Sunday, December 22, 2013

Leaving Begonia

[Kyle]With all of our out of the water work done, it was time to leave Begonia behind. I would return to work soon enough, but in the meantime, Maryanne and I were off to our respective countries of origin to catch up with family.

We started with a taxi ride to Colón. Our driver, Alfred, took us through the main part of the town to the train station on its fringe. It’s possible to rent a car for very little in Colón. I considered this as an alternative to the more expensive cab/train/cab option. Even with the extra fee to drop the car at Tocumen International Airport, it would have cost far less. In the end, I’m glad we didn’t. Colón is impossibly confusing. The entire city is under heavy construction, there are no road signs at all, and none of the intersections have traffic lights. The procedure at these seems to be: Stop when you arrive to see if there’s a space, then dart into traffic in the direction you want to go, even if you have to cross several lanes of traffic at right angles and they are all headed right at you. Alfred seemed only mildly perturbed by all of the drivers that either cut him off or who refused to let him cut them off, but from the back, it was all quite confusing and hair-raising.

After a very circuitous route that involved many poorly marked construction detours, he finally deposited us at the Colón train station. Taxi fares in Panamá are based on zones, not metered, so we knew Alfred had taken the quickest route for his fixed fare.

We had allowed a generous buffer for canal delays that turned out to be unneeded, so we ended up with quite a lot of time before we could board the train to Panama City. The station is not so much a station as a covered siding. We found a plank of wood alongside one of the sheds nearby and used it as a makeshift bench to sit on while we waited. Our main entertainment for our wait was the busses going by at a nearby intersection. Panamá has a curious bus culture that is proud of its rebellious nature. Most of the public busses are old school busses from the U.S. that have been painted with elaborate airbrush designs and adorned with all sorts of extras like shark fins and big chrome truck exhausts with loud glass pack mufflers. The busses make the city seem even more chaotic.

The Panama Canal Railway - once used for those rushing west for the California Gold Rush

When it finally came time to board the train, we boarded and were immediately stunned with the contrast to the grubby city outside. The train was beautiful. The inside was all polished wood, with green leather seats and those green glass desk lamps. The bulkheads were painted with frescoes of the route. It felt like we had stepped into the Roaring Twenties. We immediately made a beeline for the dome car. The attendant came by with a tray of complimentary coffees and took our drink and snack orders.

The train pulled out of the station and within five minutes, we had left Colón behind and were clacking along the shores of Lake Gatun. We passed still water dotted with tiny islands speckled with herons and cranes. Further along, we spotted the buoys of the canal route, which got closer and closer until we were running alongside the ships on their way between oceans.

We relax as the scenery rushes by

At the Continental Divide, we passed the Miraflores locks, then darted into a tunnel before arriving at Balboa station in Panama City. We had crossed the isthmus in just under an hour.

We took a taxi to a cheap, but clean hotel in town, then headed out looking for a restaurant. We walked a long loop through a lot of dark streets in dodgy areas before we finally ended up at a Venezuelan restaurant across the street from the hotel. The poor waitress that served us as well as the rest of the diners were very understanding and helpful as we struggled to order with our limited Spanish. Eventually, we were brought plates of simple but delicious food that cost us about half what it was worth. We left a chunk of the difference as a good tip for being so patient and cheerful with us. Our waitress seemed confused when we said we didn’t need change. Once she realized it was for her, she accepted it with a blush.

We went back to our room and spent the night trying to sleep through the traffic noise to no avail. When we came down to the lobby at first light, our taxi was already waiting to take us to the airport. We took the south expressway past gleaming skyscrapers separated from the Pacific by a wide belt of parkland bisected by a paved bike path and punctuated with benches in the shade of palm trees.

Arrived in Panama City, Fed, rested, and then off to the airport for an early flight

We parted ways at adjacent gates, where we each got the second to last seats on our respective planes. Now Maryanne is reacquainting herself with British winter while I’m in the milder climate of Arizona enjoying a soft bed and my mother’s delicious cooking.

Finally, a Day Away from the Boat

[Kyle]With all of our jobs officially finished except for a couple of minor ones we had decided to postpone, we joined half of the other people in the marina for a trip to Colón.

We crammed into the marina’s free 22-person shuttle bus, taking every available seat and then some on the first of its two daily round trips to a shopping center in a safe part of town. Most of the people on the bus were doing their grocery shopping at the nice, big grocery store. We were leaving soon, so we had no need for that. Instead, the driver dropped us off at a big hardware store a few blocks away. We picked up tools and painting supplies that we'll need when we return to Panama. We were glad to not be paying marina prices for a change.

Apart from there being a guy in fatigues with a loaded shotgun and a pistol posted every hundred feet or so, the shopping center was just like any other first world shopping center. It was nice to get stocked up, but the real highlight of the trip for us was that is was our first chance to actually get a look at the Panama Canal. In fact, we ended up waiting twenty minutes or so at the Gatun locks for the little one-way swing bridge at the bottom to close so we could cross. Two big cruise ships were locking up from the Atlantic. Their decks and every balcony were filled with passengers watching the process as the little railway engines ran along the tops of lock walls to get into position for the next lock.

We also discovered that Shelter Bay seems like it’s in a compound because it is. About five miles from the marina, we came across a barbed wire fence and a military guardhouse at the entrance to the national park and wildlife reserve within which the marina resides.

It was nice to get out, but it turned out it was nice to get back to the quiet and relative safety of the marina afterwards.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Nature Walk in the Jungle

[Kyle]We finally finished the jobs on Begonia by noon on my birthday (at least those that are critical to be completed before we can depart). This allowed us the rest of the day to hike through the nearby jungle and take our time over things without the threat of darkness looming over us.

Rather than the usual wordy blog, here are some photos of some of the cool things we saw. Why don't you have a go at naming them? (Our answers listed below in no particular order and who knows if we are even correct!).

Wolf Spider, Some very surreal Flower(?), Howler Monkey(s), Southern Lapwing, Keel-Billed Toucan, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Green Iguana, Bananaquit, The Red Postman butterfly, Plantains

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shelter Bay

[Kyle]I’d love to say we immediately went out to explore our new country as soon as we arrived but, as usual, we had a lot of post-passage work to do to transition from the routines of sea to those of land.

The Shelter Bay Marina was expecting us when we arrived and had us quickly tied up in a slip. We gave the guy who helped us with our lines the name of the agent we hired for the canal transit and before we had even finished adjusting our lines and fenders, Roy from the agency appeared and introduced himself.

Clearing into Panamá is not that difficult, but pretty much any dealings with bureaucracy is included in the agency’s fee, so we were happy to let Roy do all of the necessary legwork for us. He actually made it so that we didn’t even have to leave the boat. We gave him the necessary documents and the next day, he returned with everything freshly signed and stamped.

Since my vacation schedule had us arriving way at the beginning of the season, and since I won’t have a decent chunk of time off until the optimal time for setting off into the Pacific next year, we decided to use the opportunity to haul Begonia out of the water. We would do a bunch of maintenance and let her dry out for a couple of months before putting her back in the water. Shelter Bay isn’t the most convenient place for this and is pretty pricey, but it was the most time we had for a haulout, so we had to make the best of it.

Since we had a lot of jobs on our list and since the marina’s high rates are even higher at a dock, we were keen to get out of the water as soon as possible. We went to the yard office and were booked for the first thing the day after tomorrow. We forced ourselves to take time out for an end-of-passage meal at the restaurant, but after that, it was back to work getting ready for being hauled out.

The crew was ready at eight o’clock when we pulled up to the crane. As I was busy trying to explain where to put the slings in broken Spanish, I was pleased to see that they had a guy in the water making sure they weren’t getting on the props or our ham radio’s grounding plate. When he was done, he climbed out and fired up the travel lift. It turns out he wasn’t just some guy; he was THE head guy, Don Victor. Since the road was too narrow, once we were out of the water and pressure-washed, he switched Begonia from the travel lift to a really cool articulating trailer and then gingerly took us on it to our spot in the work yard.

Once we were there, break time sauntering behind our boat down the road in the hot sun was over; we had to get to work.

Plenty of jobs to keep us busy in the boat yard; Ugh!

The next week was pretty much horrible. We chipped away at our list, sometimes together, sometimes separately, but always in relentless tropical heat. Every few hours, we would stagger into the steaming cabin, gulp down a quart of cold Gatorade and then immediately start sweating it back away. At the end of each and every single day, we would set new records for both grubby and tired. At sunset, the ONLY thing we wanted was nice cold showers. Only once we were freshly scrubbed did we realize how hungry we had been.

Some days Maryanne managed to make something aboard, but on most, we couldn’t face the effort of cooking or cleanup, or for that matter, clearing enough of the tools and half-done projects out of the way to have space to eat. It was all we could do to put our berth back together at night so we could sleep in it. Our only other alternative was the marina restaurant. The prices weren’t bad and the food was pretty good, but the service was just about the slowest we’ve seen. After a while, we learned that the only way to get a meal in less than three hours was to chase down the wait staff for everything. {Normally we'd be happy to take time enjoying the views, but we were so exhausted every day we needed to dine and get to bed}

Colón and the area around it are generally considered to be very unsafe. Shelter Bay (just across the harbor), on the other hand, seems perfectly secure. Locking the boat here seems more like a good habit in preparation for other places than a necessity. The marina is on the location of the old U.S. military base, which was way out of Colón on the opposite side of the canal. There is no public transport, so the place very much retains a feel somewhere between a compound and an isolated backwater. Once you’re here, there’s really nowhere else to go. It didn’t take long before we got pretty familar with the restaurant and its limited menu - we soon had no need for the menu.

On days when it was going to be dark soon, but it seemed too late to start another job, we would give ourselves a mental break and drag ourselves away from the boat and out to a loop road that was all that remained of the old officer’s quarters. Now, apart from the cracking pavement, all that remains is the rapidly encroaching jungle. We spotted several different species of parrot there and even saw a couple of toucans. On our second trip, we found a troupe of capuchin monkeys making huge acrobatic leaps from tree to tree. They seem to spend their whole lives a hundred feet up. Once on a later trip, we heard the unmistakable call of a howler monkey. After following the sound, Maryanne managed to get a look at him and even got a picture. {Maryanne: This almost daily break from the boat yard to see the jungle life is really helping to keep me sane, being in a boat yard at any time is basic misery - but in this heat, and with time pressures and cost pressures we are both getting stressed and snippy with each other - it's so nice to be reminded of the beauty all around and relax again!}

A daily walk to the jungle to see the animals - in this case capucin monkeys

After a week in the yard, we finally started to feel like we were getting on top of our job list. The engines are serviced, the props are freshly painted, the hulls are waxed and we even put a new coat of non-skid in the cockpit. We are tired, but feeling satisfied with our work. My hands have accumulated so many cuts, dings and scrapes that I can hardly bear to touch anything.

So far, we still have no real impression of Panamá. We have yet to leave the immediate area of the marina. We haven’t even needed to speak Spanish except on rare occasions. All we have is a conditioned association with heat and work and bugs that’s making Panamá seem unfairly like a miserable place. We’re looking forward to finishing our work, getting away from the marina and having a little bit of a look around.

Colón/Cristobal - Arriving in Panama

[Kyle]As we approached Colón on the last night I was filled with a mix of feelings. We had been deliberately trying to get here for a long time, so I was excited to see the distance remaining shrink and shrink. On the other hand, I knew the nice, easy passage was almost over and it was about to get really busy for us once we landed.

Colón first manifested itself as lights appearing on a dark horizon beneath flashes of lightning from storms over the warm land. The lights turned out not to be from land, but from the many ships converging toward the city. Land itself arrived at twilight as a thin line outlining the rugged mountains through the veil of showers.

Once Maryanne was no longer sleeping, I switched the VHF radio from channel 16 to the channel used by Cristobal Signal for port operations. Wow! Listening to Cristobal Signal is like listening to New York Air Traffic Control on a busy, stormy day. The guy on the radio was directing the movement of nearly one hundred different vessels; He gave anchor instructions, sequenced traffic, coordinated locking times and gave instructions for picking up and dropping off Harbor Pilots. Enormous ships were everywhere, manoeuvring gingerly through the crowded anchorages as they waited their turn at the breakwater. The place absolutely crackled with a sense of important industry being undertaken in every corner. There was no question about it; this was the Big Show and we were a small part in it.

Suddenly there are boats EVERYWHERE... and they are all much bigger than us! Eventually we are safely and officially in Panama

We called in with our position, ETA at the breakwater, and destination and were given permission to proceed. We entered the port like a mouse on the floor of a redwood forest. I thought I would be more anxious, but I surprised myself by enjoying it way more than I expected, as if I were a kid that was suddenly given a chance to go backstage and meet Superman.

We followed the west breakwater past all of the ships in the inner anchorage to a gap in the mangroves at the far end. Beyond laid Shelter Bay Marina, where Begonia will be hauled out until February. I hadn’t known this when I made our initial plans for haulout, but Panama turns out to have only one game in town for doing work on small boats and Shelter Bay is it and they are priced accordingly. The marina is beautiful and the staff is very friendly, but the place makes me feel like I’m in a cab watching the meter rapidly approach what I have in my pocket.

We went to the various offices to coordinate the work for the next few days. For now, we’re going to take a break and treat ourselves to a meal out and a couple of local coldies.

Passage to Panamá

[Kyle]It was early afternoon when the wind finally backed from east-southeast to east-northeast. We pulled up the anchor and said goodbye to the beautiful blue waters of the Caicos Bank. Within minutes, we were off soundings in over a thousand meters of water of that unreal, offshore color.

It didn’t take long before the swell caught up with us once we were in deep water. Begonia was soon rolling in a lurchy, unpredictable way that made having a good handhold a requirement. We passed within eight miles of Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas in the first half of the night, but never saw it since it was all too low to be seen over our three-mile horizon.

In the gap between Inagua and the big island of Hispaniola, the wind and seas increased. The forecast called for decreasing winds both with the passage of time and with progress south, so we kept flying plenty of sail.

It turned out to be a pretty stressful night. We had yet to readjust to watch keeping and the motion of the open sea and we were constantly worried about having too much sail up for the boisterous conditions. Every now and then, the boat would roll a little too far or an errant wave would send warm, salty spray into the cockpit, reminding us that this was not normal benign sailing. My stomach was in a knot of worry almost the whole time.

This continued for most of my midnight to six a.m. watch while Maryanne tried in vain to sleep below, wondering just what was going on out there. Finally, at about four o’clock, the wind picked up even more and things were starting to get a little out of hand. We were regularly surfing into the mid teens. I was watching the autopilot struggling to maintain control of the overpowered boat. We would slew and roll, the wheel would spin way over to one direction while the boat continued to stubbornly go the other way for a few seconds too long for my comfort. It was time to reef. {Maryanne: It was so hard to sail by so many amazing places in our rush to get to Panama.. especially knowing that we only had to work on the boat when we got there. Jamaica especially was calling to me and so close I was so tempted to just sail over during Kyle's sleep time. One day I hope to get there!}

The jib had already been rolled up to about half of its size. This was easy enough to do while sailing downwind, but now the big mainsail needed reduced, which required a turn upwind as it can only be raised or lowered if it’s streaming back from the mast. I waited for a lull and then made the turn. The change was immediate between running from the wind and waves and punching into them. The wind was now howling loudly, accompanied by the machine-gun snapping of the flogging sails. The waves that had been sending occasional spray into the cockpit were now sending horizontal sheets of water across the boat. My nice, dry clothes were instantly soaked.

With the tops of the waves crashing over me, I had to make a make a real concerted effort to stay at the mast and do everything methodically and properly instead of rushing through the job and fleeing back into the cockpit. I didn’t want to have to come back again to have to redo or finish anything.

When I was sure I was done and had double-checked everything, I returned to the helm and bore off back to our downwind course. Suddenly, everything was relative peace again. It was still uncomfortable, but the boat was easier to control and I no longer had the constant worry about having too much sail up.

When Maryanne came on watch, I went to bed fully expecting it to be too uncomfortable for me to sleep. I was so tired that the first hour or so came anyway. I awoke to noticeably more comfortable conditions and the sound of Maryanne shaking out the reefs. As soon as we entered the Windward Passage, the forty-five mile gap between Haiti and Cuba, the high mountains of Hispaniola blocked the wind and we quickly coasted way down into the two-knot range. The sails slatted back and forth uselessly as we rolled back and forth in the decreasing swell. There was a fairly strong current through the gap, so our progress was actually not as bad as it felt in the still heat.

As we drifted along, we spent perhaps half of the time within sight of at least one ship or another shuttling between Panamá and the Windward Passage. We passed our last land before crossing the Caribbean Sea, Navarro Island, in the wee hours. In the moonless sky, I was only able to make it out as a low silhouette against the stars. I kept waiting to see the beam of the lighthouse on the southern side, but it never became visible. I gave it a couple of sweeps with the radar just to make sure it correlated with the chart, which gave me a measure of peace of mind on a dark night.

Albatross join us for a short while

There was an almost complete lack of trade winds until we were nearly two hundred miles south of Hispaniola, making our progress frustratingly slow. At least it was nice and warm all of the time. We also had occasional entertainment from flocks of albatross and pods of dolphins that seemed to be following the same schools of fish. The dolphin would always seem willing to take a break to come over and play in our bow waves. One morning, we were barely moving in a very light wind. The wind shifted and the mainsail backed, overpowering the rudders with no flow over them. I was helplessly spinning around in circles trying to get back in control when a pod of about ten dolphins came by to play. They zigzagged back and forth and circled a few times before deciding that we weren’t any fun. I finally got the boat moving just as they gave up and left.

Kyle gets to photograph the dolphins

Once the trade winds returned, we were treated to regular visits, mostly right after sunrise. The sails filled and started quietly pulling. We went hours and hours without needing to make anything other than the most minor adjustments to them. While most of the ships that presented a conflict were pretty good about altering course (technically, we have right of way while in deep water, because a sailboat is less manoeuvrable, having some directions we can’t go at all), a few of the others either didn’t see us (were they looking?) or quite correctly figured it was in our best interest to stay out of their way. When we dodged them, we were usually able to leave the sails in less efficient trim until they were past and we could resume our original course.

As we made progress south, the days were hot and the nights were pleasantly warm and filled with all of the stars that are only visible far from cities. I would note every night when I started my watch that Orion had climbed slightly higher in the sky since the previous night and Polaris, the North Star was getting lower. By the time we neared Panamá, our masthead navigation light would be scribbling an erratic path right through the center of Orion. Polaris was getting low enough to have a slightly red tinge and was having increasing trouble clearing clouds on the horizon.

Since we hadn’t been to a decent store since Beaufort, over a month ago, Maryanne has been increasingly making worried noises about running out of some types of food, particularly fresh produce. It has been completely unnoticeable to me. She continues to turn out an impressive variety of delicious dishes. We seem to be in no danger of degenerating into an, “Aw, rice and beans again!” mode. All of our various food storage areas still look full to me.

{Maryanne: We were 8 days and sea and with a quite uneventful sail (thankfully) - the days roll into one on such a passage, but we did find early on on the passage a random floating boat fender. I was especially proud of myself as I like to keep a good lookout in the full expectation (goodness knows why) that I will sight and save a shipwrecked sailor in a liferaft... Spotting the floating fender at least made me feel that I'd see that life raft if it was ever out there. Otherwise it is a series of sunsets and sunrises, broken by the occasional exciting visits of the wildlife. Nice!}

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.