It had been our plan to sail from Colombia to the San Blas Islands of Panama and then to Bocas del Toro near the border of Panama and Costa Rica. Many factors too detailed to describe here led us to a major change of plans. Instead of sailing west to leave Escapade in a marina in Bocas for the duration of the rainy season, which is June to December, we decided to sail north to Annapolis, which we have always considered Escapade’s home port even though she is registered in Dover, Delaware. Cartagena is an excellent point of departure to sail north across the Caribbean. There was no wind at all to the west toward Panama, but to the north the open sea had easterlies of 13-20 knots. These winds are perfect for a good beam reach, tailor made for sailing north.
Instead of returning to BVI or Antigua to join the Salty Dawgs’ summer migration to the Chesapeake, we decided to be Stray Dawgs and follow a route unique to us. Straight north of Cartagena is what we started calling the HaiCuJa Triangle. That’s the mini-gulf between Haiti on the east, Cuba on the north, and Jamaica on the west. This gap in the islands was the perfect gateway to the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas. Providenciales would be a good place for Greg and Elaine to fly home from and TCI would be a nice rest stop and vacation place for us until we were ready to sail farther north. These islands are not Spanish speaking, but we were still feeling Gringo, so we kept the title Gringo Escapade for this narrative.
We left Cartagena as night fell and knew we would have to motor for several hours because the sea was in the wind shadow of Colombia. When we finally got into clear air we had the winds that usually are found in the Caribbean—15-20 knots from the east. We hoisted the sails (actually we unfurled them) and soon hit our stride at 8+ knots. When we sailed south to Colombia we had the benefit of waves on our quarter pushing us along. Now we had waves on our bow splashing over the boat and forcing us to close ports and hatches. Sometimes we zipped down the cockpit enclosure panels on the weather side of the boat to keep the cockpit and its inhabitants dry. But no one was complaining about 8+ knots.
When we zoomed in to the HaiCuJa Triangle on the chartplotter to set a waypoint, we discovered a small island of only 2 square miles sitting between Haiti and Jamaica. It is named Navassa Island and has been administered by the USA since 1857. It piqued our curiosity to find a US territory that we had never heard of in this out-of-the-way location, so we decided to use it as our first waypoint. If we arrived in daylight perhaps we could anchor there and have lunch. We did arrive exactly at lunch time, but this island had no place to anchor. It was long and flat with steep cliffs coming straight down to the water. It was covered with small green foliage, but the only sign that any human had ever set foot on it was a smooth path that led down to the rocky cliff at one point. So we saluted it and sailed on.
We were surprised to find that we still had very good wind after entering the HaiCuJa triangle. The forecast had been for no wind at all in this mini-gulf, but we were still hitting 8+ and sometime topped 9 knots. Then it happened: God turned the wind off. It didn’t die gradually—it just suddenly quit. So we started the motor and set a course through the gap between Cuba and Haiti toward Grand Inagua Island, the southernmost island of the Bahamas.
Although we never entered the territorial waters of Haiti, Cuba, or Jamaica, we could see all three of them in the distance, sometimes two of them at the same time. My boat insurance excludes Haiti and Cuba from coverage so we didn’t want to wash up on either shore. There was no danger of that with the Perkins chugging along smoothly. Eventually we cleared the wind shadow of Haiti and the delightful easterly wind enabled Escapade to kick up her heels again. We hadn’t seen another boat since leaving Colombia, but we weren’t the only ones kicking up our heels. I was on watch when a playful pod of dolphins began doing their circus tricks alongside the boat. Sometimes they did synchronized leaps from the water. At other times they happily raced the boat, riding the bow wave and crisscrossing back and forth under the boat. It was easy to see that they were holding back to stay with us. At our top speed the dolphins were just out for a stroll and some fun and games.
The Turks and Caicos Islands are much like the Bahamas, surrounded by very shallow water and absolutely infested with coral. We kept a sharp eye on the chartplotter and carefully worked our way around the northwest corner of Provo, the local nickname for Providenciales, which is the most populous and developed island of TCI. It’s the island with all the big resorts, fancy vacation houses, and busy night life. It’s what most tourists are thinking of when they talk about Turks and Caicos. We furled sails and motored the last few miles to the edge of the reef surrounding Provo. By 5 am we had anchored near the marker indicating the entrance to the winding course that led through the coral heads and shoals to Turtle Cove Marina. It was high tide, but without a pilot boat it would have been foolish to attempt to navigate this course in the dark. By the time daylight arrived, high tide had passed and we had to wait for the next high tide at 5:20 pm. This seemed like a lost day as we were teased and tantalized by the sight of the beaches of Provo just a few hundred yards away from us, but we discovered that we had cell phone service from shore, so like starving men who hadn’t eaten in days, we all stuffed ourselves with phone calls and web surfing. The ocean is wonderful and the islands are marvelous, but the cyber world is our home now and it was great to be home again.
At 5 pm the tide was high again and a motor launch came out to lead us through the twisted path to the marina. The pilot gave us strict instructions to follow in his wake and not deviate at all. The twisting channel was marked with 18 red and green buoys, but Hurricanes Irma and Maria had rearranged the sand mounds under the water and being within the marked channel was not enough to guarantee that we wouldn’t run aground. With 7 foot draft there were plenty of opportunities for us to stick the keel in the sand. We kept an eye on the depth sounder and saw it go down to as little as 6 inches of water under the keel, but we never touched bottom. We breathed a sigh of relief and our sphincters relaxed when we entered the marina and were pointed to our slip.
Thursday is the weekly “Fish Fry” on Providenciales. That’s what they call it, but it really is a street party with every kind of food and local bands entertaining the crowd. We weren’t yet checked in through Customs and Immigration since the offices closed before we arrived, but we sensed that the normal requirement of checking in before going ashore was of no concern on Fish Fry night. We caught a free ride on a small bus going our way and melted into the crowd of dancers, drinkers, eaters, and partiers. The highlight of the night was a percussion band beating out an irresistible rhythm. The intensity of the drumming reminded me of the movie Drumline.
The first order of business after Customs and Immigration on the next morning was to get a marine mechanic to the boat to deal with some problems that had plagued us. Provo Diving was in the slip next to Escapade, so Greg and Elaine went diving while Diana and I met with Giles from Caribbean Diesel and Marine. It was reassuring to deal with a knowledgeable mechanic in English again. Giles discovered that the settings on the charger/inverter were set for lead acid batteries, not the AGM batteries that Escapade uses. A few adjustments solved the electrical problem that began in Dominican Republic and was not solved in Cartagena. Giles used a trick I didn’t know to burp a giant air bubble from the starboard sea water intake. That solved the problem of inadequate water intake for the air conditioning and the water maker. Soon the problems were all dealt with and we were free to move about the island. Greg and Elaine rented a car and we set off to see the island. The land itself is mostly dusty sun bleached coral chalk—not particularly appealing to those of us who love the rich green foliage of Kentucky and the Windward Islands of the Caribbean. But the waters around TCI are indescribably beautiful. My cameras were simply inadequate to capture the nuanced shades of blue, blue-green, aqua, seafoam green, and turquoise that surrounded the islands and filled the bays. Our first excursion was along the south shore of Chalk Sound. Beautiful houses enjoyed fabulous views of the sea to the south and the sound to the north. Within Chalk Sound were many small islets that would make exploring it by water intriguing. And at the end of the road was a property called Emerald Bay. In addition to two impressive homes, it had a turntable for crossing the moat they created by cutting through the rock to let the sea in. It’s for rent if you’ve got the big bucks.
After Greg and Elaine flew home we still had several days to kill before our flight. On Sunday we hitched a ride to the Blue Hills Wesleyan Methodist Church, one we had selected from a Google Search and wasn’t too far away. It was an all black church, except for us, and it added a Caribbean flavor to the black churches we knew in the states. Singing was robust, testimonies were exuberant, preaching was loud and long, and everyone was warm and friendly. The parking lot was crammed with cars because part of the property was still unusable due to the damages from Irma and Maria.
We had been very efficient in exploring all four corners of Provo, so Diana and I took a ferry to North Caicos, a few nautical miles away from Provo, but light years away from Provo culture. Instead of giant all-inclusives like Provo had, North Caicos had little mom-and-pop beach motels. Most were already closed for the season and so were most of the restaurants that were touted in the glossy tourist literature. We were out of luck even at the Last Chance Bar & Grill when we tried to eat there. That was OK with us. We were there to see the “real” Turks and Caicos, and this was pretty real. We stayed two nights in an Airbnb in the village of Kew. There are only two streets in Kew, so it didn’t take us long to walk the whole town. Along the way we met and talked to almost the entire population of Kew. One man told us about the birds we heard squawking. Another showed us the pens where he kept and cultivated land crabs and he introduced us to his mother. I think we slipped through a time warp to Mayberry with island folks.
The next day we drove across a small bridge to Middle Caicos, which is even less populous than North Caicos. We had lunch at Mudjin Bar & Grill which sits on a hill above caves that go down to the beach at Dragon Cay. At Bambarra Beach we waded in knee deep sea water a half mile out to Pelican Cay and back. If Mayberry could have a suburb, it would be Middle Caicos.
I’ve commented on the attitudes I’ve seen in the people of different islands and countries, but not on the attitudes of the children. On the three islands of TCI that we spent time on, Diana and I noticed and commented on how quiet and well behaved the children are. They speak softly and are polite and respectful. Clearly there is something different about the parenting in TCI compared to anywhere else we have been.
We had no crew for the final passage back to Annapolis, so we left Escapade in good hands at Turtle Cove Marina and flew home to check on our other life.