Friday, April 27, 2018

Cruising the TCI

We are under way from Grace Bay, Providenciales, bound for the Caicos Bank. We'll end our day just six nautical miles from where we started it, but it's a 31 nm cruise around the west end of the island. We've been under way just a half hour as I am typing this paragraph, yet we're already in water thousands of feet deep. Soon after clearing the reef the bottom falls off into a wall, and the edge of the shelf is lined with dive boat moorings for the spectacular wall diving here.

It's been two weeks since my last post and I have quite a bit to report. For starters, we are still here in the Turks & Caicos after arriving three weeks ago, and we are very much enjoying our time here. Not long after I last posted, we took a long, hard look at weather and conditions east of here and made the decision to end our Caribbean cruise here in the TCI rather than press on east, just to have to quickly turn around and head back.

Vector at anchor in Grace Bay, off Seven Stars resort. Tender is tied to the remains of the pier at left.

The remainder of our first week passed very quickly. I enjoyed my massage on the beach, and we had a nice dinner that Saturday evening also on the beach, at Hemingway's Restaurant in the Sands resort. Over the weekend we also rode the scooters out to the southwest corner of the island, passing the government docks and taking in the turquoise views over Chalk Sound. On the way back we stopped for gas at $5.25 a gallon, the going rate here.

Massage area with the blue curtains to the left, from Rickie's. Pier belongs to Club Med for their dive and snorkel boats.

By Sunday evening the weather forecast was still not showing us a good window to Puerto Rico, and we resigned ourselves to dropping the $300 for a TCI cruising permit. That would give us a lot more breathing room on departure, and a chance to see some of the other islands in the TCI.

Da Conch Shack, the local tourist trap on this end of the island.

Monday we rode out to the northwest corner of the island. Well, at least to where the pavement ended. An unpaved road continues several miles to the Northwest Point Resort, but that's the only thing out there, and it's closed until June due to hurricane damage. On the return ride we stopped at Da Conch Shack on the beach for a beer, then headed "downtown" towards the airport for a traditional thin-crust pizza at Mother's, a decidedly local joint.

Cocktails at Da Conch Shack. Those are conch shells piled off the beach behind us. Off-frame is a vendor selling numerous conch-shell art and craft items.

Tuesday morning rolled around and I met up with the Customs officer to buy our cruising permit. What I got from that meeting was that he would gladly have extended our temporary permit as long as needed to clear the weather, but that would have limited our ability to cruise the other islands, so I went ahead and bought the permit. I also took another week at the marina.

That evening we met up with the crew of Bumfuzzle, Ali, Pat, Ouest, and Lowe, meeting aboard Vector and then walking over to Shark Bite for drinks and dinner. We really enjoyed meeting them and comparing cruising (and RVing) notes. With two little kids it was a fairly early evening, and we were back aboard Vector shortly after sunset.

And so it was that were were relaxing in the saloon, Louise surfing the net and I watching some old TV episodes on my hard drive, when there was a knock on the hull around 9:30 in the evening. It turned out to be our good friends from the Boston area, Ken, Jean, and daughter May. It was clear out of the blue, and so out of context it took a moment for it to register in my consciousness.

Sunset over the Club Med dive boat, from Rickie's.

Apparently they vacation in Provo annually at this time, staying a couple of miles east, near Grace Bay. They had come down to Turtle Cove to eat at one of their favorite places, The Tiki Hut, but it's been closed since the storms and we've been watching the excavators tear down most of it while we've been here. So instead they walked next door to Mango Reef, right at the marina, and after dinner decided to stroll around looking at the boats.

That's when they ran right smack into us. Apparently, we were out of context for them, too, because it took them a while to agree that this is really the boat they had been on back in Boston Harbor three years ago. We enjoyed a brief conversation on deck before they had to leave, as it was May's bedtime, but we agreed to meet for dinner the next day, and we had a lovely time catching up over several hours at Baci, a short walk from the marina.

The marina's Internet connection went to pot sometime Wednesday, and knowing how "island time" affects repair schedules, Thursday I went over to the office of Flow, the local phone company, to buy a SIM card and some LTE airtime, which we were going to need anyway once we shoved off. They have an office inside the very nice IGA grocery store, which we had visited earlier in the week. This store rivals anything you might find in a mid-sized suburb in the US, just with somewhat higher prices. They even have a large section of the usual beach-town items like snorkel sets, umbrellas, boogie-boards, and the like, again at reasonable prices.

Beach toy aisle at Graceway IGA.

Digital data, unfortunately, is not one of the reasonably priced things in this country, and I dropped $50 on just 5gb of pre-paid LTE data. That ought to get us through our whole stay if we are conservative, and as soon as the marina network came back online we switched back to it. By contrast, 15gb in the Bahamas is just $35, and in the US, prepaid customers typically get 10gb for $45.

Thursday evening we rode our scooters over to nearby Bight Park for the weekly "fish fry." This event, popular with tourists and locals alike, is roughly akin to many street festivals in the US such as art and wine fests or even farmers' markets. The parking lot is closed off and filled with food trucks and stands of every description, and artists and craftsmen selling their wares. A stage is rigged at one end and there is live music. Most of the restaurants on the island are represented in the food area. We grabbed some jerk pork and tacos from one of the stands and a couple of local drafts from the beer truck, and we again ran into Ken, Jean, May, Ali, Pat, Ouest, and Lowe. It was an enjoyable evening and I am sorry we did not also go the week before.

Sunset from "The Deck" at Seven Stars.

Friday evening we ended up back at the Seven Stars resort, this time to dine at their beach bar, The Deck. It was very pleasant, and we could see a boat in the anchorage, making us pine to be out of the marina. Saturday we rode out to the east end of the island, checking out the Blue Haven marina on the Leeward Going Through channel, and hoping for a light meal in their bar and grill. It was inexplicably closed, and we went instead to Rickie's Flamingo, on the beach, where the massage shack is located.

Rickie's Flamingo. Prototypical beach bar.

It was raining Sunday evening and so we just strolled across the parking lot to Mango Reef, for the second Sunday in a row. But we hatched a plan, after I spent a good part of the day researching it, to visit North Caicos and Middle Caicos Islands on Monday, which we hoped would be our last day in the marina.

Monday morning we rode our scooters east on the main highway to the end of the island and Walkin's Marina, where we caught the 9:30 ferry to North Caicos. "Ferry" perhaps conjures the wrong image, as this is really a speedboat powered by three huge outboards and holding perhaps two dozen passengers. We made arrangements with the ferry company, before departure, to rent one of their cars at the other end.

The ferry does 30 knots for much of the 25-minute trip. While a boat ride is something of a busman's holiday for us, the water around North and Middle Caicos is much too shallow for Vector, and we got a kick out of traveling at five times our usual speed. Even our dinghy goes only half that fast. The rental cars are staged at the landing, and within a few minutes we had our right-hand-drive Honda Fit, a pregnant roller skate unFit for sale in the US.

Honda Fit. The other side is covered with scratches from hitting numerous bushes that encroach on the road; I added a few myself.

While Provo is very much in the first world -- the restaurants, stores, and resorts are nearly indistinguishable from, say, the Florida Keys -- North and Middle Caicos are much more reminiscent of the Bahamas. The combined population of the two islands is just over 2,000, or one tenth that of Provo, even though both these islands are larger in area. A single road runs the length of both islands, which are connected by a causeway.

We spent the entire day driving the length of the islands. We had lunch overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at the Mudjin Bar and Grill on the grounds of the lovely Dragon Cay Resort on Middle Caicos. And we drove the dirt road all the way to the southeast end of the island (map) in hopes of a deserted beach, but it was covered in washed-up vegetation and unappealing. We had brought our snorkel gear just in case.

Mudjin Bar and Grill. We ate on the deck; it's quite windy here on the windward side.

We visited every settlement on the two islands before making our way back to the landing for the 4pm return ferry, opting not to wait for the final 5:30 departure. We had a light dinner at home after a very full day.

Tuesday morning we deemed the weather acceptable to try to make our way back out the reef. We prepped the boat, offloaded trash, decked the scooters, and checked out of the marina after a two week stay. Once again high tide was late afternoon, and so we did not drop lines until 3pm, when the pilot boat again guided us out.

Bambarra Beach on Middle Caicos. It's shallow a long way out.

Just after clearing the reef at Sellars Cut, we proceeded east along the reef to the much wider, deeper, and easier to manage Stubbs Cut leading to Grace Bay. This is where we had intended to come in two weeks earlier to anchor after our passage, until we were waved off by DEMA. In the interim we did more research, and asked around, to learn that no permit is needed for vessels under 18 meters in length. We navigated through the deepwater channel toward the beach, and dropped the hook in 15' of water off the beach at Club Med (map).

Once anchored we began to feel much more like real cruisers again, and we enjoyed a nice dinner on the aft deck for the first time since the Bahamas. We had a lovely view of the beach and the bustling water sport activities, and even enjoyed some pleasant music coming from one of the beachfront restaurants. We inflated our giant pretzel (the one on Louise's blog header) and swam off the back of the boat. We also became something of an emergency rest stop for a couple on paddleboards who had managed to be swept a bit further out than planned; we enjoyed meeting Roberta and George as they rested by holding on to a line we dropped to them.

Dinner on deck, our first in weeks.

It was blissful, or even sublime. Right up until around 11pm, when the open-air disco at Club Med ramped up for the evening. It's a good thing that it was "our" kind of music, because it went unabated to 2am. Louise had to put her earplugs in when she retired right after it started. I was watching videos most of the evening with headphones on and so was not greatly disturbed.

We did not want to put ourselves through that another night, so Wednesday morning we weighed anchor and moved a half mile west and a bit closer to the beach, dropping the hook off Seven Stars resort (map). This proved to be a much quieter but also calmer spot, and we enjoyed another couple of nights. This was also close to the remains of a pier that we could use to land the tender, a much more comfortable option than beaching it, even if it meant walking the narrow beams back to shore.

The local brew, Turks Head. Louise prefered the lager, I-Ain-Ga-Lie, and I liked the amber, Gon-Ta-Nort.

Wednesday evening we went ashore for dinner, walking through Seven Stars to the street and over to Bella Luna, a nice Italian place in town. Afterwards we walked to the Graceway Gourmet grocery store, a smaller, more upscale cousin to the IGA out on the highway. They had everything we needed and then some.

Yesterday we tendered back over past Club Med to Rickie's Flamingo and the massage shack, where we had both booked 1pm sessions. The massage place is on island time and our massages actually happened at 2pm, but we were able to enjoy a drink at Rickie's while we waited and I even went for a swim at the beach.

Grace Bay beach from our anchorage.

We had our final meal in Grace Bay at The Deck, this time with Vector as a backdrop. It was a very pleasant visit, and if we ever return to Provo I would head straight for this anchorage and spend the whole time here off the beach. With groceries and a dozen restaurants an easy walk or tender ride, it's hard to beat.

As I wrap up my typing we are just about to make our turn east into the Sandbore Channel leading to the Caicos Bank. Tonight we will be anchored in the Sapodilla Bay area, just across the island from where we've been since arriving. In the morning we will weigh anchor and explore the bank. We found the cell coverage on Middle Caicos to be spotty, so I am not sure when we will next have coverage.

Update: We are anchored in Sapodilla Bay off Provo, on the bank side (map). We are just seven miles from where we started this morning, and four miles from the marina where we spent two weeks. There is a bit of swell here, as our draft prevents us from tucking in behind the point, but we are comfortable.

The transition from the deep blue ocean to the turquoise bank is abrupt. The photo does not do it justice.

Crossing on to the bank was mesmerizing; the water went from hundreds of feet deep (our sounder only reads to 300 or so) to thirty feet deep in the span of a football field. Deep blue to turqoise in the blink of an eye; I tried to capture it but the camera does not do it justice. Right there at the crossing, on the north end of West Caicos, are the 30-odd buildings of what was to be the Ritz Carlton resort.

The never-completed Ritz Carlton Molasses Reef Resort on West Caicos.

The entire project ground to a halt in 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, who was financing the project. New developers would like to take over, but the ravages of a decade mean the buildings will likely have to be razed first. The island is otherwise uninhabited, mostly a national park.

It's too rolly here for us to want to stay more than one night. In the morning we will continue on the bank in hopes of finding a lee someplace.

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