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Cruising at a Turtle's Pace -

 August 16, 2001 

Eileen having fun in the boatyard
Eileen comforts turtle mom as her measurements are taken

There's usually little danger of "Little Gidding" breaking any speed or distance records when we head out on an offshore passage. We were pretty impressed, therefore, when we learned of one single hander's passage making accomplishments. On a non-stop voyage in 1995/96, she crossed the Atlantic from Trinidad, cruised along the African coast past the Canary Islands and headed north to the Bay of Biscay. There she did a U turn and followed the Iberian and African coastlines down to Mauritania. A final loop north brought her back to the Canary Islands. Not a very direct route, and she did it at a turtle's pace. She was, after all, a turtle.

We learned about this voyaging feat when we went on a turtle watch a few weeks ago in Trinidad. The tour was one of many organized trips available to visiting cruisers who share an interest in nature. Trinidad isn't much of a tourist destination in terms of beaches and golf courses, but its wildlife resources are truly remarkable.

Leatherback turtles nest on the island's eastern and northern beaches from March to September with peak activity occurring in June and July. Interest in marine turtles has grown in the scientific community, resulting in attempts like the one cited to track them in the open ocean. Most people, however, will only see them when they come ashore to lay eggs. Those cruisers who can tear themselves away from their boat projects for an evening of turtle watching will be well rewarded.

The most accessible nesting area in Trinidad is Matura beach, a couple of hours drive due east of Port of Spain. A local volunteer group called the Nature Seekers patrols the 9 km long beach during nesting season to ensure the turtles are not molested. Only a decade ago, 30% of the turtles coming ashore were killed by humans. Now recognized as an endangered species, strongly enforced protective laws have reduced the slaughter to virtually nil.

The evening we visited the beach, a small group of us was taken by volunteer guides to where a female leatherback had just come ashore. Leatherbacks are the largest of the marine turtles. The one we observed was a mere 800 pounds or so, but it's not unusual for a full grown adult to have a shell 6 feet long and weigh 1400 pounds. At university, I drove a beaten up old Volkswagen that wasn't much bigger!

A guide attaches an ID tag to the turtle's rear flipper as she lays her eggs

We stood back a respectable distance as the turtle dug a hole in the sand with her rear flippers. Once she had excavated as far as she could reach - a good two feet down - she began laying golf ball size eggs. At this point, the turtle assumed a trance-like state and could be approached and touched. The guides measured and tagged her. After laying about a hundred eggs, she began back-filling the hole. We moved away to give her space. I thought her job was done once the hole was filled. Not so. She proceeded to dig "decoy" holes in the immediate vicinity, carefully filling each, so that after an hour or so, it was impossible to tell from all the churned up sand where her nest was located. With her last bit of energy, she dragged herself back to the water and paddled off into the night. The entire exercise had taken about 3 hours. She would return in about 10 days and do it all over again, nesting a total of perhaps half a dozen times before finally swimming offshore.

The incubation period for each clutch of eggs is 60 to 70 days. When we were at the beach, hatchlings from earlier nestings had already surfaced. Once they emerge, it's a mad scramble to the sea as crabs, dogs, vultures and other predators try to pick them off. After reaching the safety of the water, the males will never touch land again. The females will roam the oceans for 25 years or more before returning to nest on the same beach where they were hatched.

As we watched "our" mother turtle disappear among the dark waves, we wondered where she'll go after her summer's work is done. Maybe she'll head north to feed off the coast of Greenland, or perhaps she'll cross over to Africa. In either case, our cruising itinerary began to look pretty modest in comparison. We all know the moral of the story: slow and steady wins the race.

Cheers, David & Eileen