Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ending the Passage in Grand Turk

[Kyle]After the big storm the wind clocked around to the north-east and we gradually bent a course south and then south-southwest towards Grand Turk. The wind was still fairly strong so the big waves remained with us, and it was not until we were almost there that moving around the boat felt relatively safe again.

As we progressed south, ticking off the minutes of latitude with each hour, temperatures gradually increased (water and air) until by the time we reached Grand Turk the water temperature was 35°C (95°F) and the night time low air temperature in the cockpit was 27°C (81°F).

With the disruption of the storm passed, the trade winds were free to resume their normal pattern. We realized that with the speeds we were making we would arrive mid-day on Sunday. Since the Turks and Caicos only allows 7 day stays without paying a significant extra fee, we wanted to be sure to arrive first thing in the morning so as not to waste one of our seven days as a partial day. (Arriving in the morning light is also prudent to identify and avoid any coral heads). Additionally arriving on a Sunday carries extra overtime fees. Since we were in no hurry, we decided to slow down and arrive with first light to enter the harbor on the Monday. We needed to reduce our speed to about 4.5 knots from the 7-8 the winds were making easy for us. We reduced sail, and then again, until we had about a half a knot above our target speed and a tiny scrap of genoa to catch the wind and assist in steering. It felt strange to be deliberately trying to go slowly but there was no point in arriving any earlier than daybreak on the Monday.

Midway between the Mona Passage (dividing Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic) and the Windward Passage (dividing Haiti and Cuba) there was little shipping traffic to be seen. We did however spot a couple of cargo ships crossing our path travelling to San Juan from Florida. A few miles later I spotted our first bird for days – a booby flying by. I lost sight of it for a second and poked my head out of the cockpit to search for it. I found it perched on one of our spreaders, attempting to secure itself to the gyrating mast. He fortunately gave up before soiling our boat but I knew land was not far off.

Shortly after reducing sail the wind picked up even more, and we spent perhaps half a day being pushed rapidly downwind towards our destination with no sail at all. At last at about 3am on the Monday we spotted the first lights of Grand Turk Island: a TV tower and then the lighthouse at the northern point. Since the island is low and flat, almost all the remaining lights materialized at the same time with only 8 miles to go.

At the very first hint of daylight we passed into the lee of the reef extending from the North side of the island, and for the first time in days had flat seas. I woke Maryanne and she helped me to prepare for landing at the government dock to the southwest of the Island. We arrived at the same time as the inter island freighter and so allowed them to tie up first (on the Southern side of the government pier). We pulled up to the northern side and were told by a worker (shouting to Maryanne on the bow) that we needed to wait a short while until they left to tie up to the South side (later we discovered homeland-security type restrictions prohibited us from being so close to unloading cargo). We assumed that would mean the dock would be available shortly and motored off the pier waiting for them to leave. We ended up loitering for over two hours before we realized the freighter was not leaving any time soon, and gave up and anchored. As we had approached the dock initially we had attempted to call the customs office or harbormaster with no success.

While we were hovering around and awaiting our turn at the dock a medium size cruise ship arrived and attempted to dock at the adjacent terminal. We listened in at their conversations with their island agent and from that understood that they only had one working bow-thruster and were unable to dock in the conditions of wind and current. They waited 40 minutes and made one more try but then abandoned Turks & Caicos as a destination and sailed away (those poor passengers).

After we’d been loitering off the pier for some time we tried again on the radio and were answered by ‘Bonefish’ who explained he was a private citizen and that there was no current harbormaster. He asked us where we were, and agreed to meet us at the government pier in 45 minutes. When the time came, he called us back and confirmed that he had spoken with the freighter people and verified they weren’t leaving any time soon (and even then there was another cargo vessel expected to arrive shortly after). We were instructed to anchor nearby and dinghy to shore.

We had setup the boat to tie up to the dock, our dinghy wasn’t ready (still in lifeboat mode) – so we had a sudden rush to anchor and prepare ourselves to row ashore; all with the pressure of knowing someone was now waiting on us! All this while having not slept since my watch began at midnight.

On the way to meet me at the beach, Bonefish had stopped at the customs office to let them know we were here and their services were needed at the government dock even though the cruise ship had already left. I splashed ashore and Bonefish introduced himself and helped me pull the dingy up to the high tide line. He then escorted me (with his jeep) to the government offices for clearance. Bonefish has no official capacity; He says he can hardly remember whatever his real name is. He’s retired and listens in on the VHF 24 hours a day and makes it his hobby to assist visiting boaters in any way he can. He is a native of the Turks Islands, but has worked in the USA and has and what sounds to me like an American accent. He doesn’t have a boat. We were very grateful for his assistance, as I would have headed in the wrong direction to an empty government office and wasted significant time in hot and muggy climate searching for all the things that were required to clear in appropriately. He also diverted to show me the best restaurants, and pick up tourist brochures along with giving me history of the island in a guided tour.

As for the government offices, it turned out they did not to exist at all! They had been completely torn down and were undergoing a three-month rebuild. Customs turned out to be a very nice woman working from her car with the all of the spare seats filled with file boxes full of forms. I completed the necessary paperwork kneeling in the parking lot while trying to keep the various documents and forms from being blown away in the trade winds. That is definitely a first for us to ‘clear in’ outdoors – no desk or seats or printer! Immigration arrived shortly thereafter in his own car and we repeated the process of flapping forms and a clipboard in the parking lot. With fees paid and forms stamped we were officially in the country.

I had indicated that I wanted to move to the main town anchorage and Bonefish was kind enough to detour me there in his jeep to give me advice on the best holding, the location of the dingy dock, etc. On the return journey he even stopped at immigration to collect my receipt for the $15 fee (which they still didn’t have). As I was waiting outside in Bonefish’s jeep, I called Maryanne on our portable VHF to let her know we were official and I’d be home in 15 minutes. With the news that she was no longer confined to the boat she quickly took the opportunity to jump in to the clear blue water and swim to the beach to meet me. We took a few photos from the government end of town, and then returned and moved Begonia to the main town anchorage.

We had expected a bustling anchorage and to be jostling for space and swinging room. It turned out we are the only visiting boat on the island and the only tourists. It was surreal. I mentioned this to Bonefish earlier when he was showing me the anchorage. He explained that most visiting sailboats don’t start showing up until mid December.

Ah, of course! Maryanne and I were here basically as a stopover on the offshore passage to Panama. We would have had to sail practically within sight of the islands on the way, so it seemed silly not to stop. Our arrival time was basically determined by the need to be out of North Carolina before the winter gales started.

Most cruisers, however, pass through on the so-called “Thorny Path”, an uncomfortable route beating to windward from island to island that stretches from Florida to the Windward Islands. The advantage of the route is that none of the gaps between islands is more than one hundred miles so it is possible to pick your weather to a degree. Most of this group is just leaving Florida now. The Turks and Caicos will see them one more time, again as a group, taking the easy route home probably around mid March. We seem to have beat the crowds again.

One of the unfortunate things about arriving by boat rather than airplane is that there is immediately a ton of work to do to secure the boat and this prevents us from jumping right in to tourist mode. We burned though the jobs as quickly as we could, but soon I succumbed to fatigue, and decided on a nap before any fun could be had. Maryanne awoke me with a couple of remaining hours of daylight, and we headed ashore to gain our bearings in the small Cockburn Town (which is also the capital for the country). With no cruise ship, and with it being later in the afternoon, we found most stores closed, and the few that remained seemed in the last stages of their day.

Arriving at the dinghy dock, it was not long before we spotted our first of many wild donkeys

We walked the empty streets populated as much with the infrequent car as wild donkeys. We doubled back through dark and abandoned streets toward a restaurant that Bonefish had driven me by and recommend as ‘Not the best, but the most consistently good’. The island had suffered a downturn since the last major hurricane and was still struggling to rebuild. Many of the properties were unusable and abandoned, and many were for sale (some of the for sale signs were falling down!). Once we actually arrived at the restaurant and checked out the menu we found it expensive and uninspiring, and returned unfed to Begonia for the evening. {Maryanne: Luckily we'd found a bakery on our evening wander and purchased a nice pastry for breakfast.. so we just ate it on our walk back to the dingy to keep us going!

Of course a HUGE thank you to Bonefish for easing us into the country and assisting us with clearance. We were so greatful for this amazing act of kindness on his behalf.}

The island is made up of 'fancy' tourist boutiques, and mixed quality living accommodation (with new and historic mansions and with plenty on the more simple end of the spectrum)

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