Did you ever have one of those days that starts out really nice and then against all odds and logic, just inexplicably keeps improving? One of those lucky days you could not have designed any better if you tried? Our New Year's Day was kinda like one of those.
We woke up to just about perfect weather conditions, with the ocean in the best mood that we have seen for a long, long time. Warm, clear, and incredibly calm:
That dark mark across the water is just the little riffles that a light puff of wind makes on a glossy sea.
This all started a few days ago when our friend Preacher called to ask if we were up for an 'native style' picnic. Some mutual friends from the US are down visiting the islands and we still had three of our own family staying us. It sounded like a fun day, so we gladly agreed. We managed to actually get away from the dock on time, and the run up to Ft. George Cay was like flying 40 mph just a few feet over the surface of a huge swimming pool:
The water was gin clear, one of those times when you have to look twice to be sure there is even any water there at all. We could see the sunlight making patterns on the sand bottom just a few feet below the Contender:
We came into Dellis Cut, hooked a right around the old Ft. George, and there was Preacher on his new boat "Cay Lime", cleaning conch for the cookout.
This location is perfect for a picnic on the beach. Shady Casuarinas trees whispering in the wind and one of the TCI's many deserted beaches. Ft. George is a national historic park here, and there is a wooden picnic table and charcoal grill left there for whomever wants to use them. La Gringa and I have been to this spot several times before. It was looking good.
Before we even got out of the boat, Preacher told us he didn't have enough cooking oil with him to fry up the fish. Okay...well, we could fix that. We were just a couple miles from the Meridian Club on Pine Cay, and they maintain a commissary that stocks essentially everything that a small convenience store would have. At least, everything a small convenience store in this country would stock. So we left one of the kids with Preacher...
and the rest of us boated back over to Pine Cay to pick up some cooking oil.
Approaching the Meridian Club beach on Pine Cay:
Someone with a sense of humor has decorated the buoys marking the swimming area off the beach here:
The waves in the background are the swells breaking on the reef a mile offshore.
When we got back to the chosen picnic spot, we found out there were a couple changes in "Plan A" already. First we found out that the rest of the people we were expecting to join us were not coming to the picnic as the senior member of that group was not feeling well.
So Plan B became a picnic with our family and Preacher. Then we watched, in some disappointment, as one of the resort excursion boats pulled up and disgorged a mob of visitors onto the beach, right between our two anchored boats:
You know, on most days we would have probably just stayed there knowing the day-tripper boats were on a tight schedule and that they would be leaving soon. We would have gone through the questions about the dog, about where we lived, and where everyone else was from, etc. But today we just felt like doing the isolated island picnic thing, and a crowd just did not fit in with the plan, which of course now became Plan C. Go find a more isolated spot. Someplace not so popular, which we realized might just take some thought on New Year's Day. The chances of us getting set up on another beach and then getting invaded again were definitely a factor. That's an indication of how spoiled we have gotten here. A dozen or so people on a beach feels like a mob scene to us. We packed up the boats and shoved off for a less crowded spot.
We followed "Cay Lime" back out of Dellis Cut:
check that water out. And this is not the really clear stuff.
We boated through Pine Cay cut, past the Pine Cay marina, a spot we know extremely well:
We were headed for a place where we would be reasonably sure to have the rest of the day to ourselves. There is a small point on a rocky shore just opposite Devil's Cut. This is where we decided to set up a campfire for our picnic:
The little circle is where we decided that if we gave up the deserted beach idea, we could most likely have the rest of the day to ourselves. And when your idea of a 'crowded' beach means you can see other people on it in one direction or another, it gets a little tight on big holidays like New Years. Especially when the weather is rock solid perfect for boating and picnics.
We tied the Contender and Cay Lime to the shore and put out stern anchors just to keep them in place in an eddy current just out of the main flow of water through the cut:
So there is our first photo of our new, "old" boat next to our old, "new" boat. I am pretty sure we will be seeing a lot of Cay Lime. Preacher seems to be keeping that new outboard pretty warm these days. I can't imagine someone we could have given this boat to who would have appreciated it more. Preacher is one of the very top 'boatmen' in this country. He knows these waters probably as well or better than anyone still alive. And he can handle a boat, yessiree.
After a 40 year career of working on and under the ocean, I think I gained a fairly extensive amount of experience in everything from small inflatables and hovercraft up to large drillships, warships, and oceanographic vessels. I have been running small boats in these waters now for about six years, and I am never as relaxed on a small boat as I am as a passenger when Preacher Stubbs is driving.
We chose "Cay Lime" after an extensive look at the water conditions down here, driving a couple of other boats for that first year we were here full time. After looking at a lot of hull designs and what we wanted to be able to do, we chose this Andros panga hybrid. But as good as I probably got running "Cay Lime" for almost two years, what theoretically is one of the best boats available for these waters doesn't really display it's maximum potential until you put it into the hands of someone like Preacher. The man is an artist with a small boat. The best I have ever seen. It's hard to describe it without going into a lot of details that one would probably not even appreciate unless you were an experienced small-boat handler yourself. You just have to take a ride with Preacher in "Cay Lime" on a perfect day to understand it. It's probably something like taking a cross country ride with Mario Andretti in a land of no speed limits.
Meanwhile back at the picnic... there is no shortage of firewood on the shores of an island nation that doesn't need to gather wood for heat. There is also no shortage of buoys, bottles, rope, and shoes. This place is a beachcomber's paradise (more about that in the next post) but within minutes Preacher had a fire going in the rocks and was pouring cooking oil into the single cooking pot he brought for this picnic.
I know that our picnic spot looks a little rugged in that photo, but actually it was not a bad spot at all. Someone has put up a small shelter from the sun and passing squall:
And somewhere, probably drifted ashore after Septembers' hurricanes, someone even came up with a dining room table:
Once the oil was smoking hot Preacher dropped the cleaned yellowtails in to fry.
Of course the sudden addition of frying fresh fish aromas to the atmosphere got the attention of Dooley the Devourer, who would stop by in a transparent attempt to cadge a tidbit when he wasn't off in the bush chasing down lizards, land crabs, or who knows what.
It didn't take long for the fish to fry, and while we were munching on those Preacher tenderized the freshly caught conch by 'bruising' them with a rock:
Now normally, we would use a 'conch bruiser' for this purpose. I have one made out of lignum vitae wood, and sometimes we use the little hammer-style meat tenderizers. Or you can use a bottle, or the edge of a saucer....but since this was supposed to be a native picnic Preacher just used a suitable hunk of limestone.
I won't go into the procedure here on how he cooked the conch, other than to say we learned a few bits of native knowledge that we did not have before. And we will incorporate them into some of our own conch dishes, because we do eat a lot of it. Eventually you end up with a pot of conch slowly simmering in water in the same pot that just recently held small fish ( yes, head, eyes, and all):
Cooking the conch takes a bit longer than frying small fish, so we had time to just relax, enjoying the perfect day and a place that might not be technically perfect but that comes close on a lot of people's lists. There are numberous small cays scattered around on the Caicos Banks just out of the cut:
Nice to look at, but treacherous for boats in the dark .
And except for the distant boat zipping by in the distance we were totally undisturbed by anyone at all:
Dooley had run down to the point where he started taking the odd break when he could find an accomodating human to serve as furniture:
And while he kept his eye on the picnic in his role as self-appointed clean-up dog for dropped food, he also had a hard time keeping his eyes open:
After the conch had steamed for about half an hour, Preacher dumped a small bag of rice into the mix and let it come to a boil. Then he covered the pot with, of all things, a plastic grocery bag to turn it into a steamer:
I gave him a hard time about diverging from the 'native' way by using a plastic bag. I asked what he would have used if we had not had a grocery bag, and he said that he would have just trimmed the edges off a palm frond. And I believe him, because palm fronds were already slated to be used as serving platters once everything was done. Here is a photo of the complete lunch, which is fried yellowtail along with steamed conch and rice:
And Preacher is only too happy to pose for a photo of a native eating a native lunch of seafood and rice using a sea-grape leaf for a spoon:
I think I have started to realize that the man is a ham when a camera is pointed his way.
I also noticed that the palm leaves can be folded up against one's chest to act like a natural bib, if one is prone to being clumsy and dropping bits of food here and there. That would be someone such as myself. I managed to handle it okay for a 'newbie' at eating off palm fronds using sea-grape leaves, and the food was delicious. Actually, I think I only dropped a few grains of rice and what Dooley the Demented dog missed got scooped up by other scavengers. Because what would a picnic be without ants?
Since those are normal sized grains of rice you can see how small the ants are. And they are fast! They were not eating the rice in that photo, they were sprinting like a team of manic micro-bobsledders into a nearby crevice with it. The motion is what first caught my attention in fact. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted these white grains making about two knots toward the rocks. That's when I took a closer look and saw the ants trying to get to them before the dog did.
Finally, the day started coming to a close. We still had about 15 miles to boat back to our home island marina so we packed up and untied the boat. The weather remained perfect throughout it all:
In fact, it was almost a little too perfect for ideal boating. A late afternoon haze combined with low angle late day sunlight to make navigating a little more complicated with no clear horizon. We are ever grateful to whomever invented polarized sunglasses:
(Yes, those are wrinkles. No, they are not gills. Yes, I wish they were gills.)
As you can probably tell by the shadows, we are running into late, late afternoon. Time to open up the throttle a bit, since most of the passengers are dozing off anyhow.
It's hard to photographically capture the forward speed of the Contender with 300 horsepower pushing it. It looks still from within the boat. I prefer not to make this trip in the dark if I can help it. After all, sundown comes early this time of year. It IS mid-winter, you know.
So we made it home without incident. In my experience, trips without incident are pretty good things whether you are boating, flying, or even walking. It was an early night after a day spent outdoors.
And we know Dooley is tired when even the camera flash doesn't bring him instantly awake on the alert for the thunder he just KNOWS is sure to follow:
I hope you are not tired of boating and clear water photos just yet, because we have already made a couple more boat trips since the picnic, and will have more photos to post over the next few days. (Let me know if and when you are ever ready for more greasy DIY jobs and house construction photos.)
And that's how we spent the first day of the New Year. We wish all of you a very healthy, happy, and prosperous 2009 and hope your day was as enjoyable as ours turned out to be.