May 1, 2005
Whining Through Paradise
By Douglas Bernon
Looking back, going to the Turks and Caicos was a really bum call, and I’ve got to take the rap, because I’d pushed hard to go while Bernadette pleaded from the outset, “Let’s just stay here in the Bahamas awhile longer, then sail south from here. The Turks & Caicos can’t be better than this. Plus, it’s illegal to spear fish there, and it sounds touristy.”
“No, no,” I countered, with way too much conviction. “Didn’t you read the guidebook? There’s great diving and snorkeling there. I’d rather go sooner rather than later, and catch the next window. I’m ready to move on...”
When she said we had plenty of time, that there’d be another window, “and another,” I added the clincher, which I’d live to regret, “You always want to stay too long at every party. That’s you. C’mon, it’ll give us plenty of easting.”
Bernadette, of course, was right. And I will never again push to go to an island nation where I’m not allowed to shoot my supper.
My reasoning had been based on the fact that we were headed to Jamaica and a deadline within a month. Bernadette had air reservations to the States for two weeks, where she was presenting a slideshow at Mystic Seaport, in Connecticut, as well as attending to routine medical appointments – and, hopefully, returning with a suitcase full of boat parts. So, I’m thinking like this: the prevailing winds are easterlies and south-easterlies. The course from the Turks and Caicos to Port Antonio, Jamaica, is essentially a southwest run through the Windward Passage. I figured that would be preferable to the angle from our other option at this point, Great Inagua, Bahamas -- a dead south run into the Windward Passage and then an arc to the west.
Plus, I figured that if the weather went sour on us while in the Turks and Caicos there were plenty of places to hide, whereas if a front came through at Great Inagua, we’d be painted into a corner—exposed from the southwest, west, and northwest, with no place to scurry, and an iron lee shore. That was my thinking, and by golly I was sticking with it. Bernadette, on the other hand, had wanted us to take our time getting to Mayaguana, spend it visiting other islands in the Bahamas, then, in another week or two head to Mayaguana or Great Inagua, but only as a pit stop on the way to Jamaica. I pooh-poohed that, accusing her of always leaving things to the last minute. (Another error. Yours truly loses one point.)
At Mayaguana, we anchored in Abraham’s Bay, alongside old friends Frank and Linda on Simba, who’d just arrived, and another boat we hadn’t met before, Betty Ann, with Phil and Kirsten, who were in their first months of cruising, and were wrestling with a major decision about destination. That’s a process that does not change no matter how long you’ve been out. Cruising is a lifestyle that demands frequent and conscious answers to a question that we all pretty well avoid on land: Where do we want to be? Without the imposed structure of work, without someone telling us where we have to be, cruisers are all stuck with the freedom of having to choose, a responsibility that takes some getting used to.
Although Phil and Kirsten are new cruisers, this is their second cruising boat this year. Just after they’d bought and moved aboard their first boat, and just after they’d sold their house and everything in it, Hurricane Francis tore through Florida and totaled everything they had. They got back in the saddle quickly, found another vessel pronto, and were out cruising by the end of that same year. In the wake of their disappointment, the tenacity they mustered to make it happen so quickly is monumental. When I heard that story I knew I’d like these people.
On board Betty Ann – named after Philip’s late mother -- they’d been aiming toward Trinidad. In Mayaguana they were essentially one third of the way there, with an additional 800 miles of beating to go. Lots of cruisers take this route, working their way east and south against the prevailing winds. The bible for this undertaking, Bruce Van Zandt’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South, offers a series of effective strategies (traveling at night, using the cooler evenings to motor against lighter breezes, hop-scotching between fronts, and so on). Bernadette and I know lots of people who’ve followed this route successfully, but none who ever said it was any fun.
Phil told me one afternoon that he was getting “kinda tired of beating all the time.” And Kirsten was, too. Bernadette says that I’m way too direct sometimes, but when Phil asked me why we were going southwest, I told him: “I can’t think of a single, solitary reason to go the eastern Caribbean. It’s more expensive than the western Caribbean, more crowded with cruising boats by a factor of perhaps 20 to 1, and it’s a major hassle to get there.”
“Yeah,” he said, “We’ve been reconsidering, but I’d need to get all the charts for the northwest and southwest Caribbean.”
These days, it’s possible to get stuff sent almost anywhere. And Providenciales—called Provo—is the capitol of the Turks and Caicos, meaning it would have all the usual “get it there fast” options. Philip and Kirsten wrestled with the possibilities before them, and as we waited for the weather window to make the hop, decided that they’d had quite enough beating into the trades. They blew off the eastern Caribbean, and decided to head to the northwest and southwest Caribbean. Cruising offers frequent opportunities to change directions, but simultaneously requires letting go of notions one has banked on. Now, in Mayaguana’s Abraham’s Bay, Simba, Ithaka, and Betty Ann were all headed in the same direction, and we all figured the angle was best from the Turks and Caicos. (Error again. DB forfeits another point.)
From Abraham’s Bay in Mayaguana, to the first possible anchorages in the Turks and Caicos, is a trip of 55 miles. But because of barrier reefs at both our current and future anchorages, getting out of one and into the other with decent light is impossible during the same day, so we staged ourselves to leave the country about 15 miles east of Abraham’s Bay, at Southeast Point. There’s enough protection there to keep you reasonably smooth at night, and there are no intricate reefs demanding high-noon vigilance. Pre-dawn departures are no problem, so that’s what we did, making great time with northeast winds. Plus, we were pushed even faster by a considerable northern swell. All the weather faxes and predictions from NOAA showed the northeast winds shifting to east-southeast during the day, along with the swell dying down. This is precisely what we wanted to hear, and because it came from NOAA, noted authority in the weather world, we chose to believe their fairy tale. (Error. DB loses third point. Game going poorly.)
We pushed on during the day, Ithaka flying, but the wind never went east-southeast, and the seas never laid down. Close to the north side of Provo, we had a couple of disagreeable choices: we could either head back out to sea for the night and heave to, or enter the anchorage where we’d be modestly protected by the reef, but with a lee shore, a north wind and a stinky big swell. Bernadette just shook her head. (DB losing points faster than score keeper can tally.)
We chose the anchorage, and with so much wind and sea pushing us over shallows, we surfed in between the boiling reefs. It felt like we’d been spat in by the sea. Our path took us toward—of all places—the beach owned by the all-night-loud Club Med. My choice of destinations was looking grim from the start, and now it was actually becoming frightening. We had 22 knots from astern, and big rollers coming in behind us. It was difficult to maintain control of the boat. What looked straightforward quickly became disorienting. With decreasing visibility and then suddenly only one foot under our keel, with Ithaka hobby-horsing and then surfing down the swells, we worried about bottoming out. Bernadette expertly turned us back toward deeper water to regain our bearings. Then we came back in with a keener sense of direction and a little more control.
The charts indicated that our best protection would be to the west, but now in late-day glare the water in that direction looked like a sheet of white ice. There was no way we could see dangers beneath the surface, so we turned east and tucked in as best we could behind a tiny set of coral heads that broke a bit of the swell. But it was that northern swell and our inevitable roll -- that incessant, nauseating, sleep-stealing roll -- that kept us up all night. That, and the bass thump of Club Med’s speakers on the beach. It was a symbolically perfect start to our stay in the Turks and Caicos.
The next morning, as soon as we could see our way around the heads, and swat away all the jet skis that were whizzing around us like gnats, we moved more westerly and found a little relief, but it took five long days for the northern swell to lay down enough to keep anything from rolling off the table. Meanwhile, we heard from our friends in Jamaica. They’d had a fine and easy trip from Great Inagua, making my wish to head to the Turks and Caicos look worse and worse.
On our first morning in that rolling hell, two more boats full of equally dull-witted cruisers came into the north anchorage, their mouths agape to see the string of high-rise hotels stretching from one end of the beach to the other. Before any of us went ashore to clear with customs, there were several dinghy confabs so the guys could decide what to do about our spears and spear guns. These conversations could not take place on the VHF; public channels are open to the universe. The Turks & Caicos guidebook by Stephen Pavlidis says that all firearms—including underwater hunting gear—must be turned into the authorities, and collected before departure. We’d heard that some boats get inspected and some do not, but that penalties are severe if you’re caught. Hiding the stuff, which I suspect is what most people do, would make me even more anxious than usual. Plus, I figured the cops had seen more places for hiding spearguns than I’d think of, so I assembled my armamentarium, trussed it together, labeled everything, and took it all ashore.
The customs agent eyed me and my weaponry as if I’d just come in from Neptune, not the Bahamas.
“Good God, Mon, what you be doin’ here wid dose tings?”
Feeling suddenly stupid, I stared, and told him I’d read that spearguns were illegal here.
“Yeah mon, but what I gonna do wid dose? Where I gonna be puttin’ dem guns? Take em back to de boat wid chu. Just doan be using dem here. Dat clear wid chu, mon?”
Oh, it was clear. I happily paid our $5 check-in fee, which at first I thought a bargain, but as the days wore on, if you amortize those $5 on a cost-per-hour-for-joy, the $5 was way steeper than the $300 we laid out in the Bahamas. Pavlidis recommends against judging the Turks and Caicos by Providenciales. Since he seems right on everything else, I’ll take his word that there’s lots of good stuff on other islands in the Turks and Caicos chain, but those island were to windward, so we were not destined to see them. We saw plenty of Provo, though, which is an island on the make. It’s hungry, loud, and spinning out of control as it fills up fast with bloated resorts, time-shares, and condos -- all cheek to jowl. For reasons that escape me, Provo aspires to look like South Florida.
However, on a brighter note, there’s an uptown IGA grocery where you can buy brand-name foods, gourmet items, and fancy breads flown in daily from California. Despite all my pretensions to bohemianism, I’m bourgeois to the bone, and will knock down large groups who stand between me and my next loaf of sour dough with pitted calamatas. That exquisite indulgence aside, wherever I looked in Provo, I didn’t find a lot of there there. Maybe, had we been more outgoing, or more adventuresome, or more inquisitive, or just more open to the cosmos, we would have met up with more that we liked. But it didn’t happen that way. We got ripped off at the internet café, ripped off getting our laundry done, and rolled awake all night long. Provo brought out the whiny curmudgeon in me.
The one oasis of redemption was the beautiful Desiree, manager of the Cost Right wholesale store. Within walking distance of our anchorage, the Cost Right had terrific prices and selection on meats, chicken, liquor, fruits, and vegetables, and Bernadette and I provisioned there. When we got to the check-out, Desiree overheard us talking about getting a cab back to the dinghy. She stepped right in and got one of the kids who work there to drive us to the dinks in the store’s van. When I smile about the Turks and Caicos, it’s because in my mind’s eye I see Desiree, and remember how proud she was of her store. Other than her kindness, I’d give this place a major miss.
I was fed up with the weather, the anchorage, the expensiveness of the town—good olive bread is always dear—the heat, the not-so-great snorkeling on dead reefs, and the mediocre scuba diving. It could be that by this time I’d lost totally any capacity to see beauty anywhere. I was in one major harrumph, and of course La Comodora didn’t look so smiley, either. (DB now hemorrhaging points.)
“So what do you think of the Turks & Caicos now,” said my beloved one evening, as we gripped the handholds below in order to walk around.
“Love it,” I barked, and we let the matter drop, my wife being too much the lady to say I told you so out loud.
Once the sea permitted us an exit, we cleared with customs and scrammed as fast as we could to the west side of West Caicos island, where we’d wait for good winds to make the passage to Jamaica. West Caicos has no settlements, and a huge reef system off its northwest coast, so we figured it had to be nicer. But when we arrived and anchored off that northwest corner, in the lee of the island, the swell was running dead out of the south and we were rocking as much as ever. The Pavlidis guide said there’s a marina under construction in a totally protected bay on that west shore. So we found the opening, and scoped it out first in the dinghy with our handheld depthsounder; the soundings were fine. Inside the bay, the water was totally flat. No swell. None at all. We scrambled back to Ithaka, and scooted inside before losing all our light for the day. Betty Ann and Simba entered as well.
Someday, this tiny bay will become a marina, but right now it’s a dusty, noisy construction yard, complete with speed boats bringing groups of workers back and forth from Provo twice a day, and a generator on shore that runs 24/7 and sounds like a helicopter is landing in your cockpit.
“But, you’ve got to admit,” I said to Bernadette, as cheerily as I could muster, “there’s no rolling around in here. The water is calm for a change, and that’s good, right?” She cupped her hand behind her ear, making like she couldn’t hear me over the din, and I decided to let the matter drop.
By sunset, there were hundreds of flies aboard, the first insects of any kind we’d been bothered by all season, if you don’t count the jet skis off Club Med. We fell asleep that night, slathered in industrial strength DEET, the constant drone of the generator punctuated by the intermittent annoyance of chemical-resistant mosquitoes buzzing in our ears.
Okay, I’ll say it. I’ll say it out loud, and even write it down here to make an official record of it. Yes dear, I admit it. You were right and I was wrong. SO wrong.