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.

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