Thursday, November 28, 2013

Southwest Reef... waiting on favorable winds

[Kyle]A frontal system coming off the U.S. east coast was forecast to bend the trade winds form their usual east-northeast toward the south for a few days. This would mean strong headwinds for us, so we pulled in for a stay at Southwest Reef, just before the drop-off to deep water.

Although the sea was generally rough, we were able to tuck in close enough behind the breakers on the reef to have relatively calm seas at anchor. We also had the benefit of lots of wind for the wind generator and no bugs.

Since we were here for a while and since the place had "reef" in the name, I donned the snorkel gear and had a look around. Once I determined that our anchor was well enough buried to take the high winds and swell, I headed up-current to a thin strip of sand that I had spotted from the deck before I left. It hadn't looked so far from the boat, but it was a long way to that sandbar. Every time I stopped to rest, I would start losing ground, so I had to just keep up the hard swimming.

After an hour and a half, I finally climbed upright on wobbly legs, pulled off my fins and made the twenty step stroll to the other side, reveling in my little accomplishment. I plunged back in and the current floated me back home with hardly a kick in half an hour. The sea life was much the same as the stuff we saw on the Caicos Bank: lots of grass, some sponges and a whole lot of conch.

As we were lounging in the cockpit that afternoon, a tour boat appeared, anchored nearby and disgorged a load of snorkelers near the breakers on the deep-water side of Begonia. I suppose conch are pretty interesting if you've never seen that sort of thing before.

After they left, the sun went down and we were treated to a magnificent starscape with only a couple of lights on the horizon from distant Provo.

The next morning, Maryanne went in for a swim while I made coffee. She returned shortly thereafter reporting all manner of underwater wonders. It turns out those snorkellers had been looking at more than conch after all. I joined her and she took me to see a vast underwater world of coral heads and darting multicolored fish. I was exploring a nook when I came across a very nervous looking lobster. The variety you get down here is the Spiny Lobster. It seems to me that the poor things got short shrift when it came to self defense mechanisms. Maine Lobsters have those giant, muscular claws they can threaten to snap off a finger or two with if you get too close. Spiny Lobsters' primary defense is to look pathetic - like a kid wearing glasses. Secondarily, they can point their long, spiny antennae at you and if it gets really bad, they can click them together to make a somewhat loud noise, which they almost never do. We decided to leave him to have lunch and moved on.

Snorkelling about with the sharks

A bit further on, Maryanne spotted the first of two Nurse Sharks, lying motionless in the sand at the base of a coral head. This animal was about four feet long and beautiful. They have the most amazing purplish skin that shimmers in the light as if it were made from countless microscopic sequins. Then there's the eyes; they have no discernible structure - no pupil or iris - just a uniform circle of turquoise. We spotted another slightly larger one a little later on doing pretty much the same thing. It seemed to be paying more attention to us and when it looked like it was about to startle and abandon its spot, we left it alone.

The last big find was a very large Eagle Ray with a very long tail that lazily circled us at just the limit of both camera range and our ability to keep up with our madly paddling feet. We arrived back at Begonia grinning and exhausted.

Since we had so much exercise already and since we hadn't even had breakfast yet, AND since we would likely be in the open sea on opposite schedules the next day, we decided to push the Thanksgiving holiday forward a day and have our traditional thanksgiving meal of a ginormous pot of potato soup. I'm definitely thankful that I get to have enough days like this to more than make up for the other days that I spend in the engine compartment manufacturing dirty words in bulk.

Sapodilla Bay

Begonia arrives in Sapodilla Bay

We spent the day in and around Sapodilla Bay. We knew we wouldn't be right in the middle of the tourist trade there, but I think we were hoping we'd get to at least skirt the edge of it. We were in the mood for a little action after a week of being the only boat around, even in Sapodilla Bay.

Well, it turns out Customs and the loading docks are basically the only diversions around for miles. We had packed a bag with all sorts of contingency items in addition to our official paperwork in the hopes that we might find a small store or a little café or something along the way.

At Customs, we were second in line behind a guy who was trying to import a used car from Florida. His bill of sale was for $3,800, but the Customs guy wasn't having any of it. He checked the Blue Book value and then revalued the car at $5,000. This, of course, dramatically increased the import duty the guy had to pay, so he entered into a long back and forth with the Customs man that was less of an argument than a series of the same polite assertions over and over for thirty minutes. In the end, of course, the Customs guy won with his only small concession being that the young man could appeal to the downtown office if he chose.

We weren't in any particular hurry ourselves, but the mile or so walk from Sapodilla Bay had heated us up. This was enhanced by the fact that we were dressed up in "customs clothes", a long sleeved shirt and long pants for me and a dress for Maryanne. I haven't noticed that it seems to make a lot of difference with most, but the one Customs and Immigration Officer who sees shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops as a sign of disrespect for his important position can make our lives really tough, so we generally don't take the chance. The inside of the small office was hot already and had no hint of airflow. I was constantly trying to discreetly wipe the sweat from my brow and not pass out onto the floor. I have no idea how people in hot countries survive the day dressed in suffocating polyester uniforms or business attire without soaking through everything.

When it was our turn, we paid our fee and stamp, stamp, stamp; we were finished in two minutes. We burst outside into the cooling breath of the trade winds. The only downside was that our wait had allowed the sun to climb higher in the sky, so it ended up being kind of a wash after the first few minutes.

On a search for a high spot to see just how for we were from anything, we found a convenience store along the way where we picked up a dozen eggs, a couple of cold sodas and a can of Pringles for just over $9. At the next crest on the same road, which was filled with trundling semis going back and forth to and from the docks kicking up dust, we confirmed that there was no point going any further in that direction.

We backtracked to the turnoff leading to the dinghy landing, skipped it and kept going. We shortly came upon a resort that had a sandwich board by the guardhouse advertising a restaurant and bar. Neither were open officially yet, but the staff was busy cleaning and the doors were open. We asked if it would be okay to look around, and were told, "No Problem!" The place was very pretty. We had a look at the menu and quickly determined that a modest vegetarian lunch would probably end up being close to $100 after tax(!) and tip, so we took a few pictures and then skipped it.

Remembering that there was a cluster of roads loosely labeled "Sand Cay" at the northern end of Sapodilla Bay, we took the main road in that direction hoping for something worth seeing. We walked for half an hour in both the sun's heat and the heat radiating from the pavement, but all we could see from the road was thick landscaping interrupted occasionally by gate after gate, each with fancy signs announcing the entrance to villas with cheesy names that looked as if they had been come up with by an American real estate developer. Next to these signs were always the other two: "Private Property" and "Protected by Some Private Security Company". Once we realized this motif was going to go on pretty much forever, we gave up and headed back to the boat.

About four villas before the dinghy, we managed to find a cut-through to the beach and had a walk along it past their guests, all sitting in chairs facing the beach. Once again, we bypassed the dinghy turnoff in favor of a short trail around the point to a gazebo on the end, where we got a nice view of Begonia, still all alone in her own anchorage.

Maryanne had found mention somewhere of a site nearby reputedly containing graffiti from early settlers, so we set off in search of that. We found the trail, which had the benefit of heading pretty steeply up to the top of the nearest hill. At the top, we did indeed find lots of the old graffiti. It was in pretty good shape, too. The oldest inscription we found was dated 1707.

Notes from passers by of long ago..

From the top, we had nice views of the bay to one side and the less nice shipping port on the other. We descended toward the port since we needed to return to Customs for a receipt that was for some reason not available when we checked out earlier.

On the way back again, feeling pretty worn out by then, we stopped at a decent looking restaurant/bar whose sign promised they would be open in fifteen minutes. There were no cars parked by the building and a peek in the windows revealed a lack of furniture, but there were still unopened bottles of booze behind the bar. Since we were tired anyway, we figured we"d just have a rest at one of their outdoor tables until the appointed time. When no one showed up, we gave up and headed back to the boat.

We were sitting in the cockpit debating whether we had the energy to go snorkeling when Maryanne spotted a sea turtle nearby. That solved that. I was in within the minute, but I never did find him again. As consolation, we took a swim to the rocky shore and then to the nearby wreck of a big fishing vessel.

Snorkelling the wreck

It looked like it had been lost in a recent storm rather than having run aground. There was no breech of the hull. Both anchors were deployed and the boat had been rolled upside down in the direction of the shore, crushing the superstructure.

The sun was about to set, so we started back for Begonia. Along the way, we spotted a sailboat coming in to anchor! We diverted over to say hi. The boat was a schooner with Beaufort, NC as homeport. They also had a white Portland Pudgy as tender. They had come the Florida/Thorny Path route and were still flying their "Q" flag, indicating they had not yet officially cleared in, so we couldn't do anything with them other than chat across the water. The Captain had just started the forty-five minute question and answer session with Port Control over the radio, so we gave one of his crew directions to Customs with advice not to bother wearing himself out looking for anything else. We then swam back to Begonia for the night, ready for an early morning departure.

Monday, November 25, 2013

On to Provo

[Kyle]Provodenciales – The locals say, “Don’ hurt your tongue, Mon. Just call it Provo.”


We were bumped awake at our remote spot way out on the Caicos Bank at 4am on the next falling tide. The wind and waves had subsided a bit, so it turned out to be a gentle landing we could sleep through.

We woke up wary of the Clear Sand Channel and both decided to take our chances going off route on what looked like the shortest path to deeper water. About thirty minutes after our last bump, we set off on a course due west. It wasn’t long before the water depth was consistently above two meters and climbing, allowing us to breathe big sighs of relief.

We set sail, shut down the motors and ghosted over the beautiful blue water at a couple of knots in just a hint of wind. There wasn’t much going on otherwise, but sailing for miles and miles over such clear water without a hint of land in sight really had us spending the whole day in disbelief at where we were.

Maryanne had just finished making a nice Greek Salad for lunch when we got a call from Provo Port Control. Not knowing our name, he called for a vessel at a specific Lat/Long, His call was accurate to minutes of three decimal places, (about 60 feet accuracy) so we knew it had to be us.

He switched us to a working channel and then started peppering us with questions about who we were and where we came from. I realized just as I am writing this that it was because he spotted us on radar, we were clearly going sailboat speeds, and we hadn’t called him. Almost everyone entering the country clears in first at Provo. The rule, which we did not know, but is regularly broadcast when you’re close enough to Provo for it to matter, is that we should call within twelve miles of Provo to notify Customs of our arrival (recall when we tried to contact anyone on the radio in Grand Turk, the only answer was from a friendly local, so I guess we were out of range of such officialdom there).

I suppose it’s possible that the data pertaining to our actual arrival didn’t get forwarded from Custom’s car in Grand Turk. He seemed pretty confused when we repeatedly insisted that we had already cleared into the country and would be stopping at the Provo offices to clear out the next day. Prior to our arrival, we had pre-filled out the necessary online forms and we had all of the necessary reference numbers handy from our inbound clearance. He seemed to acknowledge that there was, “No problem”, but still insisted on re-asking us every detail that they should have already had about our vessel, our journey and ourselves over the radio. It took forty minutes. Lunch would have gone cold if it weren’t, you know, salad.

Leaving the Bank, and arriving in Sopadilla Bay

After a full day on the Bank, we dropped anchor at Sapodilla Bay around an hour before sunset. While Provo is the cleaned up tourist area of the country, among cruisers it's also considered an overpriced party town that could just as well be in Florida. Sapodilla Bay is convenient to the Customs and Immigration offices and is actually just a little too far from the main drag for walking, so it looks like we’ll miss out on that scene anyway. The bay itself is actually very pretty, with a semi-crowded beach and a nice sunset view past the distant islands. When I swam to check the anchor, I surprised a big barracuda that was hanging out under the boat. The rumor is that there are also turtles to see around sunrise, so we’ll be getting up early for that.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Caicos Bank

[Kyle]We waited an hour or so after sunrise before leaving South Caicos in order to give the tide a chance to come up a bit. As we left the harbor, we waved and tooted our horn at our newfound friends from the SFS. They were so good to us.

We left the shallow harbor and within seconds of entering the Caicos passage, we had gone off soundings in a thousand meters of water. We encountered our first other sailboat, a British boat, on their way into the harbor from the open sea. We took the opportunity to encourage them to visit the school and wished each other a safe journey. It had been pretty windy the night before and they all looked like they could use a calm harbor as they waved hello to us.

We turned to the south along the outside of Long Cay, then re-entered the Caicos Bank there, as it was too shallow to cut across from the harbor directly. I imagine that if you could drain the Atlantic of all of its water, the Caicos Bank would look like the Tibetan Plateau; a flat mesa atop mountains rising thousands of feet from below. While they are not dredged channels, there are several named routes across the bank that are relatively well travelled. While not completely free of hazards, they are mostly safe if done in daylight wearing a good pair of polarized sunglasses to spot the occasional coral head or rock. Our shallow draught just allowed us to take one of the less travelled routes known as the “Clear Sand Channel” provided we went in the upper half of the tide cycle and anchored midway.

We were soon skimming through pool blue water just fifteen feet above the sand below. This went on for miles and miles. The water depth decreased until we could see individual clumps of sea grass as we passed overhead. We reduced sail to slow down just in case we hit something (Maryanne: he means "to give us more time to avoid hitting anything"). The last mile or so, we were crawling along at only a couple of knots in water about a third of a meter above our draught. It was high tide. We wouldn’t be able to get much further, so we anchored in a meter and a half in what should be the shallowest water of the crossing, and settled in until the next day. Begonia hovered over her own shadow in crystal clear water over course sand. The only land visible was way in the far distance to the north.

That last hour was very nerve-wracking. We got through the checklist quickly as I was very eager to don mask and fins and see just how much water was under our keels and what the bottom looked like. We had about a forearm length over uniform sand that went on as far as I could see.

Skinny water - dotted with mixed sealife (in the foreground a black sea sponge)

I looked around further just to see what was around. There was lots of interesting marine life down there, but no fish. I found some coral (mostly soft, some hard), lots of big sponges, some tubeworms and a couple of conch. {Maryanne: There was a reasonable patch of red fan worms that we swam over, it always makes me giggle as they so suddenly retract and appear to disappear instantly - the red seabed turning to sand alone in a wave as we approach}.

Later on, Maryanne went in with me at around the tide state we were planning on leaving. Our keel clearance had dropped to a hand’s width in the falling tide. As we found one interesting thing or another, we would be able to find a clear spot in the sand, stand up in chest high water and discuss it before plunging back in.

Exploring the seabed from Begonia

By the time we got back to Begonia, the water was just above my belly button and the keels were two inches from the sand. I was able to hop aboard without using the swim ladder. Since the two nearest tide prediction stations are twenty miles on either side of us, we had only an estimate for low tide time and level, but it seemed we must be almost there.

As we sat in the cockpit watching the last of the light drain from the sky and the stars come out, we started to notice more and more frequent bumps as we began to bottom out in the small swell. It got more frequent and annoying, then eased up as the keels were touching the bottom more of the time. The process reversed itself over the next hour or so until we were again floating peacefully miles from shore, but only inches above the bottom.

South Caicos

[Kyle]We spent a full day in Cockburn Harbor on South Caicos, starting with a dinghy ride over to a couple of the snorkeling spots recommended by the SFS staff.

The first was a place called Shark Alley. The SFS was busy at the moment doing a lot of shark related work. When we first visited, several of the students were repairing the nets they used for catching the sharks they would then measure, tag and release. We got the impression the harbor was lousy with several different species. We didn’t end up finding any sharks, but spotted a few stingrays and a fairly healthy looking coral reef ecosystem.

Sting rays, coral and fish - a great snorkel site!

We moved on to a place called the Admiral’s Aquarium, which was an SFS educational site complete with concrete blocks covered with signs describing various species that seemed amazingly well placed. The Barracuda sign was right next to a school of Barracuda. I want to wipe the growth off of another and had an adorable little fish pecking at my fingers as I cleared off the sign. It turned out to be describing a little Damselfish that will fight to defend its little patch of algae.

Admiral's Aquarium includes notes! How cool is that?

The tide had been coming in all morning and the current had been fierce as a result. We had to swim like crazy to get ahead of the pudgy, then we could rest drifting back down. We were pretty tired at the end of the whole thing, so it was fortunate that James invited us to lunch at the SFS.

There was a mountain of food as if they were accustomed to feeding a bunch of teenage scuba divers. We did our best to make a respectable dent, but they still had a mountain of leftovers for later.

The school was busy, so we really only had time over lunch for introductions and the index card versions of each other’s stories. James offered to pick us up later for dinner in an SFS boat, so we wouldn’t have to deal with the dinghy. We headed back to Begonia armed with the code for their strong wifi as the students and staff got back to work.

James arrived with his friend, Molly, at the appointed time, which was early enough for us to give them the tour and spend some time in the cockpit chatting. Both James and Molly are the kind of amazing people who leave you feeling like you’ve done nothing in your life. It was nice to spend time with them.

We headed out to SFS and caught the last of dinner. With a more open-ended schedule, we were able to get to know people a lot better. Heidi, the woman in charge of the whole place, used to live aboard her sailboat in Philadelphia. From there, she moved to a houseboat in Puerto Rico before selling up and moving to the Turks and Caicos to run the SFS. She made us promise to tell any other boaters we knew that they are all more than welcome at the SFS.

Following dinner, the students were given their assignments for the evening to prepare for a public outreach day the next day. We joined the staff at their partitioned off section of the school for more socializing. Relieved of the need to set a good example, everyone seemed to suddenly be holding a beer. Beer is pretty expensive in the T&C, so I was surprised to see an apparent abundance. Well, it turns out most of the staff have become home brew enthusiasts as a way to keep costs down. Their craft is now getting quite advanced. Maryanne and I shared a Presidente (beer) to keep from dwindling their limited stock, but we did get to taste a couple of their own varieties and I must say they were pretty good. [Maryanne]A big thank you to all the staff and friendly faces at the SFS - you made our trip there so much more amazing!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Moving to South Caicos

[Kyle]From Salt Cay, we pulled up anchor and headed dead downwind on a course perpendicular to the shore. Seas were flat in the protection of the island and grew to a slow relaxing swell by the time we were on the other side of the Caicos Passage. Maryanne made a delicious breakfast of cream cheese-stuffed French toast and we passed the rest of the time tidying up and rereading (out loud to each other) Bill Bryson’s “Notes From a Small Island”.

Salt Cay disappeared over the horizon at about the four-mile mark; about the same time the much hillier South Caicos came into view eighteen miles ahead. As we made the turn into the harbor a quick survey with the binoculars once again turned up no other anchored boats. None. How is that possible? Did everybody just decide to stay up north and get snowed on this winter?

South Caicos!

We dropped the anchor at the edge of a little patch of sand surrounded by sea grass. After doing the usual post anchoring checks (the last of which included various engine fluid checks followed by a big hug of thanks to each 65°C [147°F] engine block for not letting us down) I was ready to jump in with the excuse of checking the security of the anchor. It was nicely buried in the soft sand, but I decided to linger a bit to get a second data point. In the meantime, I spotted a couple of anemones and an urchin. I also took the opportunity to look over Begonia’s underwater bits. She only had the slightest coloring of green starting and only a very few tiny barnacles, I don’t get it. I mean, I’m grateful, but I don’t get it. Three days in Bristol Harbor and scraping the bottom was like pulling up a layer of sod.

I got out and deployed the dinghy, which made me hot enough to need to jump in again. I had expected this and was still wearing my dripping swim shorts. The tide was going down and our keels were now a foot and a half above the grass.

We gathered our things and headed out for a reconnaissance of the town. I already liked it better. The Turk Islands are very flat, but South Caicos had just enough hilliness to give the land some texture. Also, from the anchorage, several islands could be seen in the distance across the blue Caicos Bank.

As in all the T&C Islands so far, we find both Horses and Donkeys roaming around - adorable (except for the poop!)

Maryanne: like most islands in the western Atlantic tropics, it isn't really all postcard perfect views. Dominating the scene are often roaming dogs, a rusting steel wreck in the harbor, dust, litter, junk cars and general abandoned feel to the infrastructure, punctuated with the occasional newly built store, hotel or government building. In this case of South Caicos we are so far off the tourist track that we didn’t find any typical tourist attractions ashore (not even post card vendors!). But even here, every so often, there is a cracking picture postcard view that avoids any of the less attractive parts of the islands, and reminds us that we are so lucky to be exploring the tropics.

[Kyle] We did a circuit of the town and found nothing of much interest. I spotted a big decrepit house on top of a hill and instinctively wanted to go there to see what the view was like from its vantage point. As we were eye-balling our way in that general direction, we suddenly became swarmed with aggressively ravenous mosquitoes. We have had no bug problems to date in the Turks and Caicos, but these little terrors were making up for it.

Kyle wanted to get closer to this house on the hill, but had to make do with an old lighthouse(?) in the end

We climbed up toward the house by cutting through what seemed like a fancy hotel’s half-built grounds or perhaps a private compound, moving fast and swatting at ourselves like we had gone mad. We only stopped long enough to get pictures of the beautiful views of the harbor below.

We descended to the beach, walked a little further, and then as quickly as it had started, our mosquito problem stopped. Well, we don’t think we’ll be going into that part of town again! Wouldn’t it be unfortunate to buy a house there and then after the fact find out you lived in *that* part of town?

We came across a place along the sea cliffs that clearly used to be somewhere impressive. An empty pool covered in graffiti lay at the edge of a large expanse of tile on several levels, which were bordered by giant pots that seemed to be intended for palm trees. Perhaps the place was destroyed in a hurricane and it turned out not to be worth rebuilding. What a shame.

A little further on, we came across the tiny, three-boat harbor of the SFS, the School for Field Studies. The SFS is an American based organization involved in collecting scientific data from various world locations, in this case for the study of Marine Biology. Maryanne noticed that one of the boats looked as though it still had its navigation lights on, so she went to find someone to tell while I snapped pictures.

The first person she came across was a young man named James. He had a mild, east Scottish accent. She inquired about it and after a few back-and-forths, soon found out he was the son of a friend of hers, Clare, from the University of St. Andrews where Maryanne had received her Marine Biology degree.

[Maryanne]Despite understanding the statistics of chance, I was still quite beautifully shocked that the one person I had happened to stop to talk with also happened to be a son of a friend and SCUBA guru from Scotland. Of course I haven’t met with Clare since I finished studying and living in St Andrews (back in 2002) but she is one of those amazing women who to excel at everything she cares to spend any time on; someone not at all forgettable (and of course we have remained Facebook friends so get to peak into each other’s lives occasionally).

James and the SFS grounds

Anyway, meeting James led us to a tour of the SFS. After walking around the dusty town entering the doors of the SFS was surreal, setting foot into a different world completely. At the entrance was Lula, a dog recently hit by a truck, secure in a cage while the SFS are helping Lula recuperate. The veranda and courtyard was full of people active at various tasks, mostly on computers, but some mending research nets, etc.). At least 50 people might call the SFS ‘home’ at any time. The property grounds include a small and inviting swimming pool; apparently it used to be either a hotel or a villa where Columbian drug barrens would stop on the delivery trips back and forth to the USA. There is a great view of the harbor, and a feeling of being quite separate from the rest of the island town. EVERYONE was friendly and spoke, smiled or nodded at us as we were given the tour. We left with some snorkelling suggestions, and invites for both lunch and dinner at the SFS the following day. Until meeting James we were seriously wondering how we might spend our time at South Caicos, and now we were booked solid!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Salt Cay

[Kyle]One of the unfortunate but understandable nuances of Begonia’s electrical system is that the electric anchor windlass will not operate unless the port engine is running. This is because the windlass draws so much current that it would kill the batteries very quickly without an engine driven alternator constantly helping out. This has effectively removed two of my favorite maneuvers from our repertoire: anchoring and leaving under sail.

Since we had picked up a dive boat mooring the night before in Grand Turk, and since it wasn’t in a crowded mooring field, we got to raise sail, throw off the mooring pendant, and sail off all without having to start the engines. That’s a nice way to start the day.

We unrolled the jib and had a nice, fast sail to Salt Cay, just ten miles to the south of Grand Turk and still within distant sight of taller structures back in Cockburn Town. We dropped anchor right outside of the little fishing harbor and again were the only visiting boat on the island.

Begonia visits another of the salt producing islands of the Turks and Caicos

We made our plans for the day and then filled a backpack with supplies. We started off walking a counter-clockwise course around the saltpans that form the center of the island. As we were passing by the primary school, a friendly voice came from behind.

“Yoo, hoo! Have you seen our flamingoes?”

We hadn’t actually, as they were still in the far distance, but once they were pointed out, they were as clear as day.

The woman attached to the friendly voice introduced herself as Jennifer. Her husband Jay was off cleaning a couple of fish we had seen him catch as we rowed the pudgy to shore. She walked and talked with us for a while and then asked us if we had been to the White House – the one on the island, not the more famous one in Washington, D.C. It was the principal landmark on the island and probably the largest structure. We just happened to be walking past it right then.

We said we hadn’t and she promptly invited us in. She and Jay were staying as guests of the owner, their friend Tim, who was off collecting people from Grand Turk. The White House is almost two hundred years old and is enormous. It has been in Tim’s family for generations and he is making a valiant effort to keep on top of the restoration and upkeep himself, with regular assistance from Jay, Jennifer and others.

As the house is so huge, their strategy seems to be to start at a couple of corners and gradually spread to the rest of the house, the far ends of which are still fairly derelict. What they have done is stunning, and the house feels as if we had stepped right into the nineteenth century.

Visiting the 'white house' of Salt Cay

Jay appeared, cleaned his fish in the kitchen and then we all sat around talking for almost three hours about a little bit of everything. Tim even breezed through briefly and surprised us. He looked way more like a full time surfer/diver than the owner of the most stately home on Salt Cay.

We could have happily stayed the rest of the day chatting, but it was our only day on the island, so we bid one of those reluctant goodbyes that seems to go on forever and resumed our circuit of the island.

It had warmed up considerably since we first sat down in the White House’s shaded veranda. It wasn’t long before our leisurely walk around the island started to feel like a shadeless trudge across a sunbaked desert.

The white house from the other side of the salt pond, and Maryanne gains a little shade from her umbrella on our walk-about

When we got to the far side in the northeast, the homes had long since vanished and we were left alone in the scrub brush walking an increasingly unimproved path. Occasionally, we would come up on a feral mule or cow and the further we went; the more surprised they seemed to see us. They weren’t startled, but seemed to be wondering what on earth we were doing out there. Their stares followed us until we were out of sight.

After a long enough slog through the heat and a barren terrain, Kyle was especially pleased to find the North beach and don his snorkel gear

We passed through one last herd of cattle, who looked simultaneously surprised and too heat-exhausted to get out of our way, before we finally fetched up on the beautiful white semi-circle of the beach on the north side of the island. We had thought about anchoring here, but decided it would be best to be by “town” instead and that we could just walk to the snorkelling spot, rather than vice versa.

Maryanne had decided in advance that it was too much of a kerfuffle, but I was quick to don the snorkel gear I had dragged with me all day and get in the inviting blue water to cool off while she read a book on the beach under an umbrella, looking like my own personal lifeguard.

The sea was pretty churned up, so the visibility was less than I’d hoped for, but humans infrequently visited the coral, so it seemed to be in fairly good shape and there were many different types. My big find of the day was a large colony of about fifty conch nestled in the sand at the edge of one of the reefs.

Sea fans and conch on the seabed

Once I got out and changed, we continued overland, sometimes on trails, sometimes not, until we finally intercepted a definite footpath leading over the cliffs separating the north side of the island from our anchorage.

After a short walk and some stunning views, we settle down for refreshments

We were pretty beat by then, so we pulled up a couple of chairs at the restaurant/bar overlooking the spot where we pulled the pudgy up onto the beach. It wasn’t long before we were spotted and the restaurant was magically open. We ordered a couple of beers and then a couple of things off of the menu. Maryanne had conch and fries. I had a tuna quesadilla. Both were very good. We even topped it off with a slice of key lime pie for dessert.

When it came time for the check, our waiter and cook Anye came up with a number off of the top of his head that seemed way too high. The menu was printed with prices of everything except the beers, so we had some idea what to expect. Maryanne questioned him on this and he rattled off the prices of the various items, most of which were wrong, and the total of which came to nowhere near his original total. He then quoted a VAT rate of 11% (there is no VAT on the island!) and then got that math way wrong when he added it in. He had been very friendly and the food he made was very good, so we rounded the final number up with a fairly generous tip, then bid him farewell to close the restaurant behind us. As we rowed away, we kept going over the whole conversation in our heads and the more time that passed, the more we were convinced that it wasn't simply a math(s) error on his behalf, but we got scammed. Nowhere else we had been had added tax to the price of things. It may have been a portion of the item prices to make for a nice, round bill, but it hadn’t been added on after the fact. We did more research and it turns out the proposed VAT had been voted down earlier in the year. Anye had just scammed a 50% tip from the “rich” Americans he will never see again. If curses work, he’s going to have to spend the whole thing on ointment.

{Maryanne: As Kyle said, the food was good, and until that point we'd enjoyed Anye's company. Luckily the day on the island was more than balanced with the kindness of Jennifer, Jay and Tim along with others we'd met}

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Exploring Grand Turk

[Kyle]We spent the whole day anchored outside Cockburn Town at Grand Turk. Unlike the previous day, not one, but two cruise ships had arrived and even by 8am the town was full of the bustle of milling cruise ship passengers and locals selling trinkets from market stalls. Boats were zipping by to nearby snorkeling sites and ashore tourist trains with cute carriages (all designed for the road) were delivering passengers to the various attractions. There were also bicycle and Segway tours were guiding a snaking trail of followers on tours of the island.

Today we have to share the island, but at least all the museums are open!

I have mixed feelings about this. The town was completely overrun with gawking tourists, yet everything was suddenly open and accessible. Despite being assumed as cruise ship passengers once we went ashore, all the locals were exceedingly friendly.

We started our day at the small, but well presented National Museum, and moved on to the (otherwise empty of tourists) Prison Museum, before Maryanne found us a place where we had a delicious and reasonable lunch (with beer) for under $15. As we made our order we were warned that a bus tour was about to arrive; we should pick our table quickly and be prepared to share. We ended up sharing a table with a very nice couple from one of the cruise ships, they explained that tomorrow they would be in Jamaica; Wow! Jamaica tomorrow – that would take us DAYS to get there. They turned out to also be sailors, from the Baltimore area, and it was fun to swap stories and see their amazement at our adventures.

After lunch we discovered that the Philatelic Museum (where Maryanne had hoped to purchase and send postcards afar) was shut (it was moved to the cruise ship terminal for the day; a little too far for us to walk). We then set out for the salt pond museum. Salt was the main industry in Grand Turk since being occupied by westerners (and their slaves); an annex of Bermuda, much of the low land was set aside to produce salt for the world beyond. Just as we arrived, a woman in a car leaving the property called from the car window to tell us they had just closed (the last of the cruise ships had left the island for the day). We ambled in anyway to enjoy the grounds, which provided us a sighting of the island’s endangered flamingos (yay). By then it was mid-afternoon. With the cruise ships departed, most tourist stuff was shut down again. We decided to stop by one of the many local supermarkets for a few provisions. We bought four items for a million dollars (probably delivered from that freight ship that prevented us landing yesterday).. oh well, it was fun to feel like a local and it was a well stocked store.

Visiting Her Majesty's Prison (Museum)

One amusing thing about a walk, since most cruise ships seem to leave by early afternoon, we stood out! Every third or forth car that passed us slowed, and offered us a ride back to the ship. White people on the island seem fairly rare, and those on foot even rarer (unless of course, they are a cruise ship passenger). We waved them off and politely gave our thanks for their consideration. As the day progressed, we sensed their increasing concern that we might miss our ship’s departure if we refused their ride. Once, within sight of Begonia, I explained we were fine and we were walking back to our boat, to which the driver replied it is ‘WAY too far to walk back to the boat’ the joke was on him, we could see our boat and the dingy dock was only a block away.

Visiting the Salt ponds

We were just about ready to pile our groceries into our dingy when we decided to stop again at our lunch stop and share a quick snack – which turned out the be the last meal they would prepare for anyone that day. As we finished our meal, we saw the last of the cruise ships heading over the horizon and once again the town was subdued leaving just the locals and us as the two remaining tourists.

What a beautiful place to explore

With the cruise ships gone and the tour operations complete for the day, we knew it was safe to reposition Begonia on to one of the nearby sturdy snorkel site moorings for the night. With about an hour of daylight remaining we quickly donned snorkel and masks for a glimpse of the third largest barrier reefs in the world. We were met in the water by curious fish (some of which seemed to follow us around) as we made our way around our immediate area. It was of medium quality as far as snorkel sights go, but there were several interesting corals and many varieties of fish. I even saw a manta ray. The coolest thing was that we were right on the edge of the island shelf. From a few yards of our mooring the sea quickly drops from 15 feet to several thousand. The Caicos passage is the Atlantic’s third deepest trench and it was humbling to float over it and wonder what was lurking in those deep blue depths beyond the reef. It was right at sunset when we climbed out of the water and returned to Begonia, a perfect time for a glass of wine in the cockpit.