15 March 2017

A Sailor's Paradox: Turks and Caicos


Turks and Caicos has been an adventure and despite it's reputation as an island paradise, our experience is perhaps best described as, uh, interdenominational. 


Captain Linda Perry Riera

Antagonistic Views


Bob:  Where the heck do we land the dinghy?
Linda:  Wow this water is beautiful!
Bob:  I'm exhausted. Damn, where's the Customs office?
Linda:  The turquoise colors are intoxicating!
Bob:  You mean we have to anchor on a ledge a few boat lengths from 2000 feet of water?!
Linda:  The snorkeling is fantastic!
Bob:  I need data!
Linda:  I love this secluded paradise.
Bob:  I'm taller than this god forsaken island, there is no wind protection in any of these so called anchorages.
Linda:  This expansive area behind the reefs is a breathtaking place to drop the hook.
Bob:  Holy crap this place is expensive!
Linda:  The boys will have so much fun here!


 


If looking for pristine beaches with silky sand, the clearest water punctuated by ribbons of different hues of blue, and not too worried about your spending rate, then this is the place. However, for a cruising sailor it presents challenges.


Turks and Caicos is surrounded by reefs to the north and vast expanses of shallows dotted with coral heads to the south


Turks and Caicos Islands

 

Turks and Caicos (TCI) is often just a quick overnight rest stop for cruising sailors transiting northward to the Bahamas or southward to the Virgin Islands. We stayed here for nearly three weeks including a week's visit with a couple of our kids. TCI is an extremely short country (with elevations not much taller than Bob generally) consisting of 300 islands located south of the Bahamas and north of the Dominican Republic. Only eight of the TCIs are formally populated. These low, flat, limestone land masses have extensive marshes, mangrove swamps, and well over a hundred miles of beach front. Most of the TCI is guarded by beautiful yet prohibitive reefs and shallows... these precarious shallows, along with no wind protection from the low lands, do not make for easy sailing of a 6 foot draft vessel and offer very little protection from wind.

Bob is taller than most of TCI. There are scant options for protected anchorages. Gone are the volcanic and mountainous islands we explored south of here the past several months.


TCI has a population of about 30,000, with vast majority residing on the island of Providenciales (Provo). The weather cannot be beat... usually sunny and dry (30 inches of rain annually resulting in fresh water to be a precious resource) with comfortable temperatures between 75 and 85 year 'round. 

The Three Regions of TCI

 

(1)  Mouchoir Banks

This is an expansive area of shallows with water breaking surrounded by several thousand foot depths. A major migration route for humpback whales runs between Mouchoir Banks and Grand Turk from the north Atlantic waters. These are the same humpback whales that the Boston based whale watching boats bring thousands of tourists to watch every summer.

This 40 second video clip shows a bit of humpback whale tail slapping and dolphin action:



We saw only one whale in the distance but it was an impressive sight. This humpback spent many minutes raising its tail flukes out of water and slapping them forcefully on the surface of the water. When the flukes hit the water, a loud resonant noise can be heard for miles. It is suspected that humpbacks do this as a warning to nearby whales. Dolphins occasionally swam along side also.


Motoring out of San Juan Harbor at 0500 hours at the start of our off shore trip to Turks and Caicos.
After a bit light winds requiring motoring the first part of day one, the breeze kicked in and seas kicked up. It was a fun, fast stretch for a while.

The two nights were long and difficult with robust winds and seas and scant moonlight. I was not as happy as I look in this picture. This was the first time we had to suit up in foul weather gear in many months. Waves were on our side with several giving us, the deck and the cockpit a good washing.

We were rewarded on the second day with an end to our fishing curse. This mahi provided several good meals despite my weak filleting skills. Reeling her in was tough as Argon was sailing at 8kts and as we were already going downwind, it is not really possible to slow down.


We kept the Mouchoir Banks safely to starboard as we approached Grand Turk. This was a challenging two and a half day passage of more than 365nm with conditions ranging from calm, to perfect; then to challenging when winds were 25+kts and seas built, and culminating in downright uncomfortable for the last 30nm leg having to turn high in to the wind and crashing the bow hard in to seas. We arrived in Grand Turk exhausted but safe.
In hindsight, I made a navigational error as we could have had a Plan B and instead of having to head north in to the wind to Grand Turk, we could have proceeded northwest at a better angle to the wind and gone to Cockburn Harbor in South Caicos.


We are always anxious for dawn to greet us after a dark and difficult overnight passage.




The 365+ mile track from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Cockburn Town, Grand Turks.

(2)  Turks Islands

Turks consists mainly of Grand Turk and Salt Cay. Grand Turk is a small island (only about 5 miles north to south and less than 2 miles east to west) and was our landing point. Although small and sparsely populated compared to the Caicos region of the country, it is the government center. This is where we had a frustrating (and expensive) welcome getting to and clearing Customs and Immigration after the difficult transit from San Juan.  But the water is so beautiful! And Bob was able to get 7G at a decent price through Flow. I need data!


Our second anchorage along the open, exposed western shore of Grand Turk. It took us more than an hour to find a large enough sandy area among patches of rock and coral in depths Argon could handle. The famous Grand Turk Wall with an immediate depth change from 20 to 2000 feet is just a few boat lengths beyond our stern. I was pretty sure we would not drag.

The winds were blowing about 20kts so we monitored our swing carefully to ensure we were not dragging towards The Wall. No problem... time to go play.


There was about 100 feet of visibility and the snorkeling was great right off the boat.



The west coast of Grand Turk has a skinny rim of shallow water (mostly <= 20 feet) abruptly plunging to thousands of feet. The shallow water is to the right in light blue; the deep water is to the left. This Turks Wall is a unique and popular snorkeling and SCUBA site.

I snorkeled along the Wall just a couple boat lengths behind Argon. Bob hovered in the dinghy as the wind and current were away from shore. Swimming and peering over the ledge in to deep blue nothingness was the scariest and most fascinating snorkeling I have ever experienced.

Bob got his data but only after an arduous beaching of the dinghy (as there are no dinghy docks on this part of the island) and eventually finding a Flow store. You can read more about our Caribbean data woes and learnings here.


After two nights anchored off the west coast of Grand Turk (enchanting waters but completely exposed) we needed to get moving as the winds were forecasted to stir up even higher in to the low 30's. With no land elevation or enclosed anchorages for protection, we needed to leave.

We weighed anchor a couple hours before dawn to make the 75nm downwind and rolly passage to the Caicos part of TCI.

(3)  Caicos Islands

Caicos is the group of islands that most people associate with TCI, especially the most populated island of Providenciales, known as Provo, that is home to 80% of the population plus most of the tourists. Caicos also consists of the islands of Middle Caicos, North Caicos, South Caicos, West Caicos and Parrot Cay.

We anchored in Pine Cay behind reefs in a wide open sandy bottom area. I loved the simple beauty and seclusion. Bob not so much. The winds were going to be 30+kts starting the next day so after one night here, we moved to a nearby marina.

Navigating the reefs, shifting sand bars, and random coral heads in to Blue Haven Marina can be tricky. The marina provides a Pilot Boat for unfamiliar mariners to follow.

We arrived at Blue Haven Marina several days earlier than planned to escape the high winds. And then enjoyed welcoming Jon, Christian and Brittany for a visit!! A day trip from the marina out by the reefs allowed us to sample the gorgeous reef waters.

We grabbed a dive mooring along the reefs just east of Grace Bay.




Bob rode out in the marina pilot boat to examine the shallows and routes the prior day, then successfully navigated us from and back to our marina slip without the guide boat for our snorkeling day trip. Definitely not as straightforward as pulling in to Constitution Marina back in Boston.

Day sail fun.

There are dozen of day fishing charters that go out from Blue Haven Marina every day. I purchased a small yellow fin tuna from one of the charters and Ronald gave me a filleting lesson.

Grilling up the fresh tuna. There was plenty left over for the next day.

More snorkeling off Grace Bay Beach. In addition to a myriad of fish, we enjoyed seeing spotted rays and turtles.

 
The marina was part of a resort which was a major splurge. We indulged in beaches and pools at Blue Haven Marina and were able to visit her two sister resorts, The Alexandra and Beach House. This spell with the boys has definitely felt more like a vacation than cruising. Even boat chores have been on hold.

Jon in full Caribbean mode: Drinking a Red Stripe, standing on a sand bar and wearing his BVI shirt

Exploring shallows at low tide by dinghy and paddle board.

 
 
Loving my time with Christian in TCI; missing Joshua and Sharon very much.

Christian and Jon jumped in to the water at the marina to try to get some pictures of a large nurse shark hanging around. The marina waters are plenty clean enough to comfortably swim in.

Large nurse sharks and sea turtles are common near the docks at the marina.

Blue Haven Marina & Resort in Provo has excellent concrete floating docks and full services. Our stay here was way longer than planned due to scant other options when winds are high. Cha-ching.




Being away from our kids is the most difficult aspect of our cruising journey. Whenever any of them can step away from their busy lives and visit us during our travels is a special time. Therefore, the time with Jon, Christian and Brittany was priceless.

I loved loved loved our time with these wonderful young adults.


In Closing...

 

I am quite happy that we kind of got stuck here longer than planned (Bob less so). It's a special place. However, it is doubtful that we would ever plan to sail here again (except for potentially a quick overnight rest stop to break up a long north or south passage as seems to be the norm for most sailors). TCI is just not set up geographically or logistically very well for sailors. I do hope to come back someday... traveling by air and exploring the waters from the land perhaps.




How could this be wrong?




Soon it will be time to say good bye to TCI and head for the southern Bahamas.


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