02/28/2007, Turks and Caicos
We played a lazy morning card at Ambergris. We slept in and had a nice breakfast overlooking the reef off of the stern. When the sun was well up in the sky we motored off to pick our way through the cut to the north of Ambergris. There was plenty of water down the middle but the edges looked nasty.
Once out in the deep water between the Caicos Bank and the Turks Bank we put the sails up. It was a wonderful sail across to Big Sand.
As Big Sand came into view the first thing we saw was the defunct light tower at the top of the high hill in the middle of the island. The balance of the island is like a big sand dune. The bottom began to come up as we neared the bank and like clockwork, Hideko caught dinner. It was a perfect Skip Jack for two. It seems like she always hooks something just as we come into the 80 foot zone.
As we approached the anchorage we saw two other cruising sail boats anchored. We anchored in a bit closer to the beach than they were and ogled at the beautiful view. The island is like a place in a story book. The water is crystal clear and the bottom is beautiful sand in 15 feet. There is a lovely reef running along the north end of the anchorage and all the way around the north end of the island.
Roq and I rowed ashore to survey the island. Roq approved. The beach is amazing. The sand is so deep and soft that it is a bit of work hoofing around. Two of the other cruisers were on the beach with their dinghy so I stopped by to say hi. They were not very talkative so I gave them their space. It was weird to run into other cruisers and not be met with a warm welcome.
As I got the dingy set to head out I remembered Byron had recommended I try putting some sand in the bathroom box for Roq, an upgrade over the astro turf. Seeing as how Roq had still never used the box or gone on the boat I gathered up a bit of sand to take with us.
Roq and I returned to the big boat and then Hideko and I snorkeled ashore. It was very refreshing after a day in the sun. It is always fun to float 15 feet above the bottom in water so clear that you can see everything. Almost like flying. We saw a lot of interesting fish and reef dwellers in the coral heads on the way to shore.
Once ashore we hiked to the top of the island to look around. I don't think the metal tower frame and light have worked in a while. Two sea eagles were happily nesting at the top. There were lizards and crabs everywhere. From the vantage at the foot of the old light tower you can see all parts of the island. The north end is rocky and the south is all sand. Looking to the weather side of the island spoiled the fantasy though as there was quite a bit of junk washed up on the north east side where the sea breaks.
Hideko and I swam back to the boat and rinsed off on the transom. After some fresh skip jack and a little Hagen Daz we hit the sack as the sun set. It was going to be an early start tomorrow on the way to Luperon.
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02/27/2007, Turks and Caicos
We left Caicos Marina and Shipyard late morning and followed one of the Police boats out of the channel. The marina entrance is a little narrow for us and I wouldn't want to meet anyone going the other way. The Police boat slowly plied the waters outside the marina, generally following the three red marker buoys. Once past the last buoy, in a luxurious 10 feet of water, they hit it and disappeared into the sun on their way to French Cay. Just our destination, so we followed their wake.
We planned to take the day crossing the Caicos Banks with a lunch stop at French Cay. Ambergris Cays anchorage was our overnight target and seemed to have good protection from the light east wind we expected.
All of the charts and guides for the Caicos Banks give routes across the banks between various waypoints but none of them dare to say this is a safe route for x draft. Instead they all say visual navigation required in good daylight. This really limits the distance you can go and puts a lot of fatigue on a short crew. There's keeping a good watch and then there's crossing the banks reading the water the whole way.
Hideko ended up on the bow three times this trip; leaving the marina, approaching and leaving French Cay and working into the Ambergris anchorage. Since we had the experience of entering the marina, leaving was not as bad. French Cay was also ok on the approach from Provo but we didn't anchor as planned due to our late arrival (noon). Instead I had the bright idea to explore uncharted territory, cutting the corner back to our route southeast to Ambergris. It was all sand but it got down to five foot something. Close but no cigar. We had to back out and try two or three channels before we found a way through. Probably would have been faster to use the published route but at least we got some water reading practice.
Approaching Ambergris is not too bad but there are several rocky areas along the way. About a mile out of the Ambergris anchorage there is a reef running east to west across the entire route. Depth goes from 21 feet to 8 instantly. We slowed down and crept across in 8 feet of water. In retrospect I would go around even though it would be a hike. I am pretty sure that some parts of that reef are quite a bit less than 8 feet at low water.
Van Sant recommends staying right between the islands when selecting a spot in 12 feet. We had lots of light and decided to creep in a bit closer. Our main motivation was a new jetty not on any of our charts that reached a mile out into the anchorage from the little spit just south of the north point of Big Ambergris. The jetty is an odd looking affair and there is a big ship mooring (don't hit that!) smack in the middle of the recommended anchorage. The problem with anchoring in closer is that there's great sand in 8 feet of water but there are big coral heads everywhere with maybe 3-5 feet of water over them.
We dropped the Rocna in some sand with light grass and then backed down toward the closest head. Van Sant's Gentlemen's Guide to Passages South recommends this technique for setting up for a dinner dive. Unfortunately, as far as we could determine the TCI doesn't allow spear fishing. It was great to be able to watch the reef from the back porch and at night we watched some Caribbean Squid swim around the boat in their odd way.
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Today was our last day on Provo. Tomorrow we head to Ambergris Cay for the night by way of French Cay. Wednesday we will spend the night at Big Sand Cay at the Southeast end of the TCI. From there we hit the Dominican Republic.
We spent the day cleaning up the boat and fixing a few things. I had to replace the sump pump for the Port forward head and Hideko cleaned up the deck and got all of our dive gear settled.
The customs guys came by at 11 and we cleared out with them. The Customs processing in this country is fantastic. $20 to clear in and $15 to clear out. A little over your seven days? No problem. Need to clear out prior to spending two days sailing through our waters? No problem. Just great people and no hassles.
We spent the after noon looking around town and visiting the Conch Farm. The TCI Conch Farm is unique in the world. The story goes that Chuck Hesse, a marine biologist, was sailing through the TCI and wrecked his boat in 1974. He never left. By 1984 he had started the conch farm. They now have the farm producing 1.5 million conch a year. It is amazing. What's even more amazing is that the TCI alone consumes 4 million a year! It's great to see the farm stemming the over fishing that has vastly reduced the conch population in the TCI and especially the Bahamas.
We watched a 59' Norhaven trawler get hauled this afternoon. The lift here barely cleared the quay with the big boat. It is a beautiful yacht but unfortunately hit some coral over at the Turtle Cove Marina entrance. I would warn anyone visiting the TCI in a boat to only do Turtle Cove in settled weather and take them up on the free pilot. It is a long hairy trip through the north side reef to the marina.
As we were putting the boat away for the night Hideko struck up a conversation with some of the police walking the dock. The police here do land and sea and spend most of their time on the sea. These guys dock their boats here in the marina and go out every night to patrol the banks.
Just like the Bahamas they have teamed up with the US Coast Guard to control the drug traffic. You'll see US Coast Guard choppers flying by and the guys we talked to said that they have two USCG, two Bahamian Navy and two TCI police on board so that they have jurisdiction no matter what.
These guys were looking for hooks for their cedar plugs so that they could catch some tuna while doing their rounds on the outside. We happened to have just what he needed. He told us that the Humpback whales were everywhere as this is the season for them to make their way south through the TCI with their calves. Now we are really looking forward to our trip down to the DR!!
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02/25/2007, West Caicos Wall
Hideko and I had to get a dive in before we left Turks and Caicos. The islands have some nice beaches and there are some good restaurants and shops but the islands themselves are pretty much flat limestone scrub. The real attraction here is the massive reef system surrounding the islands.
We signed up to go out with Dive Provo for a couple of dives. We would have liked to explore on our own but we also wanted to see the good spots. It is pretty tricky navigating the routes the dive boats take here. We had east winds in the high teens with a north swell that was breaking big on the reef. The channel our dive boat took would have been suicide for anyone without local knowledge and big engines. Coming back we literally almost ran aground on West Caicos (intentionally), and then took a hard left just inside the reef. The waves were breaking everywhere and we had to time the entrance, then gun it. The channel is very narrow and you have the rocky shore on one side and the breakers on the reef on the other. Pretty wild. The skipper didn't flinch, I'm sure she drives this route all the time.
We had a great first dive on the wall. The coral is lush and we saw more big grouper than you could shake a stick at. It is illegal to spear fish here. You never see grouper like this in the Bahamas where you can hunt them. Many big Nassau grouper and a huge Tiger Grouper were all wandering around the wall. Hideko spotted a good sized spotted moray eel swimming out in the open as well.
It was a little cloudy so Hideko got cold and opted out on the second dive. I took the second dive with the dive master as a buddy and we looked over the reef about a mile south of our first spot.
We met a bunch of fun folks on the dive boat and got a chance to test out our guest dive gear a bit as well. All in all a great day in the TCI.
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Hideko and I rented a car today to explore Provo a bit more. As we were getting ready in the morning we got a call on the VHF from Audrey and crew. We met Andre, Jose and their daughter Audrey in Bimini and then again at Norman Cay. It was great to hear that they were in Provo and we decided to explore together.
Audrey was anchored in Sapodilla bay so we picked them up and began to drive around the island in a counter clockwise pattern.
We drove around the electric green banks of Chalk Sound for a bit admiring the stunning colors of the shallow water. Then we made our way up to the North end of the island to see the Conk farm. They had closed for tours but we could still see in through the gate. The Conk farm produces over 1,000 Conk per day! It is an amazing place and incredibly important to the preservation on the Queen conk in these parts. Once again you don't find conk in the Bahamas like you do here, I would expect largely due to the farm.
We then visited the Leeward Marina. This marina is basically a dock and is used mostly by charter day boats taking visitors sight seeing or fishing. There are three real marinas on the island, Leeward, the Caicos Shipyard where we are, and the Turtle Cove which is inaccessible to mortals in a north wind/break.
After some yummy Conk Hush Puppies we drove through the tourist district at Grace Beach where all of the large resorts and little shops are. We parked the car and walked south on the beach all the way to Turtle Cove. It is a nice beach and each resort has its beach bar and shops. The reef breaks the swell about a mile off shore but the inner water is still choppy on a windy day and there are lots of coral heads so navigation is very tricky.
After looking around Turtle Cove we decided to grab dinner. I took a cab back to the car to bring it up while we waited to be served. They have buses and cabs here. The buses are cheaper but the cabs aren't bad if you get a quote up front. They all have meters but I've never seen one turned on. The most I've paid for a cab was $15, and that was from Turtle Cove to the shipyard, which is almost as far as you can go on the island. We ate at the Tiki Hut which was pretty good and right on the water.
Andre and I discussed the crossing to Luperon a bit and conferred on weather. It looks like we will both be heading over on Thursday. DR here we come.
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02/23/2007, Caicos Ship Yard
If you've read any of our passage logs you know that Hideko and I don't often leave as early as we'd like to on a long run. We have an SOP that dictates getting things prepped two days in advance so that the day before we can relax. Well this time we're actually doing just that. We spent all of today, putting the boat away and getting things set for departure early Tuesday morning.
We needed diesel (first time since Bimini) and we also filled up our 5 gallon gas can for the dink. The five gallon can was no problem but it took several minutes to pump over 200 gallons into the big tanks. If you get bummed when you fill up the tank of your Prius in LA you don't even want to see this fuel bill. Ma ma.
We had to move down the dock because a 120 foot live aboard dive boat was coming in. I saw them come to the harbor entrance and then just stop. For like an hour. I checked the tides and it was a rising tide with two hours to go to high. Smart skipper. He had hit bottom and lifted off on the tide three times until finally plowing his way into the channel. It was 5 feet out there at low tide when we came in. Somebody needs to rent a crane with a bucket.
I made a final check on all of the diesels after their 250 hour service. Everything was good but I did have to add some water to the reservoir on the genset. We packed up all of the lockers and washed down the boat and got the inside organized.
We're going to take off right when our 7 days runs out. When you clear in to the TCI you can stay 7 days for a small fee ($20 I think it was). If you want to stay longer they issue you a normal cruising permit which is quite a bit more.
We have our route planned all the way over to Puerto Rico via the Dominican Republic and a few of the Turks and Caicos islands on the way down. We're really looking forward to the next batch of sailing and we can fish again since we ate the last of the Mahi Mahi last night!
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About a year ago when I was heavily researching boats and cruising in general, I spent time on a forum called cruisersforum (cruisersforum.com). Like most social networks there is a lot of static there but there are also many folks with valuable insight and unique experiences. I struck up a conversation with a guy named Byron who loved diving and catamarans just as I did. He told me he lived in Turks and Caicos and we agreed to meet up when Hideko and I made it out there.
So here we all are. What an amazing couple!! Bryon and Polly, along with Polly's son Trevor, came by the marina in the morning today and we spent the entire day together. They took us all over the island. Provo is really spread out, there is no real center of activity. We would have never found all of the cool places they took us to on our own.
We had lunch at the Conch Shack, which is a must. We watched the guys clean live Conch out on a table on the beach and had fresh Conch fritters and Conch Curry. We also stopped by Turtle Cove Marina which is the only real commercial marina. The shipyard is a shipyard and the Leeward Marina is mostly a base for all of the charter operators with one dock. Turtle Cove is quaint and has shops and restaurants.
We went shopping at the Graceway IGA grocery store and bought an entire grocery cart full of stuff. Trevor helped me pick out the top shelf peanut butter and jelly sandwich supplies. This is the best grocery store Hideko and I have seen since Florida and we went nuts. It was not cheap though, a full cart with UHT milk on the bottom rack was about $800!
We picked up a few things at the ships store as well. Most of the chandleries south of Florida have had primarily power boat stuff. It was no different here but they had the essentials. Like Mic says, maybe not what you want but certainly what you need.
We had a great dinner at the Caicos cafe. This place is run by a French gentleman and the food is fantastic, as you would expect. Hideko (native Japanese mind you) personally thanked the owner for the best Carpaccio she had ever had.
Byron has more dives than I'll ever have and told intriguing stories as we enjoyed dinner. Polly is a technology consultant and has the luxury of working from wherever she likes. They are looking into cruising cats and we are hoping they join us for some sailing in the months/years ahead.
At the end of the day Byron and Polly dropped us back off at the boat. Who would drive strangers around an island all day long, hanging out for exciting activities like buying groceries? Byron and Polly.
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