Providenciales, Turks & Caicos
January 30th - February 10th
Ok, so I'm a bit behind. When we last checked in we had just arrived in Provo, Turks & Caicos so I'll fill you in from there.
Sapodilla Bay, on the south side of the Island of Providenciales, is a lovely spot. In geography and plant life it is a bit like the Bahamas. The land is arid and covered in low lying groundcover, bushes and cactus. Here the Bahamian similarity stops. The Bay is surrounded by lavish homes overlooking the water. Except for New Providence Island (where Nassau is located) and Grand Bahama you rarely see any lavish homes in the Bahamas. It was a definite shock for us. Since the mid-sixties there has been a push to develop a tourist economy in the Turks & Caicos Islands and the bulk of the development has occurred on Provo. With lovely beaches and world class diving the Islands have become a vacation destination.
From a cruisers perspective things are not ideal. The first thing you need to find out upon arriving is the phone number of Budget Rent-a-Car. Sapodilla Bay is so far from everything a car is a necessity. Budget will pick you up at the beach where you leave your dinghy and trundle you up to their office to get a car. Sweet. We rented a lovely little rose quartz number that was so small that Roger could have carried it on his back to the gas station had we run out of gas. Fine for our purposes. We spent the first four days driving around the Island running errands, repeating constantly to ourselves "drive on the left, drive on the left." Laundry, groceries, propane, hardware stores, you name it.
By Sunday the 3rd of February we had pretty much finished the major provisioning so we decided a tour of the famous Grace Beach was in order. Werner & Christina from Windance III joined us for our expedition. We found our way to the beach which is located on the north side of the Island. Having grown up on Cape Cod it has never occurred to me to go to the beach for a vacation. I will sail to a nice remote beach but the "hotel on the beach" experience isn't one I'd seek out. Grace Beach didn't change my mind about this. It's a lovely beach with warm water, protected from large seas by an outlying reef which also provides some good snorkeling. But like Coast Guard Beach, the beach of my childhood, it was packed with sunburned vacationers. Unlike my childhood beach it was burdened with large hotels looming above beachside bars. Nonetheless we spent our tourist dollars eating lunch overlooking the water and didn't complain one bit. In cruiser-like fashion Werner pulled out his laptop and took advantage of the hotel wireless. Any port in a storm. After lunch we continued our drive out to a development of vacation homes beyond the beach. The builders hadn't seen the interest that they had hoped for and many of the homes were looking unoccupied and a bit faded. We lucked out in this particular neighborhood however. The local water company leaves their gates open on the weekends and we found a convenient hose to fill two blue jugs that we had brought along in hopes of just such an opportunity. Happily we were not discovered and arrested. To top off the day we headed to the one bar near our anchorage. They were broadcasting the Super Bowl and Roger was ready for action. Our poor friends were game to once again sit through a football game despite having little or no grasp of the game. The outdoor bar was full of cruisers and locals waiting to watch the game. There were supporters of both teams in attendance so it would prove to be a very vocal event. Sadly when it was all said and done the Patriots didn't play their best game and the Giants were able to capitalize. Poor Roger was crushed. At least we wouldn't have to continue going from island to island scoping out the satellite TV situation.
By Monday afternoon Roger had snared the elusive seaweed that had been causing our engine to overheat since leaving Mayaguana. He claims he had always meant to become intimately familiar with the raw water cooling system and this was his opportunity. Now we just needed a weather window to leave Provo and cross the Caicos Banks toward Luperon.
Wednesday the 6th was our day. If you waited in Provo for wind from a favorable direction you could die there. Instead you wait for wind on your nose (E/SE) which is under 15 knots. Wednesday we opted to sail south to French Cay to cut ten miles off our Thursday sail across the Banks. We knew we'd probably be paying for this lovely sail by creating a worse wind angle the following day but it was too hard to resist an actual sail. French Cay is a bird sanctuary and is very pretty. It's quite arid with a beautiful white sand beach. It is uninhabited and landing is prohibited. Windance once again plied us with conch salad for dinner and told us tales of the African bush. It was another fine evening.
Thursday we bashed our way E/SE across the Banks to Big Ambergris Cay. Why not tack you ask? Well, there are several well traveled routes across the Banks, devised so that one encounters the fewest coral heads and reefs possible. Once you start tacking you could find yourself somewhere you don't want to be. After pounding our way through four foot chop for seven hours we were very glad to see our destination on the horizon. Big Ambergris, until fairly recently an uninhabited island, has become a private "Sporting Club." For a small fortune you can build a house on this remote island with access to a landing strip and a marina and still be able to dine at a swank restaurant. There is an executive chef "who will learn the residents likes and dislikes, anticipating all their desires" according to the magazine article we found in Provo about the development. It also talked a lot about Egyptian linens and professional fishing guides. They said you could be assured that you'd only ever have 200 neighbors. The article was charmingly entitled "Piece of Mine" Through the binoculars the place looked pretty well funded so it may even get completed. During our stay at Big Ambergris we met a boat called Beat Army (Annapolis grad). They had hailed us a few weeks earlier to give us the sea state on the Provo crossing so it was nice to finally meet them. Turks & Caicos was their southern-most destination so we may see them on our way back through the Bahamas.
On Friday we hemmed and hawed about bashing across the deep Columbus Channel to Big Sand Cay to stage for Luperon. The alternative was to wait at Big Ambergris and go straight to Luperon when the wind dropped on Sunday. On Saturday the enticing description of Big Sand finally won out and we tacked our way southeast. It was well worth the effort. Big Sand is a beautiful, uninhabited nature preserve with a beautiful beach and a white sand anchorage. We joined ten other boats waiting for Sunday's weather window to make the crossing to Luperon. The fleet consisted of many boats we had been traveling with for weeks if not months. Among them were Windborne with Cousin Kevin, Myriam and Daphne aboard, Chinook from Boulder Colorado., Hot Latte Tudes from Florida, Hearts Desire, a wooden boat from Barnegat NJ., Windance III, our Austrian/South African friends, Uliad from Minnesota and Independence, the big cat from Camden, Maine.
Starting at one o'clock Sunday afternoon the fleet began to up anchor, each knowing the speed of their boats and wanting to arrive in Luperon at dawn while the night lee was still in place along the north coast of the Dominican Republic. We left next to last at five o'clock, followed only by Uliad, the 50' Oyster. This southbound passage to Luperon would be our last before turning the boat north and heading home.
The crossing was a good one. In the early evening I could see a lightning storm off to our west. Happily it didn't head our way and eventually stopped flashing altogether. The wind was strong but from a good direction allowing us to sail a beam reach. By midnight we had to take in some sail to slow the boat down. Seven and a half knots would get us there way too early. At one point there was some sort of problem with the main sail that Roger was able to cure before too long. I rescued a flying fish which landed conveniently near the dodger. If he had been further away from my cozy spot in the cockpit he would not have been saved.
Just before dawn we were overwhelmed by a tremendous smell of dirt, foliage, fire and animals. After the arid climate of the Bahamas it was an amazing sensation. I felt like a dog with my nose in the wind. As the sky began to brighten, to our amazement, we could see all the boats from the Big Sand anchorage arriving together against the backdrop of the Cordillera Septentrional mountains of the Dominican Republic.
Luperon, Dominican Republic
February 11th - February 20th
A month to the day after leaving George Town, Great Exuma we arrived in Luperon, Dominican Republic. Despite the daunting fact that 30% of all first time entrants into Luperon Harbor go aground we all made it in without incident. The Harbor itself is beautiful, surrounded by mangroves and large, palm-covered hills. The green of the landscape was amazing. Shortly after anchoring the night lee that we had entered the Harbor with disappeared and the wind started to howl. This, we have since discovered, is a daily occurrence. Like clockwork at 9:00 a.m. the trades begin to blow unabated until the evening. Despite the winds there is no chop in the Harbor because of it's hilly surroundings.
As soon as we dropped the hook a small wooden dory came alongside asking if we had our Dominican flag and did we need water. We said yes, we were about to put up our quarantine flag and maybe tomorrow for water. Within another ten minutes the Dominican Navy arrived alongside to go over our paperwork. All four of them were casually dressed in golf shirts and sandals. They asked us where we had come from and where we were going next and told us to check in with Immigration and Agriculture on the Government Dock. That was it. After we changed out of our grungy overnight clothes we made our way in to take care of the rest of the formalities. A pain-free experience all in all considering our limited Spanish.
Once we were free to walk about the town we started to explore our new home. The first stop was naturally at a bar so we could get out of the tropical sun as well as quench our thirst after a long overnight. Letty Restaurant was a comfortable spot and our waiter was pert and perky despite the early hour (11:30 ish.) Along with our 22oz El Presidente beers we ordered two variations of chicken for lunch. Roger ordered chicken with "sauce" and I went for the chicken tenders. Both quite good. As we started to unwind and take in our surroundings we were amazed by the energy around us. Unbeknownst to us, we had stationed ourselves at the popular intersection of 27 Febrero & Calle Duarte. The music and the motorcycles and the horns were overwhelming. A pick-up truck loaded with vegetables drove by with a guy stationed on the roof advertising them with a loudspeaker. A mother goat and two kids made their way down the street nibbling on whatever caught their fancy. All we could think to do was to have another beer.
Over the next few days we acquainted ourselves with the bar at the Puerto Blanca Marina, went for a walk to the beach with Chinook, had water delivered by Handy Andy and his sidekick, Papo. On our way into town along the Government Dock on Wednesday we were hailed by two people in an SUV. It was the crew of Windance III. They had gone beyond Luperon to a place called Ocean World Marina in Puerto Plata on their overnight. We didn't think we were going to see them again but they had rented a car and were out to see the countryside. We went to lunch at the Upper Deck Restaurant and rode along for their afternoon trip to La Isabela/El Castillo. La Isabela was the site of the first Spanish settlement in the New World, founded in 1493 by Cristobol Colon (our friend Christopher Columbus). I gather it was a bit of a disaster. Our guide, who spoke no English gave us a 45 minute tour of the site and the only thing I understood during the whole speech was "big problema". The settlement was abandoned after only four years in favor of Santo Domingo which is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the New World. It was great to get one final outing with Windance III, they will be missed.
Dan & Shellie on Chinook organized a trip to "The 27 Waterfalls" for Thursday. We signed up. Wednesday afternoon we chatted with an American guy who has been here for several years, mentioning our planned trip. He said "When a Dominican asks you if you want to wear a helmet, you say yes" It was a good piece of advice. The way this adventure works is that there are 27 waterfalls coming down the side of a big hill, the lowest seven of which are particularly cool. Two strapping young guides (in our case Ceciliano and Kelvin) assist you in climbing up the seven waterfalls (read: haul you up through the torrents by your lifejacket straps.) Then they suggest the various options for descent. Such as; "slide or jump" or "jump or jump" Happily we all lived to tell about it, in perhaps a slightly bruised state. The Falls were followed by lunch in a nearby restaurant, a tour of a botanical garden of sorts, a visit to a farm where we met a large Brahma bull named Manuel and a trip to a soapstone statue carving factory. A fine day in the country.
Next was our trip to the big city of Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo is the capitol of the Dominican Republic and is located five hours away by bus on the southern coast of the Island. As you might suspect the bus ride was an adventure unto itself. The bus is operated by a two man team. There is the driver of course, then there is what I called the "Sweeper" I'm sure there's a technical term for this position but I'm not sure what it is. It is the Drivers job to honk the horn incessantly. At other cars, animals, people on the side of the road, etc. All while listening to rollicking Dominican music on the radio. The Sweeper's job is to round up passengers. He uses a sort of body language directed towards the people on the street to see if they want to ride on the bus. I don't think the trip to Santo Domingo could have been more than 175 miles but it took an eternity. There were several things I didn't understand. For example why did the turkeys have to ride in the luggage compartment below while the chickens could ride in the coach? What I was able to grasp was that being a bus driver in the DR is a sweet job. Both going and coming back, with two different drivers, we spent a certain amount of time stopped at the roadside so that the driver could buy stuff. Without leaving his seat he could order groceries (for delivery later down the road), snacks, sunglasses, you name it. That's not to say that the passengers couldn't also make requests. At one point during the trip a woman requested that the bus stay stopped at a green light so she could finish purchasing what I believe was a phone card from a vendor on the sidewalk. Nobody was flustered. Who am I to quibble?
We arrived at the Santo Domingo terminal of the Transporte des Cibao at about 6:30 p.m. The only map we had was from the cruising guide and it was a little short on details such as most street names. While hunting in the gathering dusk for our hotel we encountered another lost American. He was supposed to meet friends at a park and he had NO map at all. We chatted amicably while wandering aimlessly. Eventually he saw something he recognized and was off. We were making headway in the right direction but by now it was dark and we had confused a deco statue for an obelisk (we discovered later) so we were feeling a bit tentative. That's when the three young boys turned up. They led us to our destination, which was determined through sign language, in short order. We made our way gratefully to the hotel desk. Where they couldn't find our reservations. Sorry no rooms. Eventually it became obvious to the young man working the desk that we weren't going to leave. After some discussion with others he managed to come up with a lovely little room that was just right. Whew, that was close! We ate dinner at the Italian restaurant in the hotel then crashed into bed.
Sunday we walked around the Colonial Zone of the City. Santo Domingo is the site of the first European cathedral, hospital, fortress and a few other things in the New World. Mostly we wandered around looking at the architecture. We did come up with a spiffy map so we were good there. In the afternoon we found ourselves down by the cruise ship dock. We had not intended this but it worked out. We were pursued by a variety of tour guides with the first offering a tour in Spanish for $50. By the fourth guy we had an English speaker driving his own car who would give us an overview tour. Guillermo was our man. We had a great drive around the City. We were able to discuss with him the politics and the poverty of the country which we found very sad. "We are poor because we are rich" The politicians, the military, celebrities and a select few rich families control all the wealth in the country, leaving the bulk of the people very poor. When we asked if the current President, Leonel, was going to be re-elected in May he said yes, he believed so. He suggested it was a case of "better the evil you know..." After the exploits of former Presidents Trujillo and Balaguer, a little corruption doesn't look so bad. We had a very interesting day and over dinner decided we had seen enough and would head home in the morning.
Tuesday through Friday back in Luperon we spent getting ready for our trip back north toward George Town. Luperon Harbor is known for promoting a great deal of growth below the waterline on boats. One day Handy Andy and Papo came by and cleaned our hull, through-hulls and propeller in preparation for getting underway. They did a great job. Several days were spent provisioning which is interesting when you don't know quite what you're buying. A great deal of time was spent listening to the weather and hoping that the promised weekend weather window would hold. Although the prevailing wind is from the southeast and we would be heading northwest we still wanted the notorious seas on the north coast of the D.R. to settle a bit with the slackening winds. Wednesday night Chinook and Hot Latte Tudes took advantage of the night lee to make some headway east to position themselves for the Mona Passage crossing during the window. The rest of the south bounders were waiting for the window to arrive before departing. Windborne is still up in the air about heading further south or heading back to the Bahamas. With their addiction to snorkeling I'd put my money on the Bahamas for them. We spent what seemed like a good part of Friday getting our despacho from the Dominican Navy. We, along with Snark, Another Adventure and Heart's Desire tromped from office to office getting our papers in order. After spending $40 American we were free to leave the country. We had a last lunch at Letty, where we began this adventure two weeks before, then meandered our way back toward the dock and our awaiting dinghy.
Lantern Head Harbor, Great Inagua
Wednesday, February 27th
Bright and early Saturday morning the 23rd we hauled the anchor...and hauled the anchor. Roger hadn't seen mud like this since the Chesapeake. Once free we made our way out of the glassy calm enclave of early morning Luperon bound for Great Inagua, Bahamas, 150 miles away. Out in the open water the day's wind had yet to pick up. We ran the engine to charge a bit but by ten when the trades filled in the sails were up and we were on a wonderful downwind run. By mid-day the wind had shifted a bit more into the east making for a faster, broad reach. The wind which was forecast to drop wasn't showing any signs of doing so. We wanted to make our entrance into Lantern Head Harbour on the south side of Great Inagua in good overhead light the following day so we were going to have to slow the boat down. In early afternoon we rolled up the jib and at sunset we reefed the main. This got us down to between 5.5 - 6 knots. We suspected we'd have to take further action in the morning. The overnight was wonderful. The sky was full of stars and the "just past full" moon rose at nine p.m. The motion of the boat was fairly comfortable though there was a bit of a roll.. We were happier than the cat was. The night was uneventful with only one ship passing by. In the morning we decided to heave-to for a few hours so we'd arrive with good light. We sat in the cockpit and I read aloud descriptions of exotic meals from a travel narrative which Myriam had given us. Not that the hamburger & noodle casserole that I had made for the overnight lacked interest...
By eleven o'clock we had worked our way along the southeast coast of Great Inagua to our destination, Lantern Head Harbour. The harbor had been surveyed for the first time in 2005 by the Wavey Line chart people. It was historically a wreckers harbor but in recent history it has been just a fishing and conching area for the locals. The only reason we knew about Lantern Head Harbour was because there was a small chart of it on the back of our Wavey Line Hispaniola chart. It was nestled strangely amongst selected charts of Dominican harbors. People cruising the Bahamas don't tend to buy the Hispaniola chart unless they intend to cruise to the D.R. Those who do purchase the chart tend to be going further southeast and not back towards Great Inagua. Who, we wondered, would we find there? No one, it turns out.
The entrance was fairly straightforward, though the Elkhorn coral on either side did give us pause. The Harbor is a bit like Abraham's Bay in Mayaguana in that it is a reef harbor. There is a curving bay surrounded by a fringing barrier reef with, in this case, one entry point. There is protection here from every direction but Southwest. For the first several hours after our arrival on Sunday ( Roger's Birthday) we had the whole place to ourselves. That is if you don't count the flamingos, pelicans and several other birds I couldn't name. In mid-afternoon, two bonefishermen and a guide arrived to troll the shallows, then camp nearby for the night. By Monday morning our fishermen had departed and we were once again on our own.
Great Inagua, the southernmost island in the Bahamas archipelago, is the site of a 287 square mile National Trust Park. It was started to protect the colony of West Indian Flamingos which live here. Flamingos are apparently quite tasty and their population was diminishing worldwide to a point where they had become almost endangered. The Great Inaguan colony is one of the largest in the world at about 60,000 strong. Also of note on Great Inagua is a Morton Salt works. It is the second largest solar salt works in the world, employing several hundred locals. We were looking forward to learning about both when we sailed to Matthew Town a bit later in our trip.
Monday and Tuesday we spent walking the beach and snorkeling the reef and coral heads. Despite it's relative remoteness the Lantern Head reef doesn't seem to be doing well. Many of the Bahamian reefs have suffered recently from excessive heat and this may be what has befallen this particular reef. The fish life seems abundant however. Wednesday we had a bit of excitement when a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter appeared around the headland to the east heading straight for us. It slowed, descended and circled us, with it's sliding side door open. Then as quickly as it had appeared it disappeared. It didn't occur to us till it was banking away that we didn't have our VHF on. Why would we? If they tried to communicate with us we'll never know.
Wednesday morning's flyover by the Coast Guard was followed by a second just before sundown. Do we look guilty? Thursday morning we watched as a fast moving power boat approached the reef entrance. With a large Bahamian flag flying above its cuddy cabin we knew this wasn't a local fishing boat. Undoubtedly in response to the two Coast Guard visits the previous day we were treated to a boarding by the Bahamas Defense Force. It was a fairly standard boarding with a request for documentation, immigration papers and passports with no search involved. We hadn't had this kind of official attention since we strayed too close to the nuclear power plant in Delaware Bay not too long after 9/11. We were apparently deemed harmless by the Defense Force folks and they sped off toward the horizon.
With the excitement over our quiet life in Lantern Head Harbour resumed. Thursday afternoon we headed ashore once again. We encountered a small hill which looked like it might afford us a view of the surrounding landscape so up we climbed. Roger quickly made it to the summit. I, however, lost my footing in this large loose pile of rocks and fell backwards toward the bottom. That is both the bottom of the hill and my bottom. Happily I survived the mishap with just a few scratches and a world-class bruise on my backside. To add insult to injury we found no beans on this walk/limp. Friday and Saturday we continued to loll about, walking and swimming and generally doing nothing. From what we could gather from the weather forecasts Sunday was going to be a good day to make our way around to Matthew Town. Enough of this laziness.