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Into the Blue

Miles Davis in his epoch, ground breaking album “Kind of Blue” explored the outer limits of the tonality of the blues, discovering hitherto unknown shades and tones. The Turks and Caicos islands have done the same thing with the colour blue. Alexina sailed over the shallowing seas into the shelter of Great Sand Cay and into a riot of blue, every shade from aquamarine to azure. The crew lined up on deck and feasted their eyes. Mind you, we had paid for it, the voyage from the Dominican Republic had been a tough one, no wind to speak of and a “bally rolly” sea. Most of the journey was done accompanied by the steady beat of our trusty but loud Volvo. Alexina pitched and rolled and threw the contents of her shelves onto the floor in protest.

Imagine arriving at Heathrow Airport, queueing up at passport control and being told it's Easter, can you come back in four days time? Our first stop in the Turks and Caicos was Grand Turk and everyone, including Customs and Immigration, had gone home for Easter holidays.That put us in a bit of a quandary. Legally speaking, one should not go ashore till clearance is obtained. But what if this is not possible? Leaving Stefan from Modus Vivendi to watch over the boats, we threw caution to the wind and mounted an expedition.

The Grand Turk Tour with complementary bruised bottom.

Out came the thumbs. Around the corner rattled a pickup truck, missed a gear and, with a squeal of poorly maintained brakes, came to a rest. I jumped into the luxury of the front seat whilst everyone else clambered into the wind conditioned pick-up bed. With yet another crash of gears we were off.

It transpired that our kind host was a carpenter. With the downturn in the global economy the building industry had dried up completely and he had taken to riding around in his truck looking for business. He gave us a rather unique complementary tour of the island, pointing out half finished construction projects, the shining new hospital and all the houses for sale, clearly under the impression we wanted to move to Grand Turk. Finally he dropped us off outside the museum and waved goodbye, disappearing around the corner as his gears once again failed to mesh correctly.

“Grand” Turk is a bit of a misnomer. With the demise of the salt industry, everything on the island is strictly small scale. Expectations of the museum were low as the intrepid travellers strode into the tiny foyer rubbing their tender posteriors. The first surprise was that it was open. The second surprise was how good it was. Grand Turk has ushered in two great eras, the post Columbus rise of the New World and the triumphant welcoming back to Earth of John Glenn in his Friendship 7 capsule, heralding the start of the Space Race. Perhaps there is something in the name of Grand Turk after all and the exhibits did full justice to these claims to fame. The museum also has a world class collection of messages in bottles.

Arthur investigates the Fresnel Lens from the lighthouse which once stood sentry over Grand Turk.

The Caicos Bank is one of the natural wonders of the world. It would have been clearly visible from John Glen's capsule on his first orbit around the earth and I'm sure he marvelled at it's beauty as he crashed into the sea. However, from space you cannot see the heads of Elk horn coral that are ready to rip the bottom out of your boat, nor quite how shallow it is. Though largely uncharted with wandering sand banks, three narrow corridors of water have been detailed to an uncertain extent and it was one of these we must choose.

It's reading glasses time as we study the charts for the Caicos Bank crossing. With paper charts from one boat, electronic charts from another and every guide book ever published, the team studied the best route across the bank. The Starfish Channel, the least direct route, was chosen by the group so that Alexina's deep draft would pass unscathed. Thanks team, Chantal and Michel from Noix de Cajou and Jean-Phillipe from Gadgo Dilo.

It was decided that Noix de Cajou (henceforth referred to as Mother Duck) would leading the way, using her secret weapon of a lifting keel that neatly trimmed her draft to one metre, so that she could monitor depths for the three little ducklings that followed. Despite it being charted, isolated coral patches criss crossed our path and shifting sands, well, shift!. The team had agreed on a simple sail plan of foresail only, in case it was necessary to reef in fast and we fairly zipped along at six knots in the choppy, swell free waters.

Half way across the banks Mother Duck dropped her anchor and waited for her charges to gather for lunch.

The clarity of the water was astounding and coral patches showed up clearly as dark spots in the turquoise. These were easily navigated around. Occasionally Mother Duckling would cluck on the VHF a warning of “patates” (French for potatoes), which we finally figured was slang for isolated coral patches though they looked nothing like food to me.

Bow lookouts were posted on each boat. Arthur and Marie-Lou look the part with their polarised sunglasses, but I'm not sure how much “looking out” was going on.

The sex lives of worms is not the normal topic of conversation on Alexina but what can you do when thousands of randy mating glow worms rise to the surface in the moonlight all around the boat glowing fluorescent green in the water before disappearing in little clouds of luminescence as a finale? The phenomena only occurs three to six days after a full moon and about one hour after sunset so we were very fortunate to have witnessed it. Tiger's nature monthly is full of information about these wiggly wonders.

It was not the sight of mating worms that inevitably drove us from the Turks and Caicos Islands. A new cruising permit for vessels staying more than seven days had recently been imposed and, at $300, this was well beyond our budget. This is on top of the $100 to check in and out and overtime fees for holidays. We, along with all the other boats at our anchorage at Sapodillo Bay, chose to leave ahead of bad weather.

A modest dwelling at South Caicos.  Most of the larger houses on the island appeared unoccupied.  Only the smaller ones had open doors and washing fluttering in the breeze.

What a pity for a poor country reliant on the tourist dollar. Islands like South Caicos are only just surviving with people living in hardly more than shacks and fishing for a diminishing supply of conch. Word is getting out to the sailing community and soon the small, but steady supply of tourist income from the yachties to these isolated friendly communities will disappear.

Wouldn't things have been so much easier if Columbus had GPS? For a start, we'd know where he made his first landfall in the new world. Islands from the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and even the Virgin Islands have claimed that honour. It was known by the Lucayan people as Guanahani, and has certain physical characteristics noted by Columbus; described as low lying and surrounded by reefs, with a quarry, a lagoon and a harbour “big enough to hold all the ships in Christendom”.

Mayaguana, our first landfall in the Bahamas, is one of the prime contenders for Columbus' first landfall. Do you think that Abraham's Bay on the south coast of Mayaguana could be “big enough to hold all the ships in Christendom?” Take a closer look at the chart. The bay is six miles long and protected by a wall of reef. In fact, all the little crosses are reef! The red squiggly line is Alexina's path, dodging the reefs that dotted the bottom. Fifteenth century vessels would have had to be towed in through the reefs by long boats before anchoring. No mean feat.

To say that Mayaguana is undeveloped is being kind. Very few yachts or tourists visit this remote island of a few hundred people. So much so that they do not bother to put signs outside their businesses or offices as “everyone” knows where they are. Once we found Customs and Immigration (home also to the Post Office, Taxation Office, Planning Office and Public Health) we were checked in by the jolly Miss Roberts with her impeccable copperplate handwriting in her tiny office. Luckily, due to some confusion over conversion from feet to metric on our official papers, Alexina comes in at under 35 feet, so we were overjoyed to pay just 150 dollars, rather than expected 300 dollars.

Welcome to the Bahamas, the flag flies over the government offices and everywhere.

Shopping was a challenge on Mayaguana. Take the example of a simple purchase of margarine. The only shop in town was unmanned and it took two days to find somebody to open it for us. No margarine. We were advised to go to the local cell phone office and ask for a Miss Doris, who made a rather furtive telephone call. A young man appeared from nowhere and walked us over the road, down an unmade path to a shed secured with a heavy chain and padlock. Inside was a freezer with the sought after margarine, Hurrah!

There is one small road on Mayaguana, all of twelve miles long.  Despite there being rarely a building with it's roof in one piece, each house had a gas guzzling monster in the driveway.

In sustained winds of over thirty five knots our Rutland wind generator overheats. To cool itself down it spins freely, sounding like an aircraft taking off. This was a common occurrence in the Mediterranean, but never happened in the steady 10 to 25 knots of the trade winds of the Caribbean. Our arrival in the Bahamas would herald a different weather pattern, and we were pinned for two days with our wind generator howling. The faithful trade winds start to falter this far north in the face of cold fronts coming off the North American mainland. They are called “Northers” and can bring thunderstorms and strong winds that box the compass.

Perhaps the result of a strong Norther, this poor boat ended up on the coral strewn beach at Mayaguana.

The blue hole on Long Island is not any old blue hole. It's the deepest in the world. The hole was tiny, fringed with an emerald ring with the centre an indescribably deep shade of blue. Formed during the last ice age when water levels were much lower, the rain and running water carved a huge hole through the limestone, exploiting faults as it went. After the end of the ice age the feature flooded forming a blue hole.  International free diving competitions are held here and the start platform is left in place for the world champions to practice.

Here Pablo, Mia and Remi from Borealis share the spooky sensation of staring down into Dean's Hole from the free diving platform.

The sign says it all.

We expected beauty not eerie. Swimming in deep water is a normal part of our lives and the Alexinas think nothing of hoving too and swimming in the open ocean. So why is it, as you swim out over the lip of the blue hole, that the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? I just can't explain that spooky feeling.

The lady proprietor of Long Island's Flying Fish Marina was standing over us, with every inch of body language declaring discontent, right down to the hands on hips, as we slowly filled our water containers up to the 15 gallons we had paid for. “Is there a problem?” ventured Peter timidly, running through the capacities of our containers. “I don't do litres”, she said, pointing to our 10 litre jugs. “They're 5 gallons and you've under paid.” The difference was made good, despite her mistake and we tried to remember that water is precious in the dry limestone islands of the Bahamas. Later we discovered that the water she supplied was brackish! You couldn't even clean your teeth in it.

Monk, architect, stone mason, carpenter, pastor, was their no end to the man's talents? Father Jerome trained as an architect but came to the Bahamas as an Anglican priest. Whilst here he built a series of unique stone built churches. They are small but very impressive, a mixture of hurricane proof and Gaudi with hints of Celtic hermitages. In his latter years he converted to Roman Catholicism building further, more elaborate churches as if trying to outdo his former efforts and religion.

On the right, Father Jerome's swan song, the Catholic church in Clarence town, the other edifice is a “private” house, recently built by an “incomer”.

Georgetown on Great Exuma has earned that rather cruel epithet of “Chicken Town”. Its position marks the transition from the comparatively sheltered coastal waters of the USA and the near Bahamas to the open ocean waters of the “out” islands and the West Indies. Trapped waiting for parts, weather windows, pot lucks, volleyball tournaments and the like, countless cruisers find their progress stalled. returning each year back to the mainland USA for hurricane season, dreams unrealised but social life intact.

A group of cruisers seen waiting for parts at the “Chat and Chill”

Georgetown holds a special place in the calendar for wooden boat enthusiasts. The annual Family Regatta is where boats from all the islands come to party and compete. The quayside is a hive of activity as rum and beer shacks are built and then painted in vibrant primary colours. Tiger gets off to a flying start by making friends with Gerard whilst playing volleyball. It turns out that Gerard's family own two of the firm favourites in the biggest “A” class, Tida Wave and Lady Muriel. Just to complete the set they have brought their gorgeous 100 foot yacht “Sea Hawk” and fully equipped salvage boat along too. The race passes right behind Sea Hawk and we watch from the comfort of the aft deck.

Boff! Gerard and Tiger on the same team. Attentive folk will notice the plastic bag on Tiger's foot, more of this later.

You would think that leaving your child on the beach playing with a stingray would be safe enough? Not so with Tiger. I return from a few minutes on the boat to find her with her foot up in the air, blood everywhere and concerned faces all round.

The stingray? No, she has managed to step on a submerged broken bottle and sustained a deep gash to her foot. Patched up with steri-strips, she suffers the ignominy of walking around with a blue plastic bag on her foot for a week.

At play with Stingray on Volleyball beach. Left to right .. Rafael (Raftan), Mia and Remi(Borealis), Gerard (Sea Hawk), Patrice and Tristan(Raftan).  The stingray was happy to be fed by hand and you could feel his gummy mouth. 

Lady Muriel and Tida Wave round a buoy.

Photo competition

Competition time again. I know, it's tacky but we had to do it, our Brighton signpost at Volleyball Beach. Better mention that the distance is in nautical miles and as the crow flies before the pedants send e-mails. But what would your caption be? Our favourite answer will win a virtual conch fritter, made according to Peter's secret recipe. Yum Yum!

A topical entry caught our attention for last month's competition. Congratulation to my cousin Judith who submitted "The crew of Modus Vivendi entering into the rain drenched spirit of the Diamond Jubilee Thames Flotilla". The Bohemian Grande and bamboo cooler are virtually on their way to sunny Frome.

Congratulations are in order, a whole update without a mention of a pig. Just wait for next month porcine fans.

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