The Thorny Path Part 2: Turks & Caicos to the Dominican Republic

June 7 – Providenciales to French Cay

We left the dock at Turtle Cove Marina around 8:30 a.m. and were met with glassy seas and very light winds. Once again, we seemed to have the ocean to ourselves. We departed at low tide, and I was very happy to have a pilot boat guiding Gratitude out of the twisty channel. Many of the channel markers were missing, and dangerous reefs were abundant.

The pilot boat leading us out of Seller’s Cut – the captain kept radioing me to tell me to follow and not to deviate from the course even a little. No pressure.

Just after noon, a few dolphins came and paid Gratitude a visit. (Karen here: DOLPHINS! SWIMMING WITH US! My life might now be complete.) I saw them about a half-mile off to our starboard, and they made a beeline to intercept us. When they reached us, they turned 90 degrees and matched our speed at about seven knots, jumping and criss-crossing just in front of us, leading us along. It was thrilling to watch. (Karen again: THRILLING, I TELL YOU! They were every bit as graceful and beautiful and playful as I had heard.) {

Dolphins came to visit Gratitude on our sail to French Cay, Turks & Caicos
Dolphins swimming with our Leopard 48 in glassy seas in Turks and Caicos

Shortly after that, we passed the island of West Caicos on our port side. It’s a beautiful dive site off the western side, but on land there are the remnants of an elaborate real estate development that utterly imploded. The islands we’ve visited have no shortage of abandoned building projects, but our interest in this one was personal. A colleague had invited us to invest in this property sometime around 2001, and I seriously thought about it. It had the Lehman Brothers backing it and Ritz Carlton was the anchor, so it had all of the markings of a no-brainer. They even developed a private air strip and a marina to draw high-end clientele. But there was something about the structure of the deal I didn’t like, and it would have required us to put a lot of money at risk, so we opted not to buy in. A few years later, well into the project, the financial crisis of 2008 struck. That was the first big blow, but Hurricane Irma delivered the right hook that took them completely down. Now, this is a ghost town of empty husks on a practically deserted island, and the Lehman Brothers no longer exist (biggest bankruptcy in US history!). You can see all the way through these buildings when the light hits it right.

(Karen: We were in no way glad to see this development fail; we knew some people who likely lost a lot of money, and dreams, through no direct fault of their own. But I am sobered by the reality that taking a risk does not always pay off, and I remain grateful that Andy listened to his gut on this one.)

Passing the failed development at West Caicos

Once we turned south, the winds became more favorable for us to fly our Code Zero sail, so Karen went back and consulted the photos we had taken the one and only time it was deployed. It was described to me as being a “turbo charger” for the boat, but we had never used it on our own. Another couple we met much earlier on had something go wrong with their similar sail on a very similar boat, and the entire thing had blown away and was lost. We took this as a cautionary tale; this is not a sail to be trifled with. I was trained on ours once, for about 10 minutes back in January, immediately after crossing the Gulf Stream the first time, but I had forgotten most everything I was shown. Besides, it was at 5:00 a.m., and I had been up for a while. But we quickly realized that although this sail is different than the jib, it’s not entirely different. We took our time, studied the photos, worked through the kinks, and brought it out. I was really happy to see it unfurled, and we made very good speed the rest of the trip to French Cay with it.

The Code Zero is a truly massive foresail that stretches up over six-and-a-half stories high. It’s great for light winds

…and yes, of course I caught another barracuda. Of course. I’m just going to laugh about it. At least this one did not destroy my lure. He was safely released to go harass someone else. 

If there is ever a barracuda tournament, get me on your team.

We arrived at French Cay about 4:30 p.m. and anchored to the northwest of the island, and we went for a swim in the ocean to cool off and to inspect the anchor. Everything looked just the way we wanted it to. 

We celebrated a successful first day of this trip by mixing up some margaritas and some chips and guacamole, and Karen cooked some amazing beef short ribs in the Ninja Foodi. 

Saturday, June 8 – French Cay to Big Sand Cay

Saturday, we sailed about 60 miles to Big Sand Cay in the Turks and Caicos islands. The winds were favorable for sailing and the seas were mild. We weighed anchor at 6:00 a.m. and headed east-southeast. 

Our water tanks were just about dry, so one of the first orders of business was to desalinate and store enough fresh water to last us until the Dominican Republic for laundry, fresh-water showers, washing down the boat, and cooking. 

But before making for the D.R., we needed to cross the Caicos Bank. 

The Caicos Bank is a shallow stretch of ocean with depths of only five to seven feet below our keel, and it took us the entire morning to traverse it. Occasionally there were charted obstacles to dodge, but generally, it was a straight shot. I couldn’t really relax in such shallow water, so I stayed planted at the helm, monitoring the depth finder and the map, while scanning the water for anything dangerous. At least the path through the Caicos bank, formally known as the “Sir Cloudesley Shovell Passage”, is well charted, so it’s not all white-knuckles.

Also, I outdid myself today. While I was reeling in one barracuda on the port side, a second one took the lure I had rigged on the starboard side. I had two of these fish on my hands at once! The second was big and put up a long and impressive fight on much lighter tackle. In all fairness, I knew this was a risk when I started trolling in such shallow water. Later, I caught one in water that was over a mile deep. I can’t figure this out. 

Three barracuda today. The middle one put up a real fight

(Karen: Really? Three barracuda in one day? I am over this fishing thing. Bah, humbug.)

After the Caicos Bank, the ocean floor plunges down suddenly to depths of over a mile. You transition from about 20 feet deep to 6,000+ ft deep over a short distance. Welcome back to the Atlantic Ocean. Later in the trip, the water drops to over two miles deep. We turned from heading east to following a southeast route known as the Columbus Passage to get to our destination. 

Almost ten hours after we started, we anchored off of the beautiful, uninhabited Big Sand Cay. It is the closest approach to the Dominican Republic from the Turks and Caicos Islands, and I am hopeful that it will give us a friendly wind angle to sail south. We both went for a swim, and I took a look at the anchor. It had dug in perfectly, so I slept a bit more soundly. 

Later on, two dolphins swam by the boat at sunset, and that made the evening just about perfect. 

We stayed here Saturday night and Sunday during the day.  

Big Salt Cay – these dolphins, at sunset, are harder to see

Sunday, June 9 – Big Sand Cay to the Dominican Republic

We took the dinghy (now named “Patience”) to shore to explore Big Sand Cay Sunday morning. Then we both tried to nap as much as possible during the day, and just before 7:00 p.m., we weighed anchor and started heading south for the overnight run to Hispaniola, the island that is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

Maybe our trip had been a bit too ideal up to this point, but it was finally time to pay the piper.

I pushed the power button to the KVH (satellite phone and internet) to check weather before we left, and I was immediately greeted with a loud “POP!” that sounded like a small firecracker. Whatever the root cause (still investigating), we were going to be incommunicado for this stretch of sailing (note, we still had our VHF radio, which is our medium-range means of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication).

Next, as soon as we had the anchor up and were underway, I could tell from the sound the starboard engine was making that it was not circulating water. I suspected we had blown another impeller. Bad news. Really bad news. I verified that it was not working properly and promptly shut it down to avoid a more serious development.

There may be a bigger problem that needs solving here

We had a strong headwind of about 22 knots (25+ mph), and progress with one engine was punishingly slow, so we raised the mainsail and unfurled the jib and diverted due south to improve our angle to the wind. That cheered Gratitude right up, and she started making great time. The waves were high, however, so this was not to be a smooth ride. When things cooled down enough, I climbed into the engine compartment and replaced the impeller while we were underway. I think this should have earned me some kind of sailing merit badge if only such things existed. 

Now we had two working engines (whew!), but we didn’t need engines at this point. We were flying south and would simply tack more easterly as we got closer to our destination. 

Around midnight, I was having my watch at the helm while Karen tried to catch some sleep, when the winds shifted. I turned on the engines to motorsail and give us a boost, when I felt the starboard engine shudder violently before stopping altogether. My brain ran through all of the possibilities, and none of them were good. We were down to one engine again with unfavorable winds. This was destined to be a long trip after all.

Then, about 3:00 a.m., Gratitude’s touch-bashed navigation screen stopped responding to touch. Fortunately, it still showed our position, but we couldn’t change the view, alter our course, or zoom in or out. This was a most unwelcome development, but I remembered that I could use my iPad to connect to it wirelessly, and that workaround returned full functionality. 

The challenges kept coming, though. Just before 4:30 a.m., three images appeared on the ship’s radar. It was raining softly, and visibility was really low. I thought they might be storm cells, but as I watched them draw closer, I realized they were much larger ships headed directly into our path from west to east. I tried (repeatedly) to hail them on the VHF as they approached, but there was only radio silence in return. When we got close, I could make out the illuminated outline of the nearest one, looming directly in front of us. I diverted hard to the southwest to avoid the possibility of a collision – so fun to do in the rain – in the dark. The winds were ideal for sailing at that new angle, but staying on that heading would have deposited us in Haiti in a few hours, which was not the plan.

The three radar blips on the right were three ships. The nearest one came far too close for comfort.

At 4:55 a.m., after a long night, the sky started lightening a bit in the east. I knew it would not be long before the sun came up, making the rest of our trip easier. The winds shifted again, this time to a more favorable direction, and as the sun rose, we could see The Dominican Republic. Land Ho!

The Dominican Republic is a truly beautiful country

We were able to sail again without needing any engine, and as we approached the northern shore, the winds bent around the island, allowing us to turn and keep sailing southeast to our destination. When we got close to the marina where we were planning to dock, we found a spot away from shore where the depth was only about 20 feet and deployed the anchor. The seas were quite rough, and the winds were 18 knots. I jumped in the water to see what was going on with the starboard side engine below the boat. There was no way I wanted to try to dock this boat with only one engine. 

It really could have been much worse

As expected, we had caught a line that had wrapped tightly around the starboard propellor. I was actually very relieved. It’s not unusual for boats to catch a net, fishing line, or a stray rope (although it was a first for us), and sometimes these can be very tough to disentangle or cut free. This one didn’t look so bad, so I swam down, held my breath, and unwound the line with one hand while using my other hand to make sure the hull didn’t conk me in the head as it bucked up and down in the surf. Now we could use both engines again! 

(Karen: And I sat nervously on the edge of the boat, silently praying that Andy did not hit his head and the boat did not drag too far back into the reef behind us. It was a relief when he found and disentangled the line around the prop, but a much bigger relief when he was finally back aboard Gratitude.)

Time to get back underway, except… not so fast. The starboard engine acted most unhappy from this experience, and it stubbornly refused to restart. We tried for several tense minutes to get it going. It did not sound like it was even considering starting. I was coming to grips with the fact that we would still only have our port engine to use, when finally, the starboard engine coughed and sputtered to life, and we were back in business. I cannot adequately convey the relief I felt.

Amazingly, all of these challenges only added one more hour to our trip. We made the entire run in 16 hours rather than the expected 15, and we only used our engines for a couple of those hours. We docked cleanly, had the drug enforcement police inspect our boat and cleared immigration and customs smoothly. 

(Karen: One final note that clearing customs and immigration in the DR is reported by many to be difficult and unpredictable… but we followed some good advice and did so at our marina. We encountered no difficulties whatsoever, making our welcome to this beautiful country very warm, indeed.)

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