Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Headed to 'Big South'

We're mentally kicking ourselves for waiting all these years to visit South Caicos. We've had  opportunities from time to time but it always just seemed to be more  of a hassle than we were prepared to take on at that particular moment.  Some of you must know that feeling when it's something you've wanted to do, but just not right now.  In our case the timing was wrong.  Or we had something else to do. Always an excuse and now we regret it because if we had seen this part of the TCI ten years ago we would have been looking for any excuse to come back. It's not an easy trip, but it's oh so worth it. To say we're enjoying our stay here would be very much an understatement.   To say this is becoming one of our favorite places in the Turks and Caicos Islands would not be an understatement.

This is a morning view of the entrance to Cockburn Harbour from where we've been anchored for over a week now.  The settlement here has something around a thousand people living on the rock in the left side of this photo.  On the other side of those islands is the Atlantic, with a 7,000 ft. deep trench just off the reef.

 
This trip actually started off as somewhat of a whim.  We'd been back in South Side Marina for a week or so after our last little boat trip out around West Caicos.   The WindGuru and other weather people were forecasting a really nice week ahead.  We decided to load the boat up with provisions and head out to French Cay for a few days.  Maybe get back over to the southern tip of West Caicos for some photos we've been wanting to take.  Then, at some point we changed the plan. We'd been talking about getting further away from Provo. Going to see someplace we'd never been before.  Someplace totally new.  The subject of South Caicos came up as one possibility and we looked at each other and said "Let's go." And  then we did. The path across the Caicos Bank looked something like this: 
 
 
We started out in very familiar waters.  Working our way out through the coral heads and shoals south of Provo has become second nature. Dooley the Displaced went along with the whole thing, probably assuming he'd be back on a paddleboard in Sapodilla Bay shortly. He was wrong on both counts. It wasn't going to be Sapodilla Bay, and it wasn't going to be shortly.
 
 
When we passed Bay Cay this time we turned to the east.  And we headed out to places we've only heard and read about. You know... the places we like best. La Gringa set up an iPad running navigation software and we wedge it into the little aft cabin window near the outside helm. Dooley the Disinterested settled in under my feet to keep an eye on me and away we went.   We averaged about 7 knots.  All day.   That's crossing the Caicos Banks at about the speed of a leisurely bike ride. In a three bedroom cottage.
 
 
The wind was coming from the East as usual, so it was essentially in our faces.   We decided to use the engines instead of the sails. Oh the sails would have gotten us there. Just not on the same day.   We had about 50 miles to travel and zig zagging would have meant we had to anchor somewhere for the night out on the Caicos Bank.  There's just no way we would voluntarily sail through these waters in the dark if we could help it. So as the familiar island of Providenciales slowly disappeared into the ocean behind us, we spent the next seven hours listening to the little diesels, watching the water and waves, and keeping an eye on the cloud bank developing to our north. The seas were being reasonable and that's always a nice thing. We did have about a two foot swell running but the angle between the wave direction and our direction was comfortable this time.
 
 
We only had to make about three minor course changes on the entire trip.  Our ancient "auto pilot" put us into 360 degree circles several times so we ended up steering the entire trip by hand.  Good practice for a young seaman, I suppose. Or for an old dog.    One more thing on the Fix It list.
 
Speaking of which, we had a little dogleg turn to make as we passed by Six Hill Cays.   Those were off to the south of us on the left side of this image:
 
 
You can also see that the approved route is to head down south of Long Cay into the open ocean, then turn to the Norteast and travel up to the  entrance into Cockburn Harbour and South Caicos.
 
This is what Six Hill Cay looked like from the cockpit of Twisted Sheets as we went by.  Funny, it looked a lot closer on Google Earth.  And I guess that bump on the right doesn't quite qualify it for seven hill status or something.  Maybe we'll go check that out if we have the time, inclination, boat, and weather all on the same day. Hey, it could happen.
 
 
Here's a video of our first sight of Long Cay. A couple of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins had raced out to meet the boat and La Gringa was hoping they would reappear after she went to the bow with her camera.  They did not, but she got this footage of what Long Cay looks like from a distance.  At first we thought the light colored blocks must be buildings.   As we got closer we could see that they are big blocks of limestone reflecting the intermittent sunshine.



We continued on and after what seemed like a very long day we were rounding the southern edge of Long Cay. We passed between the island and a patch of reef offshore that is named "First and Last Reef" on the charts. I guess it's always going to be either one or the other, and  maybe even both.   Now that I think about it, First and Last reef could have a bit of an ominous ring to it, too.  Many times a boat's first reef has also been it's last one.

 
And there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever when the boat passed over the edge of the Caicos Bank and into the Atlantic.  The water gets deep, dark, and big. Very quickly.  Instantly in fact.  The depth immediately takes all the turquoise color right out of the water.
 
But we'd timed the weather fairly well and the trip up along the outside of Long Cay was comfortable.  It's only about three and a half miles from the turn to the mouth of the harbor.  This is a very scenic trip.  There are vertical cliffs rising from the sea.  Some crashing waves.  We'll show you some photos of those a little later in the program.
 
We were very glad to finally be at the entrance to Cockburn Harbour.  And after ten years of thinking about it, and one day of doing it, we finally made it to South Caicos. 
 
 
As we passed between Long Cay and Dove Cay into the Harbour we were watching the skies and clouds developing. We were happy to find a place to drop the anchor and relax after a long day listening to the rattle and clatter of our little engines.  The sudden silence was like dipping our ears in cool aloe vera.  And we took the rainbow to be a good sign.  
 
 
Dooley the Desperate was in dire need of a fire hydrant or the local equivalent.  And we wanted to check out the town. We had heard that there was a new restaurant right near the dinghy dock. Neither of us felt like cooking or washing dishes after the long day, so we deployed the RIB  and took Dooley ashore with the additional plan of buying a couple of cracked conch dinners to take back to the boat with us.  We didn't have the bright sunlight that would have made these some real colorful photos. We were under gray skies, light drizzle, and lower light conditions. Things got a whole lot prettier later on.
 
This is the "dinghy dock", where we tied up the rubber boat while we explored the immediate area. South Caicos is the fishing center of these islands and there are quite a few of the local conch boats tied up here.  What an assortment.  Our little gray dinghy was fairly drab by comparison to some of these paint jobs.
 
 
 
All of the conch boats we've seen are home made, and there is an obvious pride taken in them by their owners.  Even the presently unused hulls are fairly neat and well kept. I was impressed by this little skiff on the right, too.  That boat is only about ten feet long.  That could be a lot of fun with the right outboard.
 
 
 
We didn't know where else to go so we tied the dinghy up in the row of colorful Caicos conch craft.  We didn't realize it at the time, but we would be seeing most of these boats and more at least twice a day for the duration of our visit.
 
 
 A couple of local "tour guides" approached us as soon as we climbed out of the boat. They were offering their services to show us the sights of South Caicos, for a price. The initial figure mentioned was thirty dollars. When we ascertained that neither of these guys had a vehicle and that the tour would be a walking tour, well, we decided to table that potential plan while we thought about it. It didn't help settle our minds that one of the would be guides told us that his name is "007".   I think I would have felt better with a real name.   And no, he didn't look anything like Sean Connery. He didn't look like any of the other James Bonds either, come to think about it.  Maybe if he wore a tux it would help.  Or maybe a shaken martini would do it.
 
He did have some local knowledge, though.  He told me that the very building we were standing next to was the original fish "processing plant" on South Caicos and was at least a hundred years old.  I wandered inside, partially to get a photo of the interior.   And partly to try to scrape Mr. Bond off my tail.
 
This is obviously a very old building, with cracked and worn ceramic tiles covering the ancient concrete floor.
 
 
Looking at the crumbling mortar and rock work and old knife marks on a counter surface I could only wonder how many conch and fish had been partitioned up in this little building over the decades.
 
 
We went back out to Twisted Sheets and settled in for the evening. We did snap a few photos. This is a fishing boat that is aground a few hundred meters from where we dropped our anchor. We weren't worried about water depth under our boat. We only need a little over three feet of water to float, and we dropped the hook in ten feet of depth at high tide.  That gave us plenty of clearance.  The boat in this photo is sitting on the side of a shallow sand bar that is only three or four feet deep.
 
 
I know you won't be able to tell much from this still photo, but this is what the bottom looks like leaning over the side of Twisted Sheets where we were first anchored.  This is in about ten feet of water. And just wait until  you see some photos of this water on a sunny day!
 
 
The clouds hung around overnight and into the next day. We were  happy to take it easy, getting the boat set up for life on the anchor vs life underway. It always seems to take us a day to recuperate from a boat trip anyhow and man oh man is this a good place to relax. We were both wandering around with our cameras looking at the beautiful water.  Even on a day festooned with squalls and showers. La Gringa is back in video mode, finally. I think it took a trip of this magnitude to inspire us again. Here, for example, is a short video of the water and the clouds.



We watched boats zooming by us in the harbor. This was a familiar sight, the TCI Ferry service comes here twice a week from Providenciales.  It did not look to me like there were very many passengers in there on this run.
 
 
Dooley the Downloader hasn't quite made the transition to taking care of all his business at sea. So at least twice a day we have to load the little blighter into the dinghy and take him ashore somewhere.   The first place that came to mind was the little island sitting right in the mouth of the entrance to the Harbour, called Dove Cay. The "X" marks the spot where we could land the rubber boat without having to play commando.
 
 
And that "X" spot looks just about exactly like this spot on the still cloudy conditions the next morning when we took Dooley the Distraught ashore.
 
 
 There was a bit of a rip going on over the little sand bar as waves from the open ocean wrapped around the Cay and reconnected on the lee side.  So my duty on this first trip was to just hold the dinghy while La Gringa took Dooley the Dehumidified on a quick tour of the underbrush.  Well, that was the plan, anyhow.  But he never made it to the underbrush.  I guess the specifications for what passes as an acceptable fire hydrant  loosen way up, if you make the little leakers wait long enough.
 
 
While you looking through these, please keep in mind there were some real squalls going on around us on this first full day at South Caicos.   The photographs so far don't really do justice to the scenery here, but we will be taking care of that a little later in the blog after the clouds go away.
 
We did roam around on Dove Cay a little. There's just something a bit exciting about climbing onto a small, unknown island for the first time. Maybe that's why we keep doing it.   
 
This is the view from the little leeside beach on Dove Cay looking across the channel to the north end of Long Cay.  Just about all boat traffic in and out of South Caicos comes through here.  It's possible to get in from the west, the south, and the northeast.  But not if you draw more than a couple feet of water.   This is the safe way.
 
 
This is the view from the same spot on the same beach looking north up the coast of South Caicos.  It looks like open water, but there is a reef just offshore here.   We came on a calm day.  On other days we've seen waves breaking just past that big rock nature plunked into the middle of things.
 
 
You can see that we were getting vague weather threats from the north during this entire little excursion. Amazing what we go through for one little obnoxious pushy dog. I guess the upside is that if he knew how to use a toilet we would have stayed on board and wouldn't have these photos to show you.  Trying to be a cup half-full person here, you see. Easy to do later when I'm back on board Twisted Sheets, all dry and comfy munching on Ritz crackers and cheddar cheese.
 
Climbing up onto Dove Cay there is a small plateau or ledge in what struck me as a good spot to keep an eye on approaching ships between here and Long Cay to the south.  Would make a great gun emplacement, too. In this photo, you see the Atlantic Ocean on the left and Cockburn Harbour on the right.
 
 
One might think that this would be a good spot to build some kind of shelter so that people could maintain a watch on the harbor entrance.  Not such a big deal today, of course, but two hundred years ago it would have been.  And sure enough, there are ruins of a hard packed floor and some scattered rocks and timbers just where a shelter would have made sense.  That rock to the east would block the prevailing winds while camouflaging the post. I think  maybe I've been reading too many of Stephen Hunter's Bob Lee Swagger novels  lately.
 
 
We weren't able to hang around and explore the rest of it, as we had to time our dinghy trips between rain showers.  We made plans to come back on a sunny day when we had more time. Our first two days here did have a lot of clouds and rain mixed in with the sunshine. But that can make for some nice scenes, too. This is looking to the south along the western edge of Long Cay later as the clouds started to break up. It almost makes us want to hop in the dinghy and go see what's at the end of that rainbow.  I said almost.
 
  
Our next trip ashore was a little more scenic in that the clouds were evaporating back to where they came from, the sun was breaking through, and we went to a different location.  This was on Long Cay. We knew Long Cay is an iguana preserve and that dogs are not welcome to wander ashore there.  So we kept Dooley right at the water, below the high tide marks, where he couldn't get into any trouble harassing the local lizards. 
 
 
He didn't like it, but he's used to it.   Besides, he had business of his own to attend to.
 
 
 
The terrain of Long Cay is the typical layered limestone that composes the bedrock of all of these islands. Except here the layers run in a lot of different directions. This Cay is directly on the very eastern edge of the Caicos Bank pedestal, and forming on the edge of a drop into the abyss might well have affected the way sediments were accumulating over the centuries.
 
 
As the sun came out and illuminated the scene we were struck by how very clear and beautiful the water is here.  That's South Caicos in the distance. 
 
 
 We have been getting excellent cell phone service from that tower you can just make out there in the center of this photo of the town.
 

We couldn't do any inland exploring with Dooley here, as we had to keep him basically confined to the water edge.  But we did walk along that edge for a bit to see what it looked like.  And it looked rugged, wild, and beautiful.
 

This is the view to the northwest and the little island there near the middle of the photo is called Moxy Bush. The dark lump to the right of center is the old fishing boat I showed you in an earlier photo.  And the little white blob just visible between us and the long green stretch of island on the right is Twisted Sheets. Nice long ride in a rubber boat. We decided that Dove Cay was closer and we'd keep taking Dooley there for his shore leave when the water conditions permitted.
 
 
We watched other sailboats come into Cockburn Harbour, drop anchor, spend the evening, and then leave. These were boats coming into the Turks and Caicos Islands from somewhere else.  Most likely from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. They can clear into Customs and Immigration here and then continue onward.  This interesting looking metal boat design caught my eye, mostly for the nice looking arch over the stern. 
 
 
Here's another of our temporary neighbors, anchored between us and Long Cay. We actually left our original anchor spot a few days later and moved over to where this boat had been when we first got here. 
 
 
This happened after we returned from a long day ashore to find three new arrivals had come in and anchored all around us. One within about 40 yards. I couldn't understand why they would want to bunch up in one area with all this empty space around.  I guess some boaters keep a herd mentality when they anchor.  We do not. We pulled our hook and moved a half a mile away, picking a new spot surrounded by dangerous obstruction notices on the charts. That seems to have had the desired result. Next time, I am going to seek out the obstructions.  They make good cover. 
 
We saw the conch boats twice a day.  They head out every morning with at least two and usually three fishermen aboard.  They go to the fishing grounds between Middleton and Six Hills Cay and spend most of the day diving for conch and putting lines in the water for fish.   We never tried to get a count, but I'd estimate something between one and two dozen of these boats would zoom by us.   Heading south to fish in the mornings, and back into town with their catch in late afternoon.  
 
 
For you boaters reading this, these guys run Yamaha two stroke outboards without exception.  It's the only make and type of outboard we've seen here, as in other parts of the country. Back some years ago when I was struggling with trying to keep a high powered, fuel injected outboard running on the local fuel I had asked one of the local fishermen why they all liked the Enduro 65 engines so much.   And he told me that reliability and simplicity was important. He said he could completely rebuild a Yamaha two stroke Enduro on his back porch in a Sunday afternoon, using only about a dozen common tools. For year after year. And these guys depend on these engines. Notice there are no radio antennas on these boats. Or oarlocks. Or backup motors. They have to depend on the outboard for their livlihoods as well as their lives.
 
We watched a scenario here that became familiar over the next few days. A boat would come zooming in from the conch fishing areas. And believe me, these guys zoom everywhere they go.
 
 
Then as the boat got nearer to town and in protected waters (like here with Dove Cay in the background), they'd slow the boat to an idle and bustle around for a few moments.  At first we thought they were having engine issues but after a few observations we realized that they were just getting the boat ready to go into the dock.  Getting their lines out from under their catch, I suppose. These boats are built like seagoing pickup trucks.  I'll get some interior photos later on.
 
 
 And then after a few moments of sorting things out in the boat they'll hit the throttle and continue their zoom.  
 
 
As I'm writing this post we're still at anchor at South Caicos. We had only intended to be here a few days before returning to Provo, but we've enjoyed the place so much we've now been here a week and a half.  And we're considering staying a few more days on this trip. And we are in complete agreement that there will be more trips.
 
We've been exploring some of the surrounding Cays here, and we rented a car one day and  wandered through an abandoned US military base. We've got lots of pretty tropical water photos, some videos, and more to show you. I wanted to get one post out quickly, and get the cloudy day images behind us so that I could get into the fun stuff.
 
And from a photogenic location standpoint, this place is wonderful.  We are getting a dozen decent sunset photos a night.  A shame I can really only use one of them at a time. Well, maybe in this case I'll go ahead and upload two of them.  This first one is of a jumbled deck right after we got here. The ladder... well, that's been on board the boat since I re-wired the solar panel array. And while I was planning on taking it back to the house-that-hasn't-sold eventually, that eventually hasn't become an eventuality. And lately I've been spending some time working on the wind turbine and the ladder has come in handy for that.  And finally, because I'm basically just lazy. 

 
And for the neatniks here's a sunset with everything all simple ocean and sky.  No human clutter, no coils of line lying around, no dinghy, no ladders.  
 
 
Please stay tuned, there is a lot more to come about our little adventure on the hook in South Caicos.