Monday, June 30, 2008

A little slack, finally

I can hardly believe it's been weeks since I wrote anything here. But the numbers don't lie. We have been almost totally involved in this new home situation. However, after a lot of careful thought, we have just made a few changes and decisions that should help it all along. We picked a date exactly six months after the day the house was contractually supposed to be finished, and we said "that's it. We'll settle up depending on what they can get done between now and that day." That day is July 10. It's getting better.

Meanwhile, life has gone on for us. The weather has been all over the chart, from sunny warm to cool and raining. Well, it feels cool to us when the temp gets down into the low 80's. We've had some nice rainbows, and I still have not figured out what was making that slash across this one. Some atmospheric thing, I suppose. Maybe the shadow of a distant contrail between the rainbow and the sun? I dunno. I thought it was pretty, anyhow.

Dooley the Demented (who we are beginning to think we should have named "Psycho") will wander out after he thinks the storm is over and take a look around:

That's one of his favorite spots there, by the little gate opening that I still need to build a gate for. It's on the list. It's a big list. He can see for miles and keeps an eye on things. Storms do still get him pretty worked up, but eventually he calms down.

This is not exactly calm...he is still keeping his escape options open at this point. Just in case a thunderstorm sneaks up behind him.

One night last week right at dusk we had a pretty serious squall line come through. We were sitting on the patio watching it,and right before our eyes a series of waterspouts started to form. The number varied between two and six of them and we watched them getting closer, and closer... By the time The Big Dummy (that would be me) thought to go grab a camera, it was too dark to get a decent photo. Meanwhile the storm system added thunder and lightning to the mix. We have noticed that we always get one more thunderclap than the number of lightning bolts we count. This apparent scientific anomaly puzzled us for a long time. We think we finally figured it out, though. We think the second thunderclap in the series is caused by the sudden vacuum of a small dog teleporting out of the immediate vicinity of the first thunderbolt.

Anyhow, I put the camera on a ledge to steady it, and let it run in video mode. So we have these video sections of darkness for a minute or so, and then a sudden flash of lightning very very briefly illuminated what was going on with the waterspouts. It was pretty eerie, we could hear the wind of course, but it was dark until the momentary flash of lightning. For just that fraction of a second we could see the waterspouts moving toward us. Although the quality of the images is pretty bad, I did grab a few frames from the videos to give you an idea of what it looked like:

I was almost expecting some witch to fly by on a bicycle threatening the dog...but she would have had a tough time getting this little Toto into a bicycle basket. Of course by this point in the evening he was a basket case already anyway.

(keep in mind it was also raining, and these are not the best conditions for nighttime photography)

This was probably the one that came out the best:

You can make out the lightning bolt, one of the better developed waterspouts, and even the surface of the sea where it was whipping up a pretty good pile of spray. We have a few more of those, but they pretty much all tell the same story.

Sure got our attention. We are only about a hundred yards from the water...and one of these things across the patio might rearrange the furniture a bit too much for our liking. Probably do a job on the canvas vehicle tops, landscaping, and lord knows what else. But they are fun to watch from a distance.

The entire month was not like that, of course. Although we do seem to be having one of the windiest June's we have ever seen. Possibly it's just this location on a hillside facing into the Trade Winds.

I managed to anchor the boat off the beach and hopped overboard to spend about three hours with a scrub brush cleaning the moss off the hull. That was one of the few calm days we have seen lately:

The dog keeps a keen eye on these underwater excursions:

I snapped that one right before ducking under the boat. And the moment I ducked underwater with the camera, it totally stopped working. Again. I was unable to get any more photos, so you will be spared seeing what scrubbing a hull underwater looks like. It's not that much fun, spending hours in 85 degree water. Well, actually, it's a little bit of fun. Hard work, though.

While tooling around Pine Cay we ran across some friends with their African Lion Hound. Our little Jack Russell just HAD to check this out....this is probably the biggest dog he has ever seen up close:

"Hey Ma! It looks just like a dog, only smaller!"

We still get a ringside seat on our patio for boats, airplanes, helicopters, waterspouts, kite boarders..

I still have ongoing thoughts about attaching one of these kites to the boat to try out as an emergency backup form of propulsion. Heck, with gasoline presently running around $ 5.75 a US gallon it might become our primary form of propulsion. We have plenty of wind, year round. And the Caicos Bank looks to me like a wonderful place to be a sailor, with a huge area of relatively shallow and protected water ringed by islands on the leeward side. I have been looking at these little sailing kayaks made by Hobie....("Adventure Island", anyone tried one yet?)

We were getting pretty burnt out on being here day after day, week after week, month after month waiting around just in case a subcontractor might decide to wander by with the correct tools, parts, and attitude. It gets old. So this past weekend we decided to take a mini-vacation. La Gringa, Psycho-Chicken-the-Dog and I packed up the boat and got completely away from it all. We left the Big Island of Provo ( that's a joke) and all the hustle and bustle of city life (it's all relative) behind for a bit and spent the last weekend in June out on Pine Cay just relaxing. We got completely away from contractors, sub-contractors, landscapers, electricians, plumbers and an architect for an entire weekend!

I took another shot of the boat ferry that runs back and forth from Leeward to North Caicos all week. It's rare that we see it sitting still enough for a photo.

These guys keep this thing making money day after day, and it's usually full up with paying passengers. We even know some North Caicos residents who own boats who use the ferry to get back and forth from Provo to North. Paying $25 each way on the ferry is cheaper than running their own twin-outboard boats with these gas prices!!

And for you other boaters reading this, YES the outboards of choice here are far and away Yamahas. They probably have 80% of the total market in the islands. Simple, rugged, and reliable seems to work.

The DIY people reading the blog will be happy to know that approximately five minutes after opening the house on Pine Cay to air it out....I had to remove a louver actuator assembly and start rebuilding it.....again...

Also while "on vacation", I got to troubleshoot a water filter system (someone put particle filters where a carbon filter was supposed to be) an electric wash down pump on the boat.. (not yet resolved whether its the pump motor or electrical connections) a sliding screen door (needed adjustments) and a beach chair (unfixable). Gosh, that's not much for a two day vacation...

Anyhow, for our mini-vacation weekend, we did a lot of swimming, or took some novels and refreshments down to a thatched hut on the beach and just relaxed..

The weather behaved itself for the most part, with the squalls passing to the south:

As is usually the case on Pine Cay on a busy Saturday in the summer, the beach was typically populated for as far as we could see to the right:

and just as equally crowded to the left:

Hey! Who put footprints on the beach!? Oh..wait....that was me...

Doolance Winchester McDog even managed to relax between swims and digging flying clouds of sand into his nose and eyes..

And we managed to fit a few shady, relaxing hours in each day, until the sun set and it was time to drag our weary bodies back to the house:

La Gringa took a lot of photos over the weekend. She managed to quietly walk up to a pair of American Kestrels (small falcons) who hang out at the house there:

As relaxing as lazing in the shade by the beach and reading proved to be (along with fixing window cranks, water filtering systems, etc.) by Sunday morning we were ready to get out on the water again. We decided it was way past time to top up our conch supply. La Gringa displays a nice pair she picked up in about 12 feet of water:

In about an hour of just flippering around we picked up a couple dozen conch. They were all on the small to medium side, but we have found the conch from the reef (locally called the "front") side of the islands to be both cleaner and sweeter tasting than the conch we get from the Banks (or "back") side. Of course gathering up the conch is the fun part. Then comes the work part. La Gringa took some photos while I totally made a mess of myself and the boat.

This is the top side of a medium sized conch:

and the bottom looks like this:

The animal is pulled up inside the shell, so you can't see the snout, eyes, and claw in that photo. We can remedy that.

First you determine where to knock a hole in the shell. I start counting at the oldest, most worn out knob nearest the shell opening. Count over between the second and third knobs or horns, and then skip up over the next row to the same general spot between the second and third row. Right about there:

Then one takes one's handy dandy el cheap-o made-in-China brick hammer (or equivalent) and knocks a small hole in the shell at that point:

It's not an exact location, it varies a bit from conch to conch. But you know when you hit the right spot because the shell is thin there and breaks easily. In my case, spraying bits of conch shell, sand, grit, etc. all over myself and the boat. You can tell by the photos that this was about the 18th or 20th conch I had opened at this point. What a mess. (And of course it was when I was ready to clean up the boat that I discovered the wash-down pump is not working..)

Then you take a knife and run it into the hole in the shell. The idea is to slide the blade down at the right place to cut the muscular foot of the conch loose from the inside spiral of the shell:

This takes some practice to do smoothly. Actually, it all takes some practice. And I found out Sunday that I was out of practice. Sometimes it takes me maybe a minute to knock the hole in the shell and run the knife down and cut the conch muscle loose. Other times it takes me five minutes. It takes the local guys about 30 seconds, every time. Oh well. Needing more practice is usually a good-enough excuse to go out and get some more conch. And we do love to eat conch. I think I actually like it better than fish, and we get some outstandingly fresh fish here.

When you get it cut loose you just turn the shell back over, reach in and grab the little claw and very easily pull the entire conch out of the shell:

If you've cut the muscle completely the animal comes out very easily and all in one piece. If you haven't done a good job cutting it loose, flip it back over and repeat the process...'cause if you don't completely sever that muscle it ain't gonna get pulled out of there.

Reckon this guy realizes he has just re-entered the food chain?

("Ah Oh....this is not looking good....I want a cigarette and a blindfold!!")

Make that two blindfolds. The eyes are on separate stalks on each side of the snout...and they move all over the place independently.

So, while La Gringa continued to take a series of photos during the rest of the process I won't post them all here. Basically you just remove everything but the tough, white meat that is the conch's muscle. That's the part you eat.

I should mention that among some of the local fishermen not much of the conch gets wasted. When word that I was cleaning them got around Pine Cay, first I had Scrape show up wanting the "conch slop" to use as bait for fishing off the dock when he got off work. There are a lot of bits that get discarded. A few minutes later Harry showed up wanting the shells, which he cleans up and supplies to hotel gift shops on Provo. I already mentioned that the conch we get out near the reef are cleaner than the conch on the bank. The bank conch tend to have more moss, barnacles etc. growing on the shells. Harry doesn't go out diving near the reef, I think he is nervous about sharks. So he likes the clean colorful shells we bring back when we go. We are not nearly as nervous about sharks as is Harry.

And this is what we took home with us from 24 conch:

I would guess close to ten lbs of solid, sweet tasting protein. La Gringa is planning to make a double batch of her Conch Chili-Gumbo from these. We will try to get out next week and pick up some more for conch fritters, cracked conch, sauteed conch...besides I need a lot more practice cleaning them.

We know a lot of it is just another excuse for us to get out on the ocean.

But then we could probably say that about our entire life here.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Back to the sea...

In author Kenneth Grahame's book "The Wind in the Willows", there is a passage where the Water Rat says:

"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

And that is exactly what we decided to do here yesterday.

The morning started out crisp and clear. The dawn did promise us the threat of thunderstorms and squalls, but that's normal this time of year. People who fear getting wet should not live on small islands. We had a reason to go to Pine Cay, and we had not run the boat anywhere in a couple of weeks. It was time.

(If anyone is interested, by the way, that point of land in the photo above is on the market.)

La Gringa, Dooley and I boated over to Pine Cay and took measurements for some small maintenance projects we need to accomplish there during the "slack" season. Afterwards, instead of just tying up the boat in Leeward and going back to the hill, we decided to motor around and see the current state of the many changes going on in Leeward-Going-Through. La Gringa took over the camera for a change while I played boat captain, and she snapped a hundred photos. I thought I would post some of them, mainly for those blog readers who are familiar with the area.

This is what the "Star Island" project looks like at the moment. Its a pile of sand meant to be the start of an artificial island right in the middle of Leeward-Going-Through:

A few weeks ago there were two machines there and a dredge pumping sand from the seafloor onto the artificial island. It is in the middle of conch and fish habitat and breeding grounds. It is in the middle of a National Park. The sand and silt of the dredging operation is covering part of the reef outside Leeward, as well as killing conch, coral, and destroying the protective mangroves where snapper and zillions of other fish hatch, survive, and grow until they are big enough to handle the ocean. The developer's plan was to create an island and divvy it up into a bunch of homes, starting at about four million dollars each. Enough people got organized against it that the court here issued a stop-work injunction order. Yes, we signed the petition against it. Now world-wide coral reef advocates are getting involved. We hope the project gets stopped permanently. As of yesterday, no work was being done.

Dooley had not yet noticed the thunderstorms forming in the distance. He was snoozing underfoot, as he likes to do:

He likes to sleep next to my feet on the boat. Then he acts all surprised when I step on him. Oh well. There are plenty of other places to sleep, I keep telling him.

This is looking in the completely opposite direction from the "Star Island" project . This is a small dense grove of Casurinas trees I have been wanting to go scavenge for building materials. But notice the thunderstorms are starting in that direction, as well.

I think at this point I mentioned to La Gringa that it was looking like we might have to dodge some storms....and...

"Storms? Did somebody say storms? I heard the word 'thunder'...."

Now looking to the East at some of the little cays scattered around this area, and a definite squall line forming...

No napping for the little reprobate, now.

"Squall line? Thunderstorms? Are you keeping an eye on that thing??? Man, this looks serious..."

The water on the Caicos Bank is still crystal clear over on this side. This is just one of the little low, limestone cays. Water depth here is about six or seven feet:

These are one of the reasons not many boaters here run through these areas after dark. Hitting one of these could definitely ruin your entire week.

You can just see the crane boom at the artificial sand bar to the right of center:

I have read that there are something like 40+ cays that make up these islands. I don't know if these little bits of exposed rock and vegetation are all being counted. There seem to me to be more than 40 of them, though.

"Hey Dooley, come check out this neat little squall...":

"Don't bother me. I'm keeping an eye on this one...":

We were chugging around in less than two feet of water at that point. You can see that I had the outboard motor just about 4 inches up on the jackplate. We can raise it vertically six inches from the down position. Sure makes it nice to be able to take the boat where we want it.

..twenty inches of water, no problem.

But these clouds were definitely causing someone in the boat some anxiety:

We spotted a 'white thing' on one of the islands and went over to take a look:

It turned out to be about a 3x3x9 foot hunk of flotation foam. I thought about hauling it home, but couldn't for the life of me figure out what I would do with it.

Since I already have a thing about collecting drift wood, I thought I better leave this one alone. You have to pick your battles sometimes...

Back at the entrance to Leeward channel, the heaps of sand that have been pulled out are still there. Thirty feet high in places:

And the shoreline is cluttered with ugly, rusty dredges and barges where there was once a nice tree-lined peaceful beach:

The justification for all of this has never really been explained to the public, but it's pretty well accepted that it's all about being able to crowd increasingly bigger boats into this little channel. Those bigger boats don't exist here. Not yet, anyway.

This is the entrance to the older section of canals in Leeward. Not much has changed here in several years:

If we had bought land here we would be home now. We would also be living four to six feet above sea level. And that's fine, as long as the sea level behaves itself. We opted for more height, more solitude, more view, and more breezes. With all the changes that have taken place in this part of Provo, we are pretty glad we chose the property that we bought.

Now this is where the big Leeward changes are taking place. The Nikki Beach resort, canals, and marina now totally blot out what was once probably the major gathering place for small local boats in this part of the country.

Now the floating concrete docks are extended out almost all the way across the Leeward-Going-Through channel. Someone thinks it would be a good idea for this tiny ecosystem to be dug out so that people can park their "65 to 200 foot" yachts here.

Imagine a 200 foot boat docked in the middle of this photo, a boat that is thirty foot wide. That will leave the space between it and the mangroves as all that's left for space to get through the islands at this point.

And imagine small boats sharing that space with the barge traffic coming and going through the same narrow waterway. The people of the TCI have lost a valuable resource here. Gone for good. Even if they stopped all further construction, it will never revert to what it was before.

We slowly nosed on up to the entrance to the canal that has been dug besides the new resort. Some workers on the bulkhead told us we could take the boat all the way in if we wanted. "Well" we thought, "Why not?" The rain was holding off, so we decided to motor in for a look around behind the Nikki Beach building:

We noticed that although it was late morning and the resort opened in April, all the deck chairs around the pool and on the beach were empty. There were few rental cars in the parking lot. It did not seem like there was much in the way of 'resorting' going on yesterday. I have wondered how safe it would be to swim on their little man-made beach. On the outgoing tide you would be in the, uh, digestive products of over a million fenced in captive conch just up stream. And we have seen 9 foot sharks going through the cut. I'm just saying...

Immediately behind the resort there are several canals with condos and a small marina with a few slips for smaller boats. Presumably for those who don't need the accomodations for the "65-200 foot" boats out front.

Our little boat is 22 feet long. There were very few slips in this marina that would accomodate it. I suspect 18-20 foot boats might be about the maximum they could handle.

Made me wonder what accomodations they had planned for those with boats larger than 20 feet but shorter than 65.
And the people who buy the condos can, I assume, put their boats on lifts right at the bulkhead. This 32 foot BW Outrage, for example, would not fit into the little marina slots. So it's on a lift, blocking about a quarter of the passage for the marina.

Gosh, starting to look like a lot of places in Florida, isn't it. I guess it's progress, to some.

When you get to the end of the canals dug behind Nikki Beach, they connect to the older canal system that was already in place. However, low bridges in both directions prevent anything larger than a small skiff from continuing. It was a good place to turn around, anyhow. We had pretty much seen enough.

Headed back out of the canals, this is the 'backside' of the Nikki Beach resort.

As we motored out past the workers on the end of the bulkhead, one of them shouted out "How did you like it?" La Gringa and I just looked at each other thinking "how does one tactfully yet honestly answer that?" when he shouted again "If you want to see the rest inside, you can dock your boat and take a tour!".

The man was very enthusiastic about this big project he was working on. I think that's admirable in an employee. We decided to pass on the offer of a tour. Actually, I suspect there is a very slim chance that I will ever see the inside of Nikki Beach. I cannot imagine me spending any time or money there.
By this time we were getting a bit weary, and the dog was busier than La Guardia's air traffic control trying to keep track of a dozen we left the canals of Nikki Beach behind...

('a hundred and fifty horsepower...come on Gringo....let 'er rip...)

On the way back to our own slip at the new public marina we cruised alongside the newest sailing catamaran, and noticed it's registered here in the TCI:

We don't yet know whose boat this is. That's the Premier's house in the background, but I don't think he's into sailing. I could be wrong. Besides, he's got his own dock there at the house.

Even though we were ready to head home, I wanted to swing by this little barge anchored out of Leeward.

I had been looking at it from a distance for some time. I still don't know what it's designed to do. Those look like racks for carrying lengths of something. But what?

So, finally, we managed to make our weary way home in time for the sunset coctail hour. Dooley was relieved to have survived another day of being surrounded by thunderstorms.

(Hey, it might only be six hours of dodging squalls to you or me...but remember he marks his anxieties in dog hours...)

Last night's sunset over Provo wasn't all that impressive viewed straight on:

Hard to believe those two sunset photos were taken within an hour of each other, isn't it? But they were.

As we walked around to the other side of the house we saw that the fading sunlight was reflecting off of the underside of the clouds and it cast an unusual light over the patio area . I don't know if the photograph can capture it, but I tried:

Somehow the bounced light turned everything some kind of pastel, just for a few moments before dark. Of course Dooley the Deranged Dog ignores these subtle lighting situations. All he knows is that the reflected Jack Russell Terrier in the sliding door glass seems to have a tennis ball just exactly like his...

It's time to put down the camera and play.

So, anyhow, that's how our Saturday went. I thought it would be another break from the usual drivel about what's going on at the house. And I know a lot of the people reading this are following the Leeward situation from a distance.