Thursday, June 26, 2008

Destination Luperon

On June 19th, we bit the bullet. We decided to leave for Luperon in the Dominican Republic the next day. Mark checked us out of the country and the alarm clock was set for 5:30 am.

We could have easily spend more time on Grand Turk and the anchor got set pretty well, but the growing temptation of being settled for a little while and the growing chances for storms and hurricanes got us going. That and the fact that there wouldn’t be a good window to make the crossing for at least another ten days. As it was, the weather wasn’t ideal for our voyage, but we took our chances. The wind would blow between 15 and 20 knots. Its direction would be south-south east, so we could sail close to the wind. Not the most comfortable point of sail, especially with the higher wind waves, but manageable. The reason you want winds under 15 knots, is not only the smaller waves, but what’s called the “lee of the land” effect. At night and in the early morning, the waters off coast of the Dominican Republic are dead calm, making it easy to motor into and towards the harbour from wherever you end up sailing. The hotter and the less windy the previous day is, the bigger this effect. When it blows more than 15 knots the previous day, the wind doesn’t slow down and might even accelerate off the land.

Anyway, we started our trip with a great three hour sail to Big Sand Cay. There we anchored very close to the beach in some swell, being the only boat. We rested for a couple of hours and took the dogs to the pretty island for one last potty break. Early in the afternoon, we left the Turks and Caicos to soon enough be all alone in the mighty ocean. We motored for an hour to clear a big reef. Then, we sailed the rest of the 80 miles to Luperon. We tried to steer as close to the wind as possible to keep to our course as close as possible. The autopilot helped with that. Mark and I took turns at the helm and Irie charged forward, pounding along the waves, slamming onto the bridge deck. A bright moon kept us company during the quiet and tiresome night. Kali and Darwin handled it all very good and I didn’t get seasick. The wind never stopped. So far for that “lee of the land” affect.

Around 4 o’clock in the morning, we started to smell dirt in the air. An hour and a half later, the outlines of mountains became clearer and the smell of flowers penetrated our noses. Right after dawn, at six ‘o clock, we entered the harbour. While the sun and the temperature rose, the lush surroundings appeared. We saw green hills, palm and other trees, grass and flowers. What a contrast with the flat, barren land and beaches of the other countries we visited! The wind died inland, making our approach very easy. We weaved our way through the brown water and between the many boats. Being tired and wanting to scout out the area later by dinghy, we dropped our anchor in the middle of the long bay, not too far from town. After a couple of tries and an hour of digging the anchor in the mud with our engines, we called ourselves temporarily settled. We quickly cleaned the boat up a bit and Kali was a good girl peeing on the trampoline. Darwin waited until we took him and his “sister” to shore, not too much later. We checked into the country and got all the paperwork and fees straight.

For other cruisers who plan to visit the DR: immigration cost $63 (for the boat and two people), $10 goes to a tourist card (money for the town?), $10 has to be paid to the port authority, agriculture is $10 for fruits and vegetables and $10 for dogs (people without dogs get that $10 charged for something else, like meat), these amounts are just for the officials because they come out to your boat and inspect a few things. My understanding is that you always pay these fees, whether you posses these products or not. The last fee ($20) has to be paid to the “comandante” upon departure. You do have to check in with him when arriving, though. All the money has to be paid in dollars and ideally in exact amounts.

Well, just like that, we had made it to Luperon harbour, our summer destination! Tired, but happy, we are ready to explore a new country. We’d better start brushing up that little bit of Spanish we acquired on previous travels…

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cruising the Turks and Caicos

Most cruisers use the Turks and Caicos merely as a stopover between the Caribbean and the Bahamas. Mark and I, on the other hand, like to explore and weren’t in a hurry quite yet, so we decided to stay a few weeks. Checking in at customs in Provo is done by the captain of the boat and appeared to be quick and easy. On Monday, May 26th, Mark walked from Sapodilla Bay over the hill to South Dock. Once at customs, he paid the fee for the boat ($15 or $23 for overtime, on Sundays, holidays and after hours) and received permission for all of us to stay a week in the country. The woman in the office didn’t even care to see our passports, let alone stamp them. The dogs were also allowed to stay without a problem, when Mark told her he had the required vaccination papers. The officer was not entitled to give us more than a week’s time, so she said. If we wanted to stay longer, we had to obtain a cruising permit from her for $75 and go to immigration in town to ask for an extension at no cost. So she said…

Provo (the island and the city) is booming. Everywhere you can see, new houses, condos and other buildings rise up out of nowhere. It doesn’t make the land look pretty, but it creates a lot of work for the locals. The town, about four miles inland from the anchorage, is very spread out with US-like roads and malls along it. The only differences are the left hand traffic and many roundabouts. Even payment is dollars! When we hitched a ride to immigration a few days after our arrival, we were told to come back later, two days before our “visas” expired. We were happy to just relax, sit on the boat and make some walks for a few days, especially after the long and tiring trips to get here. One evening we hiked to the top of a hill for a nice view over Chalk Sound with its turquoise water, Sapodilla Bay with its four sailboats, and the not so attractive industrial harbour. Some of the rocks near our feet had the names of previous adventurers (ship wreckers) engraved in them.

The day after Irie arrived in the Turks and Caicos, we saw a familiar boat show up… Finally, we met up with our friends Cindy and Gray again. It was great seeing them and we had a lot to catch up on after the necessary rest. On Thursday night, we all went to a nice BBQ, organized by the friendly folks of Southside Marina. They also have a cruiser’s net on channel 18 every morning at 7:30.

On Friday, Cindy and Gray rented a car to run some errands. We joined them for part of the day. All of us drove to immigration in town, to receive our extension. That didn’t prove to be easy and simple at all. After filling out forms and waiting for an hour, we discovered that we each had to pay a fee of $50 to stay any longer. Nobody had told us anything about an extra fee! We asked the immigration officer for an explanation and said it wasn’t fair that we only got a week, when people arriving on a plane receive a month to visit the country. We felt in a bind now, because we either had to pay the $100, on top of the $75 for the cruising permit we just obtained, or we had to leave the country in two days, an impossible feat knowing that we need the weather on our side. We discussed our options for a bit, while showing total disappointment with the system and the hospitality of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI).

Then, somehow we got lucky. The officer approached us, asked for our passports and paperwork and disappeared with the words: “I’ll see what I can do.” At this point we just wanted a little bit of extra time to leave the country safely. When Mark got called inside the office, he explained his previous experience at customs. Apparently the officers there are allowed to grant cruisers a visa for a month and are supposed to stamp the passports! At the end, the miscommunications got figured out and we were allowed to stay another month without paying extra. Cruisers, be warned! When you check in at customs (and you want to stay longer than a week in the TCI), make sure you get a month’s stay and a stamp in your passport, or let them verify all this with a phone call to immigration…

Now, we were ready to explore the islands, and we soon found out why most people don’t even bother… We left swelly Sapodilla Bay and crowded Provo by early morning, to make the long haul over the Caicos Banks to Fish Cays. We motored the whole 50 miles, dodging black spots and admiring the beautiful clear waters. Once anchored off Big Fish Cay, it felt as if we were anchored in the ocean. The swell was huge. We couldn’t even walk around the boat without bumping into everything and I was continuously seasick. After a lot of difficulty, we managed to load the dogs, in live jackets, into the hopping dinghy. The waves then threw aforementioned device and passengers onto the beach, where all of us stayed as long as possible. The island itself was quite interesting with its barren, rocky appearance, mucky, lukewarm, fresh water pond (the dogs loved it), and extensive bird colonies. A big osprey was sitting on his huge nest, made on top of the highest rock.

After rocking and swaying all night, Irie understandably left first thing in the morning. We managed to sai
l the last stretch to South Caicos. In dare need of water, our only option there, was to tie up at a concrete dock (ouch!), and wait until the water truck showed up. In the meantime, we strolled around what was called town. It had the feel of a sleepy fishing village. Nothing much was happening and even less was there to see. Even though, we had arrived around 11am at which point we ordered the water, it took the truck until 5pm to show up and deliver our 65 gallons. We had grown antsy by then, since the good light was disappearing, making it hard to find a spot to anchor and we wanted to leave the damaging dock, before all our lines were chafed through. We took our chances and left from the moment our tank was full. The anchorage next to Long Cay (about half a mile from town) was pretty nice with clear water, but quite some current. The east winds created a lot of wind waves, but nothing too uncomfortable. The snorkelling on the nearby reefs was very good and we enjoyed some peaceful days in the company of Cindy’s Island. The only problem for us was the lack of a good beach to take the dogs to shore. The areas where you could land a dinghy, were totally stacked with sharp conch shells. We managed to clear a little bit of a path through the pointy mess for the time being. No fun time for the dogs, though, and lots of mosquitoes.

From South Caicos, we went on to Grand Turk, crossing 22 miles of bumpy ocean. My seasickness played parts again. Mark and I decided to sail the stretch tacking back and forth. What would have taken five hours under motor, now took almost 8 hours. But, we saved some expensive diesel and we (Mark) brushed up our sailing skills. We also got company from a pod of little dolphins, jumping along the boat.

Grand Turk made up for all the other places in the Turks and Caicos. After finding a decent sandy spot to anchor, amongst all the rocks and coral in the “harbour”, we were settled and comfortable. The land protects us from the trade winds, the water is beautiful, the reef offers great snorkelling, and Cockburn Town is wonderful with its shady park (with benches, tables, electricity and a bit of wireless internet!), historic buildings, friendly atmosphere and vibrant community of Belongers and immigrants. When a cruise ship arrives, us cruisers can take advantage of the busy pool at the terminal (a 15 minute dinghy ride away) and pretend we’re on vacation. As you can see, this isn’t too bad of a place to get stuck for a little while! If it was up to me, the precious weather window to get to the Dominican Republic can wait another week or so...


On the lookout for dark spots on the "lower deck" since it was rough out.

Kali plays in the muddy pond, Big Fish Cay

Mark and the dogs on buggy Long Cay, Saouth Caicos

Cockburn Town, Grand Turk

Post office building, Cockburn Town

Friday, June 13, 2008

Getting There the Hard Way

The shortest distance between the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos is 48 miles. That brings you to West Caicos (which we didn’t have any recent information about) or the Caicos Banks, an area that you have to travel during good daylight to reach the island and city of Providenciales (Provo), our destination. Either way, you have to count on at least 12 hours to safely get to the islands. In order for us to do this trip, we would have to sail at night. The problem, however, was that we could not leave our anchorage in Abraham’s Bay (Mayaguana) any later than 4pm, because of the surrounding reefs. The only other option, moving to a south eastern point of the island during the day and wait (anchor) there until departure time at night, was out of the question because of the strong south east winds at the moment. There would be no way to wait comfortably or take the dogs to shore one last time, over there. People without dogs could just go VERY slowly until the sun was high in the sky to continue onto the Banks, but what were we to do?

We’d read and heard about free dive moorings off the east coast in West Caicos. We also knew that they were going to build a marina there a few years ago. All of us would appreciate a comfy night at a dock… So, we left our last anchorage in the Bahamas around 3pm. The plan: trying to find a mooring ball by arrival (at night) and if that didn’t work, check out the marina in the morning. Even though we had good light to leave the bay, trying to find the reefs and rocks proved to be very hard and stressful. We couldn’t make out what was where and compare it to the chart. I stood on the boom and tried to decipher all the dark spots in the water. There was no obvious route through them. We zigzagged a bit, picked a route and were soon headed straight towards a coral reef. It wasn’t until we got closer that the colour (brown) seemed totally wrong. Not really sure how to proceed, Mark stopped the boat a few times. Slowly but surely we picked our way through the narrow openings and after what seemed like the most stressful time of the trip (Mark was having a dry mouth and cold sweat), we reached deep water. Pffffff…

Mark and I decided to just motor with one engine and see what time that would get us to West Caicos. Raising the mainsail was useless, since we were –of course- headed dead into the wind. Slowly, the Bahamas disappeared in the setting sun. We took turns behind the wheel and arrived near the dive sites at 3am. There, we used our powerful light to search for mooring balls. The moon was helping us more than the light, whose batteries soon died anyway. We couldn’t find anything. We checked out a few locations, using the exact coordinates on the chart. Nothing. The higher the moon rose, the harder it was to make out anything. It was as if we were trying to find a needle in a haystack. After an hour, we gave up. We turned Irie back to the ocean and decided to hang out there until dawn.

A few dolphins caught our attention around 6:30 am, at which point we started radioing the marina. Our whole trip back to shore was spent with the VHF in our hands. Nobody answered. Back near land, we got close to the marina basin and “peeked our nose” in. The only thing we saw was a lot of barges and construction materials. Obviously, no real marina had been built yet. We tried to find the mooring balls again, but there were none. Now what? The sun was too low for our trip over the Banks. So… back to safe water to float on the ocean for another couple of hours. The dogs hadn’t gone to the bathroom for over 18 hours. The sea was pretty calm and I coached them onto the trampoline. After a bit of encouragement, Kali was a good listener and relieved herself. Darwin wouldn’t have anything to do with it. We thought it would be the other way around…

At nine thirty, with some sun in our eyes, we decided to risk it. The first hour or so would be pretty straightforward and after that the sun would be high enough to see the rocks and reefs of the Caicos Banks. What was more, because the wind had shifted a bit, we were able to sail this last part of our voyage. We managed to make out and avoid the dark spots in the clear water and reached Sapodilla Bay in Providenciales around noon that day. It had taken us 21 hours to do a total distance of about 60 miles! But, man, were we happy to drop that anchor in the sandy bay and retire. Our relief was nothing compared to that of the dogs, when they finally did their business (for minutes, it seemed like) on the yellow sandy beach…

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Off the Beaten Path

Leaving Long Island was like leaving the last piece of the modern world. We left on a day with light winds, so we would use as little fuel as possible getting into wind and waves, all the way to Rum Cay. By staying a little bit off course, we were able to get some use out of the main sail. This is called motor sailing. Big was our surprise, when all of a sudden the wind changed direction a bit and picked up. It was blowing between 15 and 20 knots and we soon found ourselves putting a reef in the main sail, making its surface smaller. Who would have thought? Even though this situation was not predicted and white caps were surrounding us, we felt fortunate enough to all of a sudden be able to sail, and we took full advantage of that. The fun lasted about two hours. Then, the wind became “normal” again and we motor sailed the rest of the 44 miles. We decided to skip beautiful Conception Island, in order to make some progress at last. Whenever we turn back north, this will be one of our stops!

The anchorage of Rum Cay, with its clear water, is partly protected by reef, and was quite comfortable for us, thanks to the light winds. Our shallow draft allowed us to tuck in closer to the reef than most of the other boats, giving more protection. Sometimes it’s great to have a catamaran! The quiet town itself was nothing much. After being attacked by hundreds of mosquitoes, it lost its charm pretty quickly. Mark had read in an old cruising guide that the marina owned a fancy restaurant with a great Japanese cook. He decided to treat. When we found the restaurant, it appeared closed. It would be possible to open for us for dinner. We didn’t want them to bother, especially not after hearing the menu existed of frozen meat patties… So, we had a drink instead, together with another cruising couple (not Cindy and Gray, we actually lost track of them and wondered where they were…) and tons of blood sucking insects. They even found their way in the boat at night, making us wanting to leave the following day.

The next leg was 80 miles and the longest trip (in distance) we did so far. It would bring us all the way to Atwood Harbour in the Acklins and because of its length, we had to travel at night to be able to leave and arrive in daylight. After the necessary preparations and rest, we left Rum Cay around five in the afternoon. While dodging the hard to see coral heads, we decided this departure time was really too late, especially since we were headed into the setting sun. Note to ourselves: only leave funky places between 10am and 3pm! We got out OK and reached safe water half an hour later.

The motor trip to the Acklins was mostly uneventful. It was blowing just under ten knots, making the waves small enough to stay comfortable. We picked a good time to go. Mark and I took turns and even the dogs managed to get some sleep. The only annoyance was that we were really moving dead into the trade winds and the sail became useless unless we bore off course a bit, which we ended up doing. We didn’t want to get to Atwood Harbour too early anyway. We needed to see the big reef on both sides of the entrance to the anchorage. 10 am proved to be a decent time to see all the obstacles and to take in the great view of this beautiful and remote bay. Little later Irie was settled, the dinghy taken down, the motor installed, and the dogs taken to the white, long beach. The water had an interesting green colour which we were not used to anymore. Still very pretty, though.

Atwood Harbour pleased us a lot. So much that we ended up staying four days. During those days (after sleeping the first one), we played with the dogs, took baths and swam in the cool water, made walks on the nice beach, and relaxed on the breezy boat. On the second day we got company from a very interesting Austrian couple and their awesome home made catamaran. (Still no sign from Cindy’s Island…) We got to meet the crew of Renegade and spent two evenings with them, exchanging stories, sharing food and taking tours in each other’s cats. They had caught a huge 50 pound tuna on their way over and gave us a couple of fillets. They also shared a whole plate of raw strips. Imagine that: eating fresh sushi (with soy sauce, wasabi and ginger!) on your own boat… That indeed, was one of our culinary highlights so far. We had found a lot of conch the previous day and turned all that fresh meat into a big conch salad and delicious conch fritters! What a delicious evening that was!!

Before the weather would turn against us, we made the hop to Mayaguana, 50 miles down the road. The distance is a little tricky (long) to do during the day, but we managed to keep up about five knots, under one motor and the sail, bringing us to the east coast of the island by 5:30 pm. Later than we’d like, but there were no obstacles, since we were basically anchored in the ocean. Luckily, the swell stayed down and we actually had a good night sleep. The beach was nothing pretty, but it was a good place to take the dogs, there were a lot of pretty shells and even a real dog toy, found by Kali. Oh, and guess what we caught on the way over there? A small tuna! Our first real fish. We got three meals out of it and two bites of sushi.

People and guidebooks talked about moving to Abraham’s Bay, a more protected harbour and a town, before leaving Mayaguana. We didn’t think much about it and followed everybody’s lead, the next day. A big mistake… To get there, we actually sailed (yes, with just our sails!) south for an hour, before turning east again. That’s when we first encountered the real trade winds. Even though it was “only” blowing 15 knots, getting straight into that mess of head wind and big waves is all but comfortable and requires huge amounts of fuel. Luckily, we reached Abraham’s Bay after two hours of pounding. There, I stood watch on the beam (sail down of course) for another hour and a half (it’s a very big bay), while Mark carefully drove the boat. We were on the look-out for the many coral heads spread out in the clear water. It was pretty easy to go around them, but it took concentration and a long time of standing in the hot sun. Later that night, I suffered from a minor, but painful, form of a heat stroke.

We got settled OK in the anchorage as the only boat. It was hard to find exactly where we were on the chart. The surrounding reefs didn’t give us a lot of protection from the prevailing winds and we were bouncing around constantly. Not very comfortable. The dinghy ride to town took almost half an hour, because land was so far away. The water was so shallow that they even built a dinghy channel to get to the dock! The whole area was covered with broken glass, garbage and prickles (burs), making it a bad place for the dogs. Shade was nowhere to be found. The land looked dried out and the sun was beating on our bodies. Town provided nothing but an un-stocked grocery store and a telephone company. No internet to be found. (How do we get in touch with Cindy and Gray?)

Obviously, this was no place to hang out and we wanted to continue on to the Turks and Caicos from the moment there was a weather window (meaning less than 15 knots of wind, we didn’t count on the wind direction changing, this is the area of the trades!). Our next crossing would have to be a night one, and there was no way we could leave from this anchorage in the dark. We soon realized why it was a mistake to come here: we were trapped!