Saturday, January 21, 2012


We have a few more photos taken near the end of December that I wanted to show you before they get lost in the new year shuffle. "New Year Shuffle". I like that. Sounds like a rhythm and blues song. I wrote that we were planning to go back to West Caicos and take some closer photos of a wrecked Haitian sloop we saw on the beach there. Well, we did exactly that. It's not hard to keep promises when they're something you really wanted to do in the first place.

La Gringa has been keeping an eye out for spectacular sunrises. We haven't had any really stupendous, jaw-dropping technicolor extravaganzas in the past week or so. At least none while we were awake, and there have been some late nights during the holidays. We'll have to settle for an average one.

The ocean was a little bit choppy over at West Caicos. The boys got bounced around pretty well in the skiff both going and coming. The bow of a boat is seldom a smooth ride. We pulled up near the beach and I hopped over the side to set the anchor. We use a lightweight aluminum anchor, and they don't always set immediately if the boat is moving along in the wind and current. The light anchor slides along on the sand. The wind was trying to take the boat toward the island. I wanted to be sure that the anchor stuck and stayed right where I put it. An easy way to do that is to just jam the flukes in the sand with one's feet and then give the chain a good steady pull to set it.

Dooley the Determined gets exasperated when I hop overboard without him. He seems to be under the impression that this new life jacket includes some naval rank. He insists on supervising everything that goes on concerning the boat and thinks that his anchoring advice is something I really need to hear. I usually humor him. It's easier than trying to point out his total lack of credibility when it comes to boating. If he thinks I'm ignoring him, he'll just bark out nonsensical nautical instructions and useless advice and make a nuisance of himself...

To the point where it's just easiest to invite him to jump in and get the inspection over with.

Jacob was watching Dooley and I arguing about anchor position and how much line to put out (Dooley wanted the recommended 7:1 ratio, as I recall), when we heard him call out that there was a large sting ray swimming toward us. The photos were a bit blurry for a few seconds due to all the excitement (not Dooley and I, of course, we don't get excited about rays and barracuda any more) but I will post the best one that he got:

The ray might have settled down and posed for a steadier photo but Dooley the Delinquent thought it was a grand idea and the greatest fun to chase it around the boat. Some days, I don't know what the heck that dog is thinking. I do know we can add big stingrays to the list of things he's not afraid of. This one had to be three times the size of the dog.

Of course he couldn't catch the stingray without his swim fins so after a few moments he got bored and headed for the beach while the ray swam away in front of the boat;

We anchored right next to the wrecked sloop we spotted a few weeks earlier. And it's still there, at rest in the sand. Just where it's likely to be until the next hurricane blows though. We hope that's a long time, indeed. Hurricanes are just so...... disruptive.

Looking back through posts from the Januarys and Februarys of years gone by, I can see that the winter daylight here has a distinctly different quality than the summer light. It takes some of the 'bright' off the photos unless we take them around mid day when the sun is high overhead. This was not exactly at midday, so the photos are not our best work, but we did what we could. Promises to keep, and all that.

I thought this boat had some really nice lines for a total wreck. I wonder how many boats this one builder has made, and whether he would take his own family out for a week in one of them.

And I wonder what he could do if we bought him the wood and tools he wanted, and told him to take his time and build us the best sailing sloop that he could make, something he would be proud of. Wouldn't that be an interesting thing to do.

If you follow this blog you know that we talk about these Haitian sloops often. It might seem like I am making a big deal out of a couple of boats that made it here. But it's way more than just a few boats. These boats are coming over almost weekly and we have no idea how many never make it. It's mid January as I am writing this, and there have been three of these sloops intercepted here in the past few weeks. You can read more about the specifics of those by clicking here. These are boats that we know about. The island beaches are littered with pieces of the ones that broke up at sea. We could easily find the remains of a dozen of these empty dreams within five miles of here.

I have to wonder about what would drive people to pack themselves on a boat like this, and risk their very lives just for the chance to come here and work for $4 an hour. These boats are amazing, though, in their simplicity and utility. I see something basic, and raw, in the unfinished wood worked by hand with simple tools, to one purpose.

One trip. One way. One thing they all seem to have in common is bright paintwork. And they all seem to have a name painted either on the bow or the transom.

To an excited young Haitian refugee with a handful of belongings, getting ready to board for a dangerous and frightening trip packed tight in a small terrified mob of strangers, perhaps the cheerful bright paint is reassuring. I mean, it IS a brand new boat, built by a man with a local reputation as a boat builder. (Of course he has a reputation, his boats all depart full of hopes and dreams, and none of them return.) There hasn't been enough time for anything to go wrong with them yet. They've even been freshly blessed by the local priest. And probably by the local Mambo and Houngans as well. If it was me going on that boat, I think I might even see if I couldn't get a couple of good bokors down to see me off, too. I've developed a mild interest in Haitian Vodou since we've moved to the islands. Of course we're surrounded by people who grew up with this religion, and I find it fascinating. It's developed some kind of a negative reputation in parts of the USA and that's just totally wrong. The "voodoo" religion has unfairly been associated with what are basically bush doctors who know how to extract poisons from native plants. The Wikipedia write up is a good basic read on Haitian Vodou if you're interested.

Blessed or not, the boats don't start falling apart until later, long after the familiar palm trees and lights of home have dwindled from view. And it's dark at sea on the nights that these boats sail. We have seen absolutely no sign of wiring or batteries or anything to lead us to believe they have much in the way of lights. And flashlights are expensive luxuries. They wouldn't want lights, though, would they. They don't want these boats to be spotted from sea, or from the air. Needless to say, they also don't carry safety flares or radar reflectors. Life jackets. Medical supplies. Water. Food. Radios. None of that.

I wonder how much weight a hundred souls can carry in hopes and dreams. That's even thinner than the boat in which they gamble their very lives.

The paint is thin. One coat, rough wood, with no primer, and no future. It's sure a long way from the $100/gallon specially formulated marine hull paint that we pleasure boaters use. But then, we're not usually all that desperate to get out of town.

The rags you see in the photo are the caulking that is meant to keep the ocean from gushing in between the planks and filling the boat with water. These bits of thin strips of worn out bedsheets and ragged t-shirts are pounded into place, jammed in to prevent leaks, with nothing else to hold them. I am not much of an authority on wooden boats, but my imagination tells me that when the boat is launched the wood swells up and jams these planks tight against each other with the caulking rags pressed between the boards. Once the boat is aground, like it is here on this beach, the wood dries out again, and shrinks. And the cracks expand, and the thin caulking rags fall out onto the sand. Their fight against the sea is over. They belong to the sun and nesting birds now. I think that's a fitting retirement for a t-shirt. What a tale it could tell, though.

And after the months of construction, and the build up and excitement of loading up the boat and leaving in the dark, and the long trip tacking back and forth into the wind.... a lot of the boats end up like this, if they're lucky. This is actually the best they can hope for.

Something was once tied to the bow of this boat with a combination of rope and rags. I followed that 'line' to the end, wondering what these sailors would throw out for an anchor, but there was nothing there. Just a loose knot of rags tangled in the beach bushes.

This makes me think that perhaps the end of that line was another bundle of rags and sticks to be used as a sea anchor, or drogue. That would hold the boat into the wind, and slow it from drifting downwind toward the island. Or back toward Haiti, for that matter. But this drogue idea is just speculation on my part. Amateur forensic beachcombing. A new hobby. And this is a great place for it.

Looking down through the small cabin top into the hull, you can get a very good idea of the construction.

It's very basic, but does follow some good boat building practices in design. It's a good design. Well proven. It's just so loosely built that it's amazing that they will load 75 to 100+ people on a boat this size and set sail with no life jackets, radio, flares, motor, bilge pump, first aid supplies, blankets, food, water, bathrooms, or alternate plan if they get into trouble. We are amazed at how many of them cannot swim. This must be a terrifying trip for non-swimmers.

There's another definition of either courage or desperation in here, or someplace very near to here..

Here's a Haitian sloop photo taken by a USCH helicopter crew, that I shamelessly lifted from the local newspaper just three weeks ago:

I'll gladly give them credit if they'll put the name of this blog in their newspaper complaint, ha ha.

The quality of the photo is bad, but I believe you get the idea. This is one of these boats. Not only is every square inch of the deck covered in humanity, that tight space below in the hull is full of people, too. These boats use people and sandbags as ballast. It's pretty scary. So..if you were a non-swimmer, afraid of the dark, and claustrophobic.....where on this boat would you want to be standing for several days and nights? If you get seasick the others are going to move you to the edge of the crowd, next to the very dark-scary-ocean-full-of-sharks-and-horrible-things that terrifies you.

These are some pretty tough people. Or pretty desperate. I don't believe I have met very many chubby Haitians, come to think of it. And we know a few.

The people below decks stand or sit on these boards nailed across the ribs to stand on. I wonder if the captains give them rags and a hammer of some kind and tell them to jam the caulking into any place that starts leaking?

Notice how none of the boards are straight. They all appear to have been hewn out with axes, and the custom cuts made with a variety of hand saws. Power circular saws leave swirls. The sawmill marks are obvious on the long planks and beams.

The deck planking was the only consistently sawed wood I noticed on the entire boat.

The frames are posts made from trees cut off and used while still green. They shrink and pull away from the rest of the planking as they age and dry out. Of course for some of my own amateur woodworking ideas, this now-stable wood would work out quite nicely. When I think of what one could do with a lathe and a thickness planer and a custom furniture shop with an essentially free and endless supply of this wood, my imagination gets loose and does a couple of laps around my head before I can get it to heel again.

Wouldn't it be a real hoot to start such a shop, and train a few Haitian refugees to make quality furniture from the wreckage of the sloops that brought them here?

We already know they can build boats. They don't have much of a reputation for forestry, though. Despite their widespread saturation of the landscaping business here in the Turks and Caicos and elsewhere. (Take a Google Earth look to compare the land fifty miles each side of the Haiti/Dominican Republic border sometimes. Deforestation of Haiti is one of their biggest environmental headaches)

This is one of the critical junctures in the boat's framing, where the bottom meets the vertical sides. This area is subject to a lot of stress and flexing.

On properly built Caicos sloops the local craftsmen here use one piece bent 'knees' of hardwood specifically chosen and trimmed to match the boat lines. These refugee sloops use big nails. Home made iron nails. In the ocean. Could there be a worse fastener for a boat? Glycerin suppositories would beat it, I suppose. I guess if they only have to make it for 150 miles, they really don't come into play long enough for rust to ever become an issue.

I notice they don't bother tarring, painting, or otherwise treating any of the hull in any way at all other than the false promise of bright paint. It's quite a contrast to the conversations we get involved in with some of the cruisers , boaters, and sailors we know. We talk about mat, chopped fiberglass, barrier coats, delamination, blisters, crazing, bottom paint, protective wax, and gel coats.

What a different world some of us live in.

I have become somewhat of a stainless steel snob, myself. I now worry about the differences between using 304 or 305 stainless in exposed applications where the 316 is too soft and ductile. And how does it all compare to that new 200 series stuff with low nickel, that the Chinese have been producing....

And then I see an outboard motor mount held together with two pieces of steel rebar, that have been threaded for the last inch or so to accept a steel washer and nut. This was never expected to last, either.

And frankly, it doesn't look like it was ever used much. Cranking down on the mounting screws on an outboard motor typically leaves some round indentations in the wood where it was clamped. I don't see any sign of that here. Do they, perhaps, use an outboard to get away from Haiti before they hoist the sail? But then what happens to it? Do they maybe include a motor mount 'just in case' they come across an available outboard during their journey?

I love walking the beach over here, of course. We never seem to have time to do enough of it. There's a couple hours, and then we have to leave to make it back to Provo before dark. One of these days we're going to pack a lunch, get an early start, and spend all day here. We might walk a hundredth of this beach, and see a thousandth of the interesting stuff strewn and buried from one end to the other. On this day, I did manage to pick up a piece of usable Starboard plastic, although I was really looking for some more mahogany or teak. But I can use the plastic, too. I have just the application in mind. raising that console on the skiff by an inch or so.

Buoys, water jugs, plastic garbage, ropes, planks, all being ignored by Jacob and Trevor as they try to sneak up on some Ospreys who have a nest on the craggy rocks there in the background.

I guess I am more interested in the stuff on the beach as a McGeezer, than I am about getting a close up view of an Osprey. I think that once you've been really, really close to a few big, smelly birds, some of the curiosity is satisfied.

The rest of us more or less backed away so that the Ospreys would quit circling and land back on the nest. Jacob stayed close by and remained still so as not to disturb them. They didn't seem overly concerned, just being prudent. I think they were paying more attention to the dog than they were to us.

He did manage to get a few closer photos before giving up and leaving the birds alone.

They settled back down pretty quickly as soon as we moved a few yards away. There were no little ones in the nest, and these didn't seem particularly upset. Just cautious. I don't think they see humans as enemies. At least we don't get that impression. Ospreys and the little American Kestrels are often nesting near where we live.

Every now and then one would leave the nest and come swooping over to see what we were up to, even when we were nowhere near them any more. I thought I detected a curiosity. Perhaps about the dog. This is late December, the beginning of our winter. I was surprised to see birds nesting, but then I'm certainly not up to speed on their habits. Maybe they are repairing nests and getting ready for spring already. I have no idea how long it takes a couple of Ospreys to refurbish and clean a nest. I should read up on it, so I know what I'm talking about. Although ignorance has never stopped me before..... come to think of it. I am going to start paying more attention to the birds. Someone was asking me about them just this week and I was again forced to display my naked ignorance. How embarrassing.

The beach is not all just man made garbage, by the way. It's also covered with shells. Not too many people come here, and so the shells tend to stack up. They also get washed into piles by storms.

La Gringa managed to get a much warmer image with the sunlight during a break in the clouds,

These photos were all taken in December you know. Don't let the swimming or wet bathing suit photos fool you. We look for our warmest t-shirts without holes in them this time of year when these winter winds are howling.

And the sheer volume of various types of wood is amazing. There are some big beams here and there. I have to wonder who is building wooden ships of this scale these days? These iron bands have got to weigh a fair bit. How old are these? And where's the good stuff that fell through the bottom?

Right before we left to head back to Providenciales, Jacob spotted the rainbow. I was amazed, after all this time we finally realized that the end of the rainbow was right there on that old wrecked barge!! We could be rich!

We loaded up the boat, pulled the anchor and headed over to claim our pot of gold. But when we got there, all we found were some suspicious looking pelicans who were wondering what the boatload of Gringos was so excited about. It's not like this wreck is a particularly new or scenic one, after all...

We've recently been hearing the story of the Star of Bethlehem, and the three wise men traveling across the desert. Well, we got a tropical rainbow and two pelicans of dubious intelligence. I guess it'll have to do. Goes well with the Christmas stump mentality, I suppose. It's a new life in a different world from what we grew up with in North America. Santa Claus Christmas cards still look somewhat out of place here, after years in New England. Kris Kringle would feel right at home in the New England winter. He'd fry here.

As we got around the bend in the beach, we were in calmer water and the sun patterns on the sea bottom were worth a photo or two. Actually we probably took a dozen photos like this.

The experience was the epitome of a perfect little cruise in a small skiff. Clear smooth water, a soft sand bottom...

This little video will give you an idea what it's like when you're moving:

We made it back to Providenciales without incident, and once again I will spare you the details of the trip. The boys got beat up pretty good in the bow of the skiff, riding in the chop. I really do need to find some kind of seating setup for when we have passengers on the boat. I am tempted to make one from wood. I think I would like the weight forward in the boat even without the extra passengers.

I am not going to hit you with a bunch of photos of rusty automotive parts in this post. It's ironic to remember how much I once enjoyed automotive mechanical work. I really did. I would happily spend a Saturday morning adjusting this, or tweaking that. Sometimes just buffing out a small spot on a paint job. Cleaning and polishing up the wheels. Adjusting timing, replacing some gaskets, packing wheel bearings. That kind of thing. Oh man, those times have changed. I am getting to the point where I absolutely loathe working on cars. It's amazing how they can be constantly dirty, greasy, and rusty all at the same time. Especially when they've been sitting still. It's a losing battle trying to even keep them clean here.

Now I look forward to DIY projects where I actually get to BUILD something new. To be creative. To work with clean, unblemished, new materials. So, since I got the brakes done last week I have had the opportunity to play with some of the ideas I've had recently. I am going to save my better latest idea for the next post, as it's photo intensive and this one is already long enough to annoy those readers with slow internet connections.

One of the photos I didn't use in the post about the new brakes was this one:

Yeah, yeah, it was a new brake caliper, but I had placed it on a little makeshift bench next to another project. The pieces of bamboo, mahogany wreckage, and rope are part of an idea I wanted to try out.

But first, here's the other piece of that project. It's a rock that son Jacob located, with some holes cut into it. We still needed to deepen and clean up the holes at this point, but can you guess what it's going to be when I get it all together?

Here's the story on why I did this. We are getting tired of replacing our floor lamps every one to two years. The lamps we can find locally are expensive. Oh, they don't start out expensive. In fact they actually start out pretty cheap. But then they get shipped from Asia to the west coast of the USA, and then trucked across the country to Florida, where they get loaded on boats and shipped here, and all those transportation costs and the new 46% import tax here make them quite pricey by the time we get them. We typically pay top dollar for the lowest quality a small bulk buyer can find.

And the lamps are all made out of steel, and they all rust. Grrrrrrrrr. I bet you already know where I'm going with this.

Yep, I decided to see if I could make a floor lamp out of cheap local materials that will not rust. In fact, that was my entire specification for this floor lamp: "Cheap Local Materials That Will Not Rust". This is my first attempt, and I recognize that I have miles to go to get something attractive, but for a first stab at a tropical floor lamp that is environmentally responsible, what do you think?:

That's two lengths of bamboo, set deep into a rock and held with flexible silicon to keep the bamboo from splintering and wearing against the limestone. The bamboo is lashed together with hemp rope. The little shelf is a piece of mahogany we found on West Caicos that I managed to wrest away from Attilla the Termite's minions as they were leaving. The only metal in the whole new lamp is the part that holds the light bulb and shade. And when those brass plated things rust up in a year or two, I can replace them in five minutes for about $10. The lampshade is a refugee snatched from the wreckage of an earlier lamp as it passed through our home on its journey back to elemental iron.

I might have slightly overshot my goal of a kinda tropical looking warm color idea. It fits in, though, and is kind of whimsical. A nautical cartoon of a floor lamp.

I'm going to use three pieces of bamboo for the next one, and design it to fit closer to a wall. It's not something you'll ever see in an art gallery, but by golly, this little sucker ain't going to rust. Doesn't mind wind or a little rain water, either.

So that pretty much brings us up to date and past the end of 2011. We've been pretty active so far in 2012, and there are more photos to be cropped and uploaded. I'll end this post with one of Jacob's photos of a sunset earlier this week.


Anonymous said...

We will see you at this year's Valentine's Day Cup on Middle Caicos? 2-11-12. Starts at 11.

Anonymous said...

Great Post. Very interesting about Dooley there. Do you mean he is trained to leap only on call? I would have thought the minute either of you jumped out the boat he would follow. Pretty impressive if that well trained or is it the had in the face and lots of "wait" "wait" "wait""wait" :-)

That boat got me were are the people that were in it? Had to google West Caicos and says uninhabited. There without thinking one would expect that boat arrived in the night, hit the shallows, everyone jumped off and scattered throughout the island. But that is an unihabited one. What does that mean then?

Regarding the color of the boats, they all seem to be that 3 shades. Thought it might be related to their flag, but wrong colors, then reading your voodoo link leads to Santeria where there is a Siren, "Yemay√° is seen as the mother of all living things as well as the owner of all waters" where one path is "Asesu: This path is very old. She is said to be deaf and answers her patrons slowly. She is associated with ducks and still or stagnant waters. Her colors are pale blue and coral."

There the colors are pale blue and coral.

Can that be it or is it something so simple as their national football color??

Good thought provoking post and interesting to research futher for sure.

Anonymous said...

Interesting research, and good questions...

But I'm stuck in fantasies of a termite-killing kiln shed, a Norm Abram workshop, and all that free wood!

And that light-on-the-sandy-bottom photo is about to become my next jigsaw puzzle.

Thanks for another great post Gringos.


Anonymous said...

LOVE THE LAMP!! And I love the idea of making furniture out of all that sloop wood. I was actually thinking it as I was reading along looking at all that great wood and then you said it! We have a lot of stuff like that here in new orleans. I love that look of reclaimed anything!

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Dooley will follow the "stay on the boat" command, as long as he can see the two of us. If we snorkel or swim behind a rock out of his view, he'll typically decide that the orders are now obsolete and he can come try to find us.

We are not planning to be at the Valentine's Day Cup at Bambarra this year.

Foto Clipping said...

wow! Just loved it. thanks for the post!


Anonymous said...

Got to love Dooley. Where every other dog on the planet cannot wait to be set free in a park, a forest, to run and romp, chase a ball, a squirrel, Dooley cannot wait to put on his lifejacket and go cruising in a boat and swimming in the ocean, cashing stingrays and tarpons. How old is he? For some reason I see the number 9 in my mind, was it ever stated in any blog entries before?