Turks and Caicos: Diving Paradise

I am writing this post as Gratitude cruises EXTREMELY calm seas. There’s the barest of swells and maybe 2 knots of wind, making it possible for me to sit in the forward cockpit with no fear of getting splashed. We are off the northern coast of the Turks and Caicos, about to turn south once we get to the western edge, so that we can sail to French Cay tonight; in the morning we’ll start crossing the Caicos Bank, heading for Big Sand Cay, our last anchorage in the T&C. We hope to leave from there late on Sunday, June 9, for an overnight sail to the Dominican Republic.

But before we leave this beautiful country, we want to share a little taste of our week here.

The Turks and Caicos used to be a part of the Bahamas, and geographically that makes sense. But they’ve been separate countries for over a hundred years now, and the differences show. T&C is a British colony with more development and more infrastructure than most of the places we visited in the Bahamas. The grocery stores are outstanding, there are dozens of good restaurants, and car rental is easy and cheaper than a round-trip taxi ride.

The Graceway Gourmet in Providenciales – most of the comforts of home

The beaches and the water are gorgeous! Same beautiful range of blues and greens that you see in the Exumas, with many many good reefs just begging to be snorkeled or dived. (Dove? I never know.)

Andy has some company for his 3-minute safety stop at the end of our first dive

We took some time while in Providenciales (not the capital, but definitely the largest town and the center of tourism here) to go diving again. I really wanted to do some more training, and found a dive shop, Aqua TCI, that could help us. Alas, it would have required some online coursework, and we did not have reliable-enough internet to make that feasible. (Not just internet, it turned out – there were a few power outages during our week here, as well. Provo was a victim of Hurricane Irma, and while it has recovered nicely, there are still some hitches in their systems.)

So we “settled” for pleasure dives, and boy were they pleasurable! The variety of reef life was truly amazing. We did four dives over two separate days, and on both days we saw reef sharks, turtles, eels, lobsters, hogfish, and all the wrasses and angelfish you could hope for. We even spotted a juvenile trunkfish – a tiny little spotted thing! – that is apparently somewhat rare. The corals were bright and healthy – rock corals, brain corals, sponges, fans. Andy got some nice videos of the sharks and I managed to get some still shots of a lot of the fish.

A curious Caribbean Reef Shark came to check us out on our dive
Sharks are friends! Not food!
Juvenile Spotted Drum
Juvenile trunk fish – they’re pretty rare to spot. Our guide found this one – it’s the little black blob with the white polka dots.

Diving is SO MUCH FUN!

A view of our marina (Turtle Cove), from the lovely Magnolia Wine Bar on our last night.

We did a lot of eating out AND grocery shopping, too. Eating out, because the variety of cuisine here was a nice change from what we had grown used to in the Exumas. We had some nice Italian, some paella, and grilled fish with risottos and pastas, beyond the peas-n-rice and mac-n-cheese that was so prevalent earlier in our journey. I was delighted with the creativity and skill of the chefs, even at the casual bars we visited. I didn’t do any cooking while we were docked, but we made two grocery runs to get restocked. I had heard that the grocery stores were good here, and they did not disappoint. For the next few days every meal will be prepared here on board, so I wanted to be sure and get everything we’d need.

What’s our menu for the next few days? Well, I’m planning to cook up a big pot of BBQ beef short ribs with cole slaw for dinner tonight, that will give us plenty of leftovers for quick reheating. I found a rotisserie chicken that I’ll use to make curried chicken salad, and I have a new recipe for a Mediterranean quinoa salad I want to try. Between that and the cheese and crackers, apples and peanut butter, and Rx Bars we have onboard, I’d say we won’t go hungry. In fact, it’s calm enough that I might try doing some food prep today while we’re underway. We haven’t had good enough conditions for me to try it before – I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Thorny Path Part 1: Bahamas to Turks and Caicos

(Andy wrote the bulk of this post, but Karen couldn’t help interjecting a few notes along the way. It’s interesting to both of us to see what each of us remembers about this journey.)

Monday, May 27: Great Exuma, Bahamas to Calabash Bay, Bahamas

We were home for a couple of weeks in May, and we left the boat tied up to a dock in Emerald Bay Marina and paid a fellow named John a few dollars each day to check on her. He texted and sent me photos each time he came, so I knew someone was looking after the boat in our absence. 

(Karen: Let me say a word about Emerald Bay Marina. It is not convenient to town, but it is a GREAT marina. We had stellar service and friendly interactions with everyone we met there, from the marina staff to the taxi drivers to the bartenders across the street at the Grand Isle Resort. Also, some reviews of this marina on Active Captain note that there’s lots of surge – but we found that extra dock lines made our boat very stable there.)

When we arrived back aboard, everything was just the way we had left it, which was very welcome news for me. Then we had to wait out a week of unfavorable winds, so we were delighted to pull away from the dock about 6:30 a.m. on Monday, May 27 (Memorial Day). With winds averaging 15 knots from the east or southeast predicted for the next week, we motored and sailed east until we arrived at Calabash Bay, also know as Columbus Cove. This was the location where Columbus first made landfall after his journey across The Atlantic. We spent the night there, and it’s crazy to think that your boat is in the same location as such an historic maritime event. 

Tuesday, May 28: Calabash Bay to Clarence Town, Long Island

The next morning, we got up early and passed the Columbus monument on our starboard side as we steered to a more southeasterly route. We sailed a good bit of the way before the winds shifted and began hitting us “on the nose.” This is undesirable if you are a sailor since no sailboat can actually sail directly into the wind. You can get reasonably close since the sail acts a lot like a sideways airplane wing, but the physics simply don’t allow you to attack the wind straight on. When the wind blows like that, you are basically reduced to two choices: you can zig-zag across the wind, known as “tacking”, or you can turn on the engines. We actually did a combination of the two, tacking for the first part of the trip, and then giving in to more modern technology. 

On the way, a barracuda took my favorite fishing lure. He surfaced with it in his mouth, as if to mock me before biting cleanly through my leader with those enormous, jagged teeth and swimming away. Enjoy your plastic and metal breakfast, loser. A little while later in the morning, we caught a nice blue runner, but we weren’t hungry enough to try and eat that. 

A blue runner – technically edible, but not anyone’s first choice

We arrived at Clarence Town on Long Island and pulled into the Flying Fish Marina. It’s a small marina that caters to fishing boats, but it has a couple of docks big enough to fit Gratitude. There was a strong crosswind, and I was nervous about docking. Crosswinds are difficult for a lot of boats, but they can really be challenging for a catamaran since there is so much surface area for the wind to catch and blow your boat around. You don’t have a bow thruster, so keeping the front where you want it can be a real challenge. I hailed the marina ahead of time on the VHF radio and told them the crosswind made me nervous, but they assured me this would be a walk in the park. Suffice it to say that it was not, but we got through it just fine.

Gratitude at dock in the Flying Fish Marina, Long Island, Bahamas

(Karen: If we weren’t in a hurry to take advantage of the good weather, I would have enjoyed staying one more night in Clarence Town. I dubbed it “Uncle Clarence Town” after a beloved and now-departed uncle. There were some interesting sites to see, but we would have needed a car, and more time. Sigh. We can’t do it all.)

While we were at the Flying Fish Marina, I decided to tackle a needed repair to our beloved dinghy. The last time we used it, the engine died at an inconvenient point, and it refused to stay running for more than a few seconds after that. Later that afternoon, we followed our noses and discovered there was a good quantity of gasoline in the hull of the dinghy. Aha! A clue! The engine and the fuel tank looked fine, so I decided the likely culprit was the fuel line, and when I worked the fuel line out from its conduit under the deck, that suspicion was confirmed. It had disintegrated in the middle between the deck and the hull. That explained why the engine acted like it was running out of gas even though our tank had been full. It also made sense why we had gasoline sloshing around in the bottom of the dinghy. I spent the evening cleaning/cutting/splicing/clamping/repairing it with the tools and supplies I had on board. After that, Karen suggested we name the dinghy “Patience”: an inspired choice!

Wednesday, May 30: Clarence Town, Long Island to Pitts Town Point

The next morning, we pulled out of the Flying Fish Marina at about 7:30 a.m. and the wind and waves really picked up as soon as we turned in to the Atlantic Ocean. About two hours into our trip east, we got an email from the meteorologist we use, saying it would probably be too rough to make this leg of the trip. At this point, however, we felt committed. We were motorsailing along, but the front of the boat was plowing hard into the waves, so I dumped about 120 gallons of fresh water. That lightened the front of the boat by about 1,000 lbs, and the rest of the ride was much better. We were headed to Attwood Harbor, but around 1:00 p.m., the computer projected that we would arrive some time after 8:00 p.m., and as our intended anchorage sat between two dangerous reefs and we wanted plenty of light to navigate that, we decided to divert to another anchorage a little south of Pitts Town Point. 

Pitts Town Point is absolutely beautiful. We pulled in around 3:00 p.m., and we were completely alone. For that matter, we saw almost no other boats the entire day. Everyone else on the Thorny Path seems to have a solid head start on us. 

That night, sharks showed up at the boat and swam in slow circles around Gratitude for a couple of hours. I was fishing at the time, using mullet for bait and hoping to catch something tasty, when one of the sharks grabbed my bait and took off. For the next three minutes or so, it felt like I was trying to slow a moving car. Finally, the shark broke the line, which I considered a merciful outcome. At that point, I collected my toys and retired inside. 

One of the many sharks that came to pay us a visit that night

Pitts Town proved to be a perfect anchorage on a clear, moonless night. There were innumerable stars, and the bright band of the Milky Way was clearly visible later in the night. It was complete solitude, and we drifted off to sleep to the gentle sound of rain falling outside.

Thursday, May 30: Pitts Town Point to Plana Cays, Bahamas

We got off to an early start and enjoyed the sun rising by Bird Rock Lighthouse as we departed Pitts Town. The first few hours were spent beating directly into the wind. I half joked that we don’t need GPS – all we have to do is navigate directly into the wind each day and we’ll get to our desired destination. 

Sunrise at Bird Rock Lighthouse

Around lunchtime we raised the sails, turned south, and turned off the engines. This was bliss. When the boat is “happy”, it makes all the difference in the world. She sliced through the water, and the solar cells captured the sunshine and topped off our battery bank. Then the fishing line went spooling out. 

Another barracuda.

Seriously. This is getting ridiculous. If I were willing to eat these things, and a lot of people around here are, we’d be set for life. I haven’t crossed that line yet, but if I ever do, it will be out of pure spite. 

(Karen: Just to be clear, Andy and I are agreed that there will be no eating of barracuda on this boat until their reputation for Ciguatera poisoning is cleared. No matter how annoyed we get with them.)

We have not seen anyone on the ocean today – no cargo ships, no other sailers, and no fishing boats. It seems that we have this part of the world to ourselves. It is strange to sail for hours on end and see no signs of human life. 

When we arrived at Plana Cays, we were both amazed at the beauty. Stretching out in front of us was an uninhabited island with crystal clear water, a couple of miles of white sandy beach, swaying palm trees, and not another boat or person in sight. 

Playa Cays: pristine, clear water, miles of sandy beach, and no one in sight

I truly did not know places like Plana Cays existed, or if they did, I expected them to have hundreds of boats in the area playing loud music with dudes in cut-off jeans and mirrored sunglasses yelling and doing cannonballs into the water. As it is, we had this deserted-island-of-a-paradise entirely to ourselves, and I had to pinch myself a little. Karen made homemade guacamole, and we got out some chips and poured cocktails in the front cockpit. We both went for a swim, and among the many fish and coral we saw, Karen spotted a large manta ray, and I saw a Caribbean reef shark about 50 yards away from me. Karen cooked shrimp and grits for dinner (delicious!), and I fed the shrimp tails to a ravenous group of jacks and barracudas that had congregated beneath Gratitude at dusk.

Friday, May 31: Plana Cays to Mayaguana (pronounced “my guana”)

I did not want to leave this spot, but we needed to push on east, and I have a sense we are lagging behind everyone else. Finally we saw another boat, even though we didn’t actually spot any humans aboard! We motored directly into the wind much of the way, unfurling the jib for the last couple of hours when our angle to the wind improved. This made our speed shoot up, and we made really good time. When we reached the entrance Abraham’s Bay around 2:30 p.m., we decided to press on about three more hours east to anchor in Southeast Point. This put us about 15 miles closer to Turks and Caicos, gave us a friendlier departure in the morning (i.e. no reefs or coral heads to dodge as there would have been in Abraham’s Bay). We ended up anchoring in 18 feet of water, in an unusually rocky and rolly location. After last night’s serene stay in one of the most beautiful places I have ever dreamed of, this was an somewhat unwelcome change. I tried to “swim the anchor” to have a look at it, but the current was strong, and the anchor was 20’ deep. Fortunately, I could easily see to the bottom in this crystal-clear water, and everything looked perfect. 

When I awoke around midnight and arose to check on the boat, I noticed two things. The first was bioluminescent protozoa in this bay, which is super cool! Swirl your hand, and the water comes alive, twinkling with innumerable, tiny green lights. The second was that I could see a faint glow on the horizon from the Turks & Caicos islands 45 miles to the east-southeast, where we would be heading in the morning. Both made me smile. 

Saturday, June 1: Mayaguana, Bahamas to Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. 

…And good morning hurricane season. June 1 – November 30 is the official hurricane season, and it has a lot to do with the path we are on right now. One of the driving forces in our passage south is our safety; the other is insurance. Both of these are heavily influenced by  the weather. Most insurance policies mandate that you have to be below 12°40’ north parallel, which basically means “Grenada” if you’re anywhere near the Caribbean. We are generally headed there now, but the pressure is partially off since we just coughed up a bunch of money to have our boat covered by insurance anywhere in the Caribbean through the entire hurricane season. We are still in the hurricane belt right now, but historically, the bad storms hit in the months of September and October, and we plan to be much further along and in a safer location by then. 

This was another day of solitude. We did not see another boat on the passage. For that matter, we didn’t see another human from Wednesday morning until we got very close to Providenciales on Saturday afternoon. 

We had been underway on this leg of the trip for about 10 minutes, when my fishing rod made the excited “Biiiizzzzzzz” sound that sends adrenaline pumping into your bloodstream. Before I picked up the rod, I could tell that something living was on the other end. There is something primal that happens in you when you experience a big fish on the other end of the line. I tightened the drag a few clicks to help tire him out and pulled the rod out of its holder, making sure that what was on the other end would not likewise take the rod out of my hands and out to sea. I used the rod to pull the fish in and then reeled down the slack that created. The fish would come close to the boat and then tear away and spool off line, but finally, the rod and I prevailed and tired it out. 

You guessed it. Another barracuda. This one thanked me by shredding another good lure. Catch. Release. Process all five stages of grief. Tie a new lure. Start again. 

The Caicos passage, as this leg of the trip is called, was the roughest we’ve encountered since crossing the Gulf Stream back in February. The boat did quite a lot of plowing into big waves the first hour or so of our trip before things settled down some. In general, there were about six hours where the boat surged up and down with the waves and things slid off shelves and smacked down onto the floor. Once again, we found ourselves beating directly into the wind, which reduced our speed to about five knots (almost six mph). The last couple of hours, as we got closer to Turks and Caicos, the land sheltered us from the wind and the waves, and things could not have been smoother.

The approach into Providenciales, Turks and Caicos bristles with coral reefs that would seriously ruin your day if your boat were to encounter any one of them. There is an arcane channel that wends and bends its way around the unsafe areas, occasionally putting your boat alarmingly close to the coral. The channel, known as Seller’s Cut, is marked (kinda sorta) with scattered green and red channel markers, but the marina offers a free piloting service where someone will come out a smaller boat and guide you through the channel. This turned out to be pretty important. We had started navigating the cut without any pilot in sight, with Karen at the bow of the boat on the lookout for the next set of channel markers and any hazards, and me at the helm, going as slowly as I could while maintaining helm control and staying in the middle of the channel. When the pilot finally arrived (he had engine trouble), I breathed a sigh of relief. He instructed us to follow him, and then he cut outside of some channel markers, and occasionally twisted and turned for no apparent reason. I followed close behind and kept my mouth shut. Before long, we were docked at Turtle Cove Marina, and all was well with the world. 

Our first leg of the Thorny Path is now complete. We’ll enjoy Turks and Caicos for a week or so before sailing south to the Dominican Republic. We have both honed our sailing skills considerably since we left Florida, and we have taken our problem solving to new levels. And we sailed a boat from Fort Lauderdale to the Turks and Caicos Islands! It feels really good, but it also feels obvious that we’re just getting started.