Lifting the anchor goes smoothly using our normal procedure. Ben’s at the bow using hand signals to indicate to me at the helm whether we need to move forwards or backwards and in what direction. As he points upwards to the sky with his right hand I put the engine into gear and move us forwards as he uses the electric windlass to reel in the anchor chain. A little more forward momentum is needed so again he signals to the sky with a pointed index finger. If any reverse is needed he’ll point to the ground instead. Anyone nearby who doesn’t know our signals they could be forgiven for thinking he’s stood up there dancing to Night Fever by the Beegees.
After a short while our Rokner anchor is freed from the sand and is hanging off our bow on a short chain. A thumbs up from Ben signals this to me and I begin to cautiously move out of the anchorage as he brings the anchor up through the bow roller and secures it in place. I notice on our chart plotter that our boats location marker doesn’t seem to be moving. The GPS within the device isn’t updating our location on the map, something that is crucial as we are about to weave our way through coral heads whilst hopefully avoiding very shallow water and a nearby reef.
I call Ben back to the cockpit so he can take the helm and keep the boat in the anchorage whilst I try to solve the problem. Whilst we do have many inbuilt sailing tools, our visual chart plotter is the Navionics app on my android tablet in a waterproof case mounted on a bracket at the helm.
Changing the GPS settings.
We decide we’ll have to solely rely on visual piloting and if possible use the visible coral heads to try and work out our current position on the charts. A sailboat washed up on the reef a mile or so away is a stark reminder of just how careful we need to be.
I stand at the bow, eyes fixed on the water in front of us as Ben’s at the helm. We’ve a agreed previously that I will point towards where I need him to steer, rather than pointing out the coral heads. The higher vantage point at the bow means I can see down into the water a little better than from the cockpit, however the sun is still quite low in the sky and I’m getting a lot of reflection on the surface. I see a dark patch straight ahead so I point to port in order for us to avoid it. Another is visible ahead so after passing the first one I point to starboard and hope that we remain within the deeper channel. Further to our starboard I can see waves crashing onto the reef and half a mile to our port is the land, edged by rocks protruding out into the water. The colour of the water ahead is patchy, there are areas that we clearly must avoid but there are plenty of other dark patches too. It’s nearly impossible to tell which are just weed on the seabed and which are rocks or coral. I feel really anxious about this, our whole adventure could be over in an instant if we get this wrong. Ben’s eyes are flicking up and down between the water ahead and the depth sounder in front of him as we slowly motor through.
After ten very stressful minutes we start to emerge from the worst of it and the water begins to deepen. As we pass the last of the reef we feel relieved and eager to properly get going on this sixty mile trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The forecasted winds were due to be perfect conditions for our crossing. However the wind has clocked ever so slightly to the south and it’s dropped to a measly seven knots meaning our sails are just flapping around and not achieving much. We don’t have enough hours of daylight to be able to tack back and forth so – as has happened a lot recently – the engine is put to work. We cross the Caicos passage where we have 12,000 feet of water beneath us. The fishing rod has been put out the back, the auto pilot is on and we’re motoring along at 6 knots. Without the sails for stability we’re rocking around quite a lot with the ocean swell so most of the next 8 hours I lay down on the cockpit seats where I feel best.
A few miles out from the Turks and Caicos I’m disturbed by Ben shouting “Land ahoy!” I jump up and look ahead where I can see low lying islands in the distance. This is my favourite part of most of our crossings as I know we’ll soon be out of the swell and into calmer waters. “LAND AHOY!” I shout with my hands in the air and a smile on my face. We then proceed to “out shout” each other, bellowing “LAND AHOY!” at the top of our lungs. There’s no one else out here to hear us after all.
As we enter the shallower waters of Bluff Bank through Pony Cut we change our heading accordingly and the wind picks up to fifteen knots. It’s seems for the last couple of hours of our journey we’ll be able to sail and even our GPS has miraculously begun working again on the tablet. We hoist the mainsail and pull out the genoa. Once we’re on the right heading I stand at the bow and absorb my surroundings. The wind is sweeping by me, whilst filling our sails and propelling us along. Below me the calm blue water is rushing past, I feel like I’m gliding along in mid air. Arriving in a new country like this is a fantastic feeling and it brings home to me what an amazing adventure we’re on.
We anchor at Sapodilla Bay where the next day we check in at customs at South Dock. It’s a commercial dock but after a quick chat with the security guards at the gate we’re given a guest pass and pointed in the direction of the customs office. We wander across a dusty yard watching huge containers being lifted off a ship onto the dock. There are abandoned boats dotted about the yard in poor condition. Rumour has it they had been seized from Haitians trying to find a better life abroad, albeit illegal and on this occasion unsuccessful. At the customs office we fill out some forms in relation to our vessel and pay a $65 entrance fee ($50 standard fee and $15 extra because it’s a bank holiday). We next wait half an hour for the immigration officer to turn up so we personally can be accepted into the country. When he arrives we make our way over to the shabby security port-a-cabin where he borrows a chair and the edge of a desk to carry out the paperwork. It’s definitely the most casual immigration experience I’ve ever had. As it’s a bank holiday we have to pay the officers “overtime” fee of $15 each. However he doesn’t have his receipt book with him so can’t provide us with any traceable paperwork regarding this payment. We do however have an official stamp in our passports and are granted a 7 day permit, after which we’ll need to buy a $300 cruising permit to remain in the country.
Sapodilla Bay provides cruisers with an anchorage that’s protected from northerly and easterly winds. The beach is pretty and the water shallow which is perfect for families with children. As a result the beach is lined with holiday rental properties and each day a scattering of families venture a few metres from their accommodation onto the white sands. There are stand up paddle boards, kayaks and jet skis for rent to keep visitors amused and a nearby restaurant serves good food with the added extra of great internet access. The restaurant overlooks the key natural attraction to this area – Chalk Sound, a highly scenic almost land locked turquoise lagoon dotted with rocky islands.
Having tired of the local area quite quickly we hire a car to explore the rest of the island. Up at Grace Bay we discover tourist central with swish hotels lining the beach. It’s a well kept area with exclusive shops lining the adjacent street and fine dining experiences splashed about the town. We browse the gift shops and designer jewellery store and then move on down the road where we find a great place to relax for a bit….Potcake Place.
We’re excited to have found Potcake Place as a few people around town have told us we should visit. The staff are all volunteers and the smiles on their faces tell us they clearly love their role. It’s the perfect place to come and unwind, ease away some tension and get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Within seconds of entering this place everyone is grinning from ear to ear, both adults and children alike. Potcake Place is a dog rescue centre and the public are encouraged to come in and play with the rescued puppies. As I look into one of the play areas three of the cutest puppies all look up at me, ears pricked up and excited to see me. Another puppy is laying in a basket in the corner having an afternoon nap, he’s had a tiring day having been taken for a long walk on the beach this morning.
I enter through a small gate and the intrigued trio instantly come to play. I bend down to say hello and whilst one playfully tugs a rope with me another gently bites on my shoelaces whilst the third chews my ponytail. They’re just adorable and a bundle of innocent energy. I’m not sure who’s enjoying this more – me or them. They jump on top of each other rolling around and playfully biting each others ears. They let out little yelps to try and show each other who’s boss but they’re so small and fluffy they don’t have anyone fooled.
The staff explain they rescue around 500-600 dogs a year from the streets of the Turks and Caicos Islands. When they first arrive they are treated for any diseases or infections they have contracted and are cared for until they are healthy and happy. Once ready they’re adopted by suitable families. All the funding for the charity is gained through donations, fundraising and profits from their shop. So after we’ve managed to tear ourselves away from our new canine friends I buy a Potcake Place t-shirt to help fund future rescue dogs and of course to remind me of my time here.
As well as exploring the island the hire car gives us a chance to catch up on the never ending chores such as laundry and provisioning. There’s a fantastic supermarket along the main highway where we’re excited to find an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. In the Bahamas we had got used to a limited choice and the veggies usually looking a little sorry for themselves. Here however it all looks fantastic, the pineapples in particular are juicy and delicious.
Back at Sapodilla Bay another day I decide it’s time for me embark on a Geocaching adventure. I’ve regularly heard about Geocaching over the last few years but only now have I looked into it and taken steps to make it a new hobby. If you haven’t heard of it before it’s basically a mix between a treasure hunt and orienteering. Via an online map or the Geocache app you are shown locations in which a Geocache is hidden. You then make your way to that location to try and find the hidden Geocache where you sign the book as proof of your find. Some locations offer tips and hints and even GPS coordinates to help you with your discovery.
This particular Geocache is hidden up historic Sapodilla Hill and a quick climb up the rugged terrain to the top reveals stunning 360° views. The blue marbled water of our anchorage soon merges with the white sands of the beach below. Set further inland are the bright turquoise waters of Chalk Sound and its contrasting dark green miniature islands. Over the sound an aeroplane appears to skim the hill tops as it comes in to land at the runway that edges the National Park.
Turning around further I have a birds eye view of the south dock where we previously checked in. A large shipping boat is docked and a crane is lifting off one of the many containers on-board.
Etched into the hill’s craggy chalk rocks and boulders are names, dates, and small designs left by unlucky sailors that found themselves marooned on the island, heading to the hill for a better vantage point from which to spot ships. Some of the rocks were left with just a crude name and date carved into the stone, while others featured little boats or buildings to tell their tales. Most of the carvings were left between the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s.
With all this to distract me I almost forget why I’m here in the first place. I use my app along with GPS to tell me how far away I am from the Geocache – it’s 25metres away in westerly direction. I make my way through the scrubland, scraping past bushes and clambering over the rocks. When my device tells me I’m one metre away I begin to lift up rocks eagerly searching for the hidden Geocache but I have no luck. After searching for nearly half an hour I have to accept defeat. I can’t find it. Disappointed and demotivated from my new hobby I head back down the hill, back to the dinghy and back to the boat. Fingers crossed I’ll have better luck next time.
A possible weather window appears for us to make a crossing to the Dominican Republic. With our 7 day permit in mind we decide to make a move from Sapodilla Bay and head towards the east where we can depart from the next day. However the following morning near Six Hills Cay we listen to the updated forecast which has worsened. It sounds a little too rough and with a risk of storms we opt to not make the full day crossing to the D.R. Instead we travel further east for 5 hours to Big Sand Cay, for the benefit of reducing our crossing time to the D.R in the future. Well I can honestly say that’s the worst decision we’ve made so far!
We anchor on the west coast to give us protection from the easterly winds however the ocean swell is awful. Off the east coast of the island is over 3000 miles of deep Atlantic sea stretching all the way to Africa. The ocean swell is curving it’s way around the land and into our anchorage. As a result we are rocking back and forth, side to side constantly and even quite violently at times. This island is in the middle of nowhere and our closest option for safe still water is 5 hours back to where we’ve just come from. Right now that’s not an option as it would be dark by the time we get there and there are coral heads to navigate through on our arrival. We have no choice but to stay here.
Walking around the boat is unbearable and we’re thrown from one side of the boat to the other if we’re not holding on tightly. Every step is a struggle and we have to use anything within arms reach to prevent ourselves from falling over. I can barely bring myself to get up off the bed most of the time. Ben manages to cook us a little food to keep us going but to be honest when we’re rocking around like this I can’t stomach much anyway.
In the light of the following morning we observe the coastline of Big Sand Cay which is a designated bird and wildlife sanctuary. It’s stunning and quite different from anything we’ve seen whilst sailing before. There are pale jagged cliff faces and as the waves reach the steep beach they crash violently up at an angle before retreating back to the sea. All around us gulls are flying overhead occasionally plummeting down into the water to catch a fish on the surface. On top of the cliff we can see what looks like an abandoned building and a crows nest type structure that I can only assume used to be used to burn wood to warn mariners of the islands location.
We desperately want to explore this uninhabited island but the swell is so big we can’t even safely lower the dinghy from the davits and then attach the outboard motor to it. The wind is blowing hard, it’s cloudy and there’s the odd passing rain shower. We are well and truly stuck on board.
The forecast suggests calmer weather is due so we opt to stay put and look forward to the potential of being able to get ashore. When the “calmer” day arrives the wind drops a little but the swell is just as bad. With every wave the floorboards creak, the wires in the mast clunk from side to side and the fruit hammocks swing back and forth.
GET ME OFF THIS DAMN BOAT!
I find myself daydreaming about being in a plush hotel in a queen size bed with a feather duvet, a luxurious jacuzzi and having a relaxing massage. Yes, that’s what I need. That’ll make me feel better.
After three days we begin to get used to the rocking and rolling but it’s still such a tiring sensation. Even laying down we have to brace ourselves.
If I could just get ashore I could sleep in our tent. I contemplate just jumping overboard and trying to swim ashore in a desperate attempt to just be on solid land but I know it’s not really an option. Instead we pass the time reading books, reading manuals and playing scrabble and cards.
After five days of battling nausea and feeling like someone is stirring my brain around in my cranium the weather finally improves and the swell calms down. This means two things….we can get the dinghy down and go ashore, and we can leave the anchorage and set sail for the Dominican Republic.
We decide to do both, so our last day turns out to be a busy one.
We go ashore and are absolutely gobsmacked by the beauty of Big Sand Cay. The beach by our anchorage is stunning and untouched. Thousands of birds are flying around above us, and on the ground in the centre of the island thousands more are nesting in the bushes, some with speckled eggs visible.
On the beach facing the Atlantic Ben finds some of natures most beautiful creations – fossilised brain coral. It’s amazing to think the intricate detail has been formed naturally over hundreds of years.
As we clamber up the rocky terrain from the beach we are observed by an osprey sitting high above us. At the top our route takes us within around 70 feet of him but he doesn’t seem uneasy with our presence at all, he simply glances over at us now and again. Being this close to a wild bird of prey is surreal. His predatory features are prominent, a sharp beak and impressive set of talons.
A shallow lagoon area we find looks like the perfect snorkelling location, from out of the water we can see the movements of numerous large fish. In the shallow water Ben is stood up putting on his mask, I’m eager to see what marine life we’re surrounded by so I dunk my head in to look around. Through my mask I’m shocked to see a school of barracuda, they’re usually solitary characters. They’re intimidating fish; metre long sleek bodies and having caught a few of them fishing I know just how big and sharp their teeth are. I hide behind Ben’s legs observing around twelve of them lurking just a few metres in front of me. They don’t seem to be coming for us, but equally they don’t seem too scared of us either. I feel uneasy with their presence and the way they’re just watching me out the corner of their eye. Once we’re both snorkelling we start to edge out towards them slowly and they part, moving away from us. After a minute we’re in about five feet of water and all of a sudden all the barracuda have disappeared from sight. Ben’s swimming a couple of metres away to my left and I feel a little more relaxed, until I turn to my right to see a shark heading directly towards me. I freeze and through my snorkel I try to draw Ben’s attention to it “Ben, shark” I don’t know if he’s heard my muffled voice so I turn to my left “BEN! SHARK!” He doesn’t hear me. I turn back to look at the shark, he’s still heading straight towards me, gliding through the water effortlessly, around twenty feet away. It doesn’t look like he’s going to try and avoid me so I need to get us out of the way. I kick my flippers and head towards Ben, taking my eye off the shark I tug Ben’s flipper to get his attention. As he looks to his right he sees it straight away, the grey mass with a pointed face heading directly for us. When the shark eventually changes it’s course we take the opportunity to hurriedly head back to shore which is thankfully not too far away. Standing up in the shallows we can see the large shark shaped shadow gliding away. I previously thought seeing a shark in the water was one of the scariest experiences, today I’ve learnt that seeing a shark swimming straight for you is far scarier! I won’t be getting back in the water today!
We’re relieved that our five days rolling around in this anchorage were not totally pointless. In fact Big Sand Cay has been a particular highlight of our time in the Turks and Caicos but as early evening sets in it’s time for us to leave the Turks and embark on a night time crossing to the Dominican Republic.