Sometimes we have what turn out to be good ideas. The operative word there is 'sometimes', with special emphasis on the some part of that. 'Sometime', this time, is about some other time than one of those good idea times. As this post develops, please try to keep in mind that I clearly admitted that, right up front.
Saturday morning was the first day of a three day holiday weekend. It was Memorial Day in the USA. The people of the Turks and Caicos Islands are generous with holidays, as befits a holiday destination I suppose. Here it's called National Hero's Day. Well, you can't expect a little country with no military to have many veterans to honor. But they do what they can. The morning started out well enough.
We benefit from an eclectic collection of UK, USA, and TCI holidays liberally scattered throughout the year here. This weekend was a double whammy, as it was also the annual South Caicos Regatta weekend. We haven't managed to make that South Caicos shindig yet. There always seems to be some reason not to go, and I mean other than my intense aversion to loud noisy crowds. (I know it's unnatural, and probably antisocial, but when I hear "It'll be fun, there's gonna be a lot of people...." I hear an oxymoron)
So, back on track here, we were not planning to take our little skiff to the South Caicos Regatta (for a number of those other reasons I mentioned) but we decided to take it up to that beach on North Caicos I have told you about. The one exposed to the open North Atlantic, where all the neat stuff washes up. So we hitched up the skiff and drove to Leeward. And that usually peaceful boat-launching spot was standing room only, with cars circling the parking lot, and people lined up for the boat ramp. People were either launching boats or waiting for someone they knew to show up with a boat to launch. 'Oh', I belatedly thought...' this is the jumping off place to get to South Caicos...duh...'. We turned the truck around, and hauled the boat all the way back to the canal near Southside Marina. The day was not going to set any benchmarks on the old 'tanning index', but it was usable enough. Or so we thought. We gotta play those three notes here, the ones in the melodramas that always come after 'and so we thought...! dah, dah, daaaaaahhhh...... So just read those words"And so we thought!" and push the play arrow:
(thanks to La Gringa the computer geek)
With Plan A (Leeward to North Caicos) gone for a ball of chalk, our hastily construed plan B was to head off in the totally opposite direction from the South Caicos festivities. Makes sense, right? We would go check out those old buildings on West Caicos. A mere six miles from Providenciales at the closest point. We could follow the beach, then when we were close enough to see the island of West Caicos, we would head over. Easy trip. Plan B was a good plan. I miss Plan B.
Somehow, as we left the mouth of the channel, we decided to make a bolder plan. We were looking at all the cloud formations around the Caicos Bank, and we could tell that South Caicos was getting rain. So was North Caicos. And Middle Caicos. Good thing we didn't go that way, huh? (mentally insert 3 more notes, lower pitch. more sinister. I think the Italians have a musical term for that. Or was it blues guitarists? Minor key?)
Well, the clearest sky we could see was out over the middle of the Caicos Bank. It was sunny and pleasant out there. Just to the south. And suddenly it just seemed to make sense to finally complete a disastrous trip we tried to make back in October of 2007. Yep, our really unsatisfactory first trip to French Cay. We should know better than to make these spur of the moment changes of plans. Especially when those plans were specifically developed for a much smaller scope of adventure. Did I mention that our skiff does not have a radio, nor a compass? Nor a GPS? It's got a motor, and motor gauges. And stuff to lift and steer the motor. That's it.
At this point in the narrative, I have taken the liberty of unrolling one of the few charts of this area, to give you a different perspective than just my typical screen shot of Google Earth. This time, I am showing you portions of one of the Wavey Line charts for here. They're the best I have been able to find. We're on that 'big' island under the shell. French Cay is that little bunch of squiggles to the right of the coral. It's about sixteen miles south of Southside Marina.
We looked at that cerulean blue sky, and those turquoise waters, and that new Suzuki with only about 20 hours on it, and said, heck, we can be out there in an hour, spend an hour looking around, and be back home an hour after that. What could go wrong?
(dah, dah, daaaaaahhhh...)
GPS? We don't need one. We can tell by looking which of those clouds is over French Cay, and which is over Molassas Reef. That gets us there. Steer for the tallest cloud.
Now, zooming the camera in on that particular section of chart, if you look at the relative positions of the reefs and the low, flat island of French Cay, maybe you can correlate those to the positions of those clouds in the photo just above.
That's not a lot of info on French Cay. In fact, I am not having much luck finding out much about it. Oh, yeah, I know I have previously mentioned that it's named after a French pirate named Francois L’Ollonais who hid behind it to raid shipping back in the good old days (for pirates, that is) of the 17oo's.
We've seen a lot of really nice photos of the water around French Cay on sunny days. We want to take some of those photos. This must have clouded our judgement. Did I say 'cloud'?
yep. dah, dah, daaaaaahhhh.
I looked up French Cay on Google Earth, but other than to show you how quickly the water gets real deep there, it's not a wealth of information. I did measure the little island. It's about 400 yards wide and 1200 yards from north to south.
Realizing that this was not a lot of information about French Cay, I found another, better image on the Wavey Line chart (Turks and Caicos 001). The little + marks are hard bottom in the form of reef, rocks, or coral heads. The soundings are in meters, and tenths of meters. So a depth number of "12" is 1.2 meters. With the skiff we only worry about the numbers that start with 0. And the + signs. The TCI has LOTS of + signs on the charts.
The black dotted line is about where we came in, and the x is where we beached the boat. The little dots along the beach are the extent of our foot travels on the beach. I'll explain that in a minute, because I am sure anyone that knows us would immediately ask why the heck we didn't head straight for the 'Haitian Fleet' shown wrecked all along the east side of the island on that chart.
Sitting here now at this desk, with that chart unrolled and Google Earth flashed up on the old laptop, it's pretty easy to be an armchair navigator. But please consider, when we left the house that morning we didn't plan to boat out to French Cay. We were not planning to be further than maybe a half mile from the beach at any given time. Not in Plan A, anyhow. Which is the plan we left the house with.
Heading out was no problem. We navigated straight for that cloud bank. Easy beans. Now at some point around 8 miles out, the island of Provo starts disappearing from view. French Cay is not yet visible from a small boat low to the water. Somewhere around 10-12 miles south of Providenciales, it's almost all disappeared from view. And at this point French Cay is still somewhere between 4-6 miles ahead of you. French Cay doesn't stick up very far. There is a light on a post, with a little wooden railing around it. It's not very big. So you're kinda navigating by dead reckoning at this point until you spot the island. You know you're getting close when the local air force comes out to escort you to the beach:
The first thing we see, actually, is an old wrecked freighter on the reef a few miles east of French Cay. It is much more visible from a distance than the island is, itself. We stayed the course, supremely confident in our Captain and Navigator ( cue the sounds) and eventually we were under the cloud bank, and for the first time ever, officially standing on French Cay itself.
You heard me mention cloud bank back a few seconds ago there, didn't you. I thought so. Well, we weren't overly surprised, as we'd been steering for an island under a cloud bank for the past hour. Seemed to make sense at the time. I expected we would leave this cloud bank behind when we headed home. (Yes. The sounds again).
The very first thing we noticed was the birds. Well, the first thing we noticed was how crummy the day had turned if we were trying for nice tropical photos. But then we noticed little groups of birds flying out and around us a couple times, and then back to the middle of the island. The entire thing is covered with low vegetation. Observing the birds we immediately realized that it's spring time, and they will all be nesting this time of year. We didn't want to risk disturbing nests, and surely didn't want to deal with Dooley the Destroyer on an island full of baby chicks. So we decided to just walk up the beach to the first group of rocks, and to stay below the high tide mark. There were no birds hanging out on the sand.
So after yelling at Dooley several times to stay on the beach, until he agreed, we drifted up toward the rocks. Looking for something worthwhile to take photos of. And the few birds who had greeted the boat went back to whatever they had been doing before we showed up.
Guess what we found out? We found out that a US Coast Guard Sikorsky helicopter will flush a whole lot more birds than a little Jack Russell Terrier on the beach would ever dream of. That's the aircraft right in the middle of the photo:
The OPBAT crew went over to take a look at a sloop anchored on the far side of French Cut, then came back to the cay to look at a motor yacht that had pulled up and dropped anchor after we arrived. We don't have a radio on the skiff, so didn't hear any of whatever was going on.
Dooley the Disenchanted wasn't all that happy about being restricted to the high water mark, and had to console himself with chasing little crabs into the edge of the bush. He doesn't chase crabs very enthusiastically. He's had some startling experiences with crabs. He knows that they're armed. And, well to put it bluntly, they're very crabby creatures in general. You could almost say they coined the phrase.
They don't make cuddly pets, for example. Not much marine life does, come to think of it. Just the mammals. And those only under duress.
Not wanting to disturb the birds, and wanting to keep the dog on the beach, I contented myself to taking a small video of the island from the top edge of the un bird inhabited part. We did not make it over to the windward side on this trip. La Gringa took a photo of me taking a video. Did I mention clouds earlier? You can see where this is going. The last time we packed up for one adventure and then totally changed game plans resulted in a very miserable experience stranded on the Caicos Bank. When will we learn?
And here's the video I took, while standing there at the border between beach and Birdville.
At this point, we had made our way up to the end of the sandy portion of beach. We looked to the southwest, and could just make out the ghostly shape of a silent sloop at anchor. It made me think of how it must have been to spend weeks out here in the 1700's, living on conch, turtle, fish and birds eggs, probably. Waiting for a sail on the horizon.
The sloop is just inside the edge of the rain under that cloud. There's that word again.
This is a slightly different view, but I put one of those magnifying glass things over the sailboat.
And looking back to the north, toward the island of Providenciales, in the direction we have to travel to get home, we see that things are not nearly as sunny as they were an hour ago. Definitely not. This huge band of thunderclouds is forming right here, along the southern edge of the Caicos Bank, right at the spot where the deep water runs up close to the reef. You know, the place we're standing on.
That's our nameless little skiff there in the middle of the photo. A little overshadowed by the rest of the composition, wouldn't you say?
Dooley the Determined had decided that a swim was in order, and if we weren't going to take advantage of a deserted beach, then he was going to take it upon himself to enjoy it. And he did.
We were in agreement that we were going to have to start back. We knew we would be going into the back of a squall line, that was moving to the north west. We considered staying out on French Cay and waiting for a while to let the heavy leading edge get a few miles ahead of us. But we realized that there were more squalls, including lightning, coming our way from the south. We were caught in the middle. And if we gambled staying on French Cay, we stood an excellent chance of having to make some of that 16 mile trip in the dark. Did I mention that our skiff doesn't have any lights on it? Not that this would really matter much, but at least it would have given us the illusion of a warm feeling to know we had lights. Just in case.
We started herding the dog back down toward the skiff.
Now, as we got down near the boat, I want to show you something. Dooley always likes to be first to get to wherever it is that he thinks we're going. Under normal conditions, he will be out in front. This was no different. Once he figured we were headed to the boat, he ran out of the water and boogied on out. Determined to beat me to the boat.
Now consider the nature of the leading edge of tropical squalls and thunderstorms. There is often the strong possibility of some severe electrical activity. Please look at the little doggy footprints Mr. Dooley is leaving in the previously pristine and untrammeled sand. He stopped at this exact spot because of a flash of lightning. And somewhere there must be a formula for figuring out how far away the strike was from the time it takes a dog to get from the flash...
To the rumble:
He heads for the nearest shelter he can think of. Which is usually me.
The first squall line of the storm had formed overhead as the trade winds were shoved upwards by this little flake of island. It had done this without raining on us, and was heading toward Providenciales at, I would guess, about 10 mph. Oh, the gusts and downdrafts within the front were much higher than ten mph, but the entire big cloud mass was moving about that fast. We really had no choice, though. We had to go now, like it or not. The next clouds building to our south looked even meaner. We had what appeared to be a small window of opportunity.
We were mistaken. The window wasn't big enough to be called small. Within fifteen minutes of leaving French Cay, we were caught up in some weather that brought the daily average way down. We went to a negative tanning index faster than you can say Holy Shirt!!.The wind was just picking up at this point so the chop was not too bad yet, but the rain was incredible. We had to slow the boat down, as we were barely able to see 50-100 ft. around us in any direction. It was getting kinda intense on the small boat side of things. Good thing we have our sense of humor. Oh, and we got to use our new bimini top.
We didn't take a lot of photos for about the next hour. La Gringa and Dooley tried to find spots out of the driving rain, and I tried to steer a course toward Providenciales. And that might sound easy, but it gets complicated when you can only see gray in every direction. Remember, we have no compass or GPS on the boat. However, I did have my geek wristwatch on. Yee ha. This little sucker saved us.
I got this massive Casio Pathfinder wristwatch last summer. It's my 'beater' watch. I wear it every day, and save my 'good' watch from getting all scratched up. (Can you believe my good watch is a diving watch without paint or scratches on it? Not tuxedo material here, I'm afraid) The Casio does all kind of nerdy things, including measuring magnetic compass direction. Yep, I can hold it level, and push a button, and for about five seconds, I can read my compass heading. Well, this was all we needed. I had to do it constantly, because I found out that trying to steer a course for even a few minutes without checking the compass, I invariably drifted way off course. And we found out that the wind and rain direction inside thunderstorms is not consistent enough to use as a visual cue, either. I didn't realize that La Gringa took some video of this. I push the button, read our heading, figure out which way we need to correct to, and then turn the boat onto that heading. Over and over. Without the Casio, we would have had to drop the anchor and just wait it out until we could see something. Islands, lights, stars, sunrise...anything to tell us which way was north. But we had the little compass, and were able to keep moving in the direction we needed to go.
(music is 'Will It Go Round in Circles' by Billy Preston)
Then as I got more confidence in our ability to navigate home under IFR conditions, we increased our speed and maintained our heading of 350 degrees (plus/minus sixteen Hail Marys) until we eventually broke out through the leading edge of the squall line. This is what it looked like when we could finally see ahead of us again. Can you believe it was mid afternoon and still looked this dark?
Still, the light was a welcome sight after a very long-feeling hour of navigating in the mist. And then things got real busy again. Now we were on the leading edge of the squall. We had gusts of wind that must have been up to 20 kts. We had a lot of sudden and steep chop and I had my hands full driving the boat. At least we could finally see the island of Providenciales straight ahead about four miles away. So we traveled something like ten miles in near zero visibility in driving rain. Is this sounding like a holiday weekend so far?
Oh, I forgot to mention, when we caught up to the weather front, we also caught up to the lightning and thunder. It was blowing rain off and on, and the boat was bouncing over two to four foot chop as fast as I could drive it. I wanted to get well out in front of the squall line, and put the lightning strike area behind us. Dooley was Distraught. He took a position between my feet and under the life jacket sticking out of the console. I think he mumbled every doggie prayer he's ever memorized. I tried to snap a photo, but it was impossible standing up, and when I sat down so that I could take one hand off the controls, I couldn't hold the camera very still with that one hand. Oh well. You get the idea. Imagine a cold, wet, terrified dog that would gladly retire to a cozy stateroom below decks.. if he could but only find a way...
Breaking out of the soup and seeing Provo right ahead of us (as opposed to Haiti or Cuba) helped the mood a lot. We still had to make haste to get the boat to the marina, and on the trailer and home before the storm we blasted through caught us from the rear in its relentless roll across the seas.
Finally, with everyone secured at home, we watched as this squall line crossed our path for the third time today. But this time we were safe and secure. Hey, it could have been worse. We could have had a boat load of people headed home from South Caicos. Naaaah. never happen.
You know, driving rain sounds a whole lot different, in dry clothes eating popcorn under a tin roof than it does drenched in rain and seawater under a flapping canvas bimini top. There are better places to be than on a little boat getting bounced around far from land you can't even see. And there are worse places, too. Makes one appreciate a few things. Including geek wristwatches that give you atomic time and compass heading. It also measures pressure altitude. We didn't need altitude information on Saturday. We knew fairly precisely where we were, relative to sea level. We were wearing it.
So, that was our Saturday. Holiday weekend. Sunday, it rained. Monday, it rained. Tuesday, it rained, but oh there was a glorious sunset and we were in a good spot to watch it.
We don't have a good sunset to show you from this French Cay II Saturday fiasco. There wasn't one. At least, not here. But I'll make up for it with the next post.