the story. There is a cactus that is native to the island called the Grand Turk. It is green and shaped like a small watermelon standing up on it\’s end. The interesting feature is that it has a red crown shaped hat like a Turkish \”Fez\”, with what appears to be a green tassel coming out of the top. Hence the name of this island given by the Spanish in the days of Columbus.
The Caicos Islands, 25 miles to the north are politically part of the group but somewhat distinct. We did a walk about town (which didn\’t take very long) and found the most helpful, friendly folk anywhere. I would recommend a cruiser stop in this group just for the warm friendly smiles if for no other reason. After a recovery day and a bit of wait for the weather, we had new friends Bev and Bob aboard \”Icaros\” anchor nearby. We\’d met them recently on Culebrita in the Spanish Virgins. Bev and Bob met in Pharmacy school in Canada, but emigrated to Australia and fly the Aussie flag aboard their Catana 43 Catamaran. We had a few drinks and puu puu\’s and became acquainted sharing stories of our mutual voyages and reminiscence of Townsville which Nikki and I had been to in 2012. As it turns out, we\’d meet them again in Highbourne Cays in the Exumas – Bahamas.
Bev and Bob went off to Salt Cay, a nearby island for a night and we headed for South Caicos which was a nice 3 hour sail to yet another \”Cockburn\”; this time Cockburn Harbour. We wanted to try a trip across the Caicos Bank, which would be a unique experience to us. First, you want to do it when the weather is calm, so the water is clearest and get the view of one of the world\’s largest natural swimming pools. The Caicos Bank is approximately 50 miles long, by 30 miles wide! The water is rarely deeper than 20 feet and if you take the right path, it\’s mostly 7-12 feet and a flat white sandy bottom. This would be a delightful trip if it worked out.
We were contacted upon our arrival at South Caicos by James who is the dive safety officer from the SFS Marine Research Center. He was most helpful in getting us anchored in a good spot. The harbor was open to the prevailing winds with depths of only 12 feet at most. It was also very small and had lots of current. We ended up anchoring in the lee of Long Cay, a few hundred yards opposite the main port. Main port is relative term as there are only a few hundred people that live in the area.
At Long Cay, the depths were only 4+ feet under the hulls, but the conditions were nice. The sand reflecting off the bottom was an amazing visual and the water so clear that it looked like we were floating above the bottom. We took the dinghy across the way and the marine institute which was a mostly college aged group, explained to us what their duties were. The students come from about 20 different countries and participate in various marine biology groups which involve doing underwater measurements, fish counts and reef assessments. As such, they do a lot of diving. They all looked pretty relaxed and seemed to be having a great academic experience….:-)
In our brief time here, Nikki and I went for a walk about the outlying areas of town. We saw the Boiling Hole at the salt ponds and the Pink Flamingos which migrate between Florida and South America. For whatever reason, the birds were attracted to the old commercial salt ponds where lots of precipitated sea salt is still in some abundance.
The next morning, we upped anchor early and headed to the first way point to cross the Caicos Bank. It was a perfect day for the trip; the seas calm and very little wind. As it was a long way, we\’d have to motor it to get across on the same day. However, the marine guidebook said, that if it was calm, you could anchor anywhere on the bank in great holding sand – even for an overnight. A unique experience would be had, completely out of sight of land; anchored in shallow water – effectively in the middle of the ocean. As it was, we\’d planned on a lunch stop somewhere out in the middle where we anchored for an hour and had a lovely snorkel. Nikki enjoyed the many starfish and shells we could easily find in the less than 10 foot depths.
Amongst the many things that Astronauts remark on from space are man made and natural features of the Earth as seen from outer space. The Caicos Banks ranks third on their list of most impressive natural sites. If memory serves, the Grand Canyon was first. The white sand is highly reflective and surrounded by only a few low lying islands and deep cobalt blue water with depths to over 5000 feet! We really enjoyed this trip and remarked about it in our daily position report that we issued from the center of the bank.
Some of our followers are with us almost daily and receive our position reports live as we move from place to place. Most of you are content to wait for the ship\’s blog, which is not often published \”in real time\” as the position reports always are.
We arrived at the small port of Sapodilla on the south side of \”Provo\” (nickname for the main island of Providenciales) in the north of the Caicos Islands. We took a quick trip ashore there the next morning to see an area of rocks inscribed with the names of shipwrecked sailors. Some of these went back into the 1600\’s!
Our planned destination for the day was Turtle Cove Marina in the main town of \”Provo\” and it was less than 4 miles away as the crow flies, but alas – we aren\’t crows. It would be 30 mile trip around the island and it\’s reefs. The entrance to Turtle Cove is quite daunting. Just as we arrived, we had a 30 knot squall rain hard on us and completely, but briefly, obscured our sight of the reef. Next, there is the shallow reefs which are narrow and winding with so so marked navigational buoys. Finally, there is the turn into the marina\’s entrance which has sand banks on either side. The banks were both visually blocking my seeing the water to either side of the boat as we entered. That gives you an idea of how narrow it is. The channel perhaps 80 feet wide with shoals all along it. It had a sharp bend to the right and then a 270 degree turn to the left like a life sized question mark shape as you entered. Add the current and wind to this and it was a bit exciting. For those of you South Pacific sailors, think of Vuda Point Marina, Fiji but twice as long with the above mentioned twists! All of this after a mile and a half of narrow reef channel.
We docked along a nice side tie and the marina was not particularly busy. The staff was friendly and the marina had some nice restaurants and would be a good base to explore the island from. While we were here, we got a hire car so we could have mobility. Also, we both wanted to try KITE BOARDING!
Provo has a perfect beach to learn to kiteboard along it\’s southeastern shore – Long Bay Cay Beach. We contacted Wayne and his lovely girlfriend, Caroline who was down from Canada taking a bit of time off her duties as an anesthesiologist. Caroline did the appointments via email and we arranged to do what they called a \”kite mudder\’ lesson the next morning. The features which make this beach perfect for learning are: Less than chest deep water for over one square mile! Flat sandy bottom with no reefs. Steady trade winds blowing at a slight angle toward the shore and of course, 82 degree (28 deg C) water temperatures. Also, there are no real obstructions on the beach to interfere with launching and recovering the big kites.
As we had steady 17-23 knot trade winds in stable weather, this was a bonus as well. No big wind shifts or squalls to bother with. The first thing to learn is how to fly a kite. These are between 8-17 square meters in surface area (30-60 square feet). Your weight matters in combination with how much wind you have to decide which kite to use. First was the trainer kite, but as we knew how to sail, we didn\’t have to stay in that very long. Next, we added the board. That\’s when it gets a bit wild. You have to \”think\” about the kite and the board not only to get started, but once up, both skills have to be used at once. Herein lies the challenge! It took me till day three to get up on the board with any success. That was about lesson hour 6. On my final day, I was getting up pretty well, but still wouldn\’t say I was at all accomplished. Nikki did one day of lessons and after another primer will be ready to give it a go getting up on the board. Our time with Wayne, Caroline and instructors Alex and Nick with perhaps one of the highlights of the season. We\’d recommend the Turks and Caicos Kiteboard school to anyone who wants to give it a go!
Nikki and I decided we\’d also try a dive at Turks and Caicos as it\’s considered one of the premier diving islands in the Caribbean. We did a two tank \”wall dive\” and it was really quite nice. We went with Dive Provo (a very well known dive outfitter) and it was a fun day. We also saw the Turks and Caicos Aggressor (live aboard dive boat) when we were off the very up-market and exclusive Aman Resort on the northwest side of the island. When we returned to Turtle Cove that evening, we had the Turks and Caicos Aggressor docked right next to us. We didn\’t know it, but this was their \”homebase\”. They do week long dive trips throughout the group. The divers live aboard and are off dock for most of the week. Cindy and I had done similar trips in the South Pacific on the Solomon Islands, the Galapagos Islands and also our honeymoon in Palau aboard the \”Palau Aggressor\”. We asked for and were given a lovely tour of the boat as I wanted Nikki to see what a live aboard dive boat was like.
As Nikki had read about the Aman Resort and wanted to try to drive up to the lighthouse on the northwest of the island (always one of her favorites!), we took our car and just went on an island junket. We found some lovely secluded beaches, but as we didn\’t have a four wheel drive vehicle, prudence dictated that we not drive up to the lighthouse. Instead, we took a flyer to see if we could get into the Aman Resort. After the guard called in, they said yes (we didn\’t have a reservation) where we were met by our lovely guide. She gave us a tour of the hotel grounds, told us where we could and couldn\’t go (very exclusive!) and left us at the bar. The place was gorgeous and the rates were 2,000 USD to 15,000 USD/night depending on your accommodations. Most all the rooms were private beach villas and we saw about 10 guests. They had a wonderful library, infinity pool and lovely restaurant. We opted for the bar!
Our personal bartender (no one else was at the bar!..:-) was Aris from the Philippines. He explained to us about the hotel and it\’s sister properties around the world and that there were lots of Filipino employees at the hotel. He made us the BEST Mojito\’s EVER and gave us the recipe! Just to give you an idea…. Nikki and I each had one and then asked to split another. 60.00 USD! Actually, he sort of gave us each a second one but didn\’t charge us for four, only three!…ssshhh! I left him a nice tip. We really enjoyed our few hours in the true lap of luxurious surroundings and our fun time with Arias at the bar.
We departed back to the hotel and reflected on what a wonderful time we\’d had in the Turks and Caicos, how nice the people were and the fabulous water world of diving and kite boarding! We did some last minute shopping (there were two very nice markets!) and then got ready to continue the adventure off to our next and second to last destination for this season – The Bahamas.
Stay tuned, we\’ve the Bahamas to go before our season ends in South Florida!
Scott and Nikki