The little skiff wasn't even dried out from the conch diving trip when we headed back out lazily looking for loose lengths of lumber to laughingly liberate. We got an early start for a change this time and by mid-morning we'd anchored and waded ashore at one of our favorite deserted beaches.
I see that I still had water on my lens from splashing ashore. I also see a beach devoid of designated parking lots, fences, pavement, hot dog stands, commercial attractions, boardwalks,..... and people. Oh, but plenty of trash to pick through. This is the main reason we're here. We always find something interesting here. Very little of this stuff originated in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It comes from the Atlantic Ocean, and this really opens up the possibilities as to the origins of these 'treasures'. The variety of things we find here is amazing. About the only thing it all has in common is that it floated here from somewhere else.
La Gringa found this thing and I don't know exactly what it is. A sort of a manifold looking setup made from PVC pipe, with a series of floats to keep it in some kind of orientation. It almost looks like something from an aquaculture type of operation. A frame hanging below the surface. Would this make some sort of habitat? Someone's failed school science project for a DIY shark cage ( Sorry Mrs. Johnston, he shoulda used steel...) ? A diver's decompression stop? Now it's got me curious.
On most of our boat trips we get to a point where we mutually agree that we've had enough sun and wind and sand for one day and we typically head straight back to Provo. We rarely have time for any side trips or extra exploring. But on this trip we got started early and even brought lunch. We accomplished the object of (read 'excuse for') the trip by finding some wood to play with, and still had plenty of day left to work with. So we decided to slowly motor along the beach while eating lunch and eyeballing the shore line. This is not a particularly good way to comb a beach as we can only see a fraction of the stuff that's washed ashore. It's a lazy way to get a general survey, though. We had already been on the beach for a couple of hours at this point and were just scouting areas for future beach combing. We figured we could spot a few good places where the ocean and island conspire to accumulate treasure. And there are places like that. Stuff accumulates more in one spot than another. We knew we were not seeing the spots where a lot of the lightest stuff is located. Things like pieces of boats with flotation or life rings or jackets tend to float high in the bushes. Above the shoe line, but not all the way up to the light bulb layer.
And we always find things that bear investigation. For example, on this slow pass down the beach we saw a bright flash of sunlight from up in the rubble. This usually involves stainless steel or aluminum if it's still shiny. We usually will stop to investigate bright metal. (Is this fascination with shiny metal some inherent human characteristic?) This can be useful stuff to have around. If it survived the shipwreck and the trip here, there's a good chance it's going to handle the environment for some time to come. It's my natural inclination to scoop every decent piece of junk like this up and haul it home. It's anathema for me to leave a perfectly good hunk of stainless steel lying in the sun. The glint calls to me. I'm as bad as a crow in that regard. I've been known to pry stainless washers out of the tar in parking lots. But I realize I have a problem and I'm trying to control it. These days I try to limit myself to flotsam that I have an immediate and logically defensible use for. I know that I just cannot take it all home and store it.
I was not able to identify this housing. Some kind of marine instrumentation package. It had a permanent float collar so it was made to ride on the surface. The collar isn't syntactic and the pressure housing is a thin wall tubing and so we know this is not a deep water, high pressure housing. Maybe a drift buoy to monitor and telemeter some oceanographic or meteorological parameters. Do storm hunter aircraft drop instrumented buoys when flying through hurricanes? I wonder what those look like. We've found a lot of sonobuoy tubes on the beaches. These are military applications for the most part. And some subsurface flotation which is used in oceanographic mooring systems. There's even a multi-sampling oceanographic platform over at South Side Marina, that someone drug up and left in the parking lot. But this was a new one. A micro mystery. I'm wondering if long line fishermen put beacons on their strings.
But that's just a side mystery. Not the main mystery of the post. Nope. That was just a clumsy attempt at a clever ruse to get you to keep reading. There's more to this trip than stainless scrap metal mysteries. We're talking about old stuff now.
After stopping a few times like a murder of crows examining every shiny thing on the beach and kicking through a few dozen driftwood and seaweed piles we decided to head back to Providenciales. Finish our slow motorized mosey down the shallows near the beach on some other day. This is the point where we usually find ourselves in agreement that it's time to start for home. We'd had two days of sun exposure and knew we'd had enough. I had that 'crinkly nose' feeling that warns me that I'm going to be trowelling a fresh layer of aloe vera sap onto my face. We think it's a good idea to leave a good margin of daylight for getting back to Providenciales. We've done some boating at night here and we avoid it when we can. Small boat problems can seem so much more worrisome in the dark. This boat doesn't have any lights on it, not that this would make any difference that I can imagine. The biggest issue is visibility into the water ahead of the boat. I think we could be okay on a clear night with a full moon. But I wouldn't push it. We don't even like navigating on cloudy days here. The color of the coral heads is a big clue to their depth. Brightly colored ones are the shallowest. Hard to see that in the dark. And none of the channels are marked here. These islands are very much like the Bahamas in that shallow water and hard obstacles are a constant threat to your boat if you are anywhere near an island. And in many cases, even when you aren't. There's not a lot of boat traffic here at night.
We had motored along the beach in the general direction of Providenciales so we were close enough at this point to be able to see the island off in the distance. We'll be heading toward the last bit of land you can see over on the right side of the photo. That last high bump under the little puffy cloud is the hill overlooking South Side Marina.
I didn't mention the obvious clouds-over-the-island navigation this time! See? I feel there's hope for me. A part of my own personal struggle to change and move on. But let's get back to the story.
First off, the strange formations on the beach that we thought might be some kind of eroded rock turned out to be seaweed. Obviously, the configuration of the beach here had something to do with trapping and concentrating seaweed. The dark piles on the beach to the left here are what first got our attention from a distance. As we got closer we could also see signs of stone work. There is a cut in the right side hill that you can see in this photo. We suddenly realized that we were looking into the mouth of some kind of man made structure. An old one. This really got our attention.
We dropped the anchor for the fourth or fifth time today and waded ashore. I was starting to feel like a Douglas MacArthur re-run. We had to check this out. These are the mounds of seaweed that we spotted from way up the beach. It was the shadows that got our attention.
What we think must have happened here was that a massive raft of seaweed was being washed down the beach by the longshore current. Where these rocks extend out into the water, they diverted some of that storm current. The seaweed got rolled up in the clockwise rotation like it was in a large,slow whirlpool. And as the tide subsided the storm waves kept it pressed it to the beach, preventing it from floating back to sea and breaking up. That's my theory, anyhow. Mainly because I don't think this formed on the beach layer by layer, and I also don't think a mat this thick was floating on the surface until something concentrated it. I think it's wind and wave driven up onto the beach.
So we continued our shore party and were quite surprised when we walked up toward the cut between the dunes and saw this stonework extending out into the water. Two low, mason-straight stone walls extending out toward the piles of stones that are offshore, and seemingly out of place in this shallow area of broad sandy bottom. The plot, like the seaweed, thickens.
Our immediate thoughts were that this was some kind of old wharf or loading facility. The very brief story of the sisal plantation industry is basically about the only history anyone seems to know about on West Caicos. Everything I can find out about the island on the internet shows the same features and some photos of the old Yankee Town site on the western side, which is usually in the lee. Write-ups are all very brief, and about the sisal industry that was started here around the year 1900. Sisal is a tough fibrous plant like agave cactus, and its fibers were used to make rope back in the 1800's. I guess they used a lot of natural fibers back in the days before nylon, kevlar, and polypropylene. Anyhow, this sisal plant is tough and would grow here without fresh water, so there was a plantation started here. Another one was established on East Caicos.
What happened to the sisal plantations you might wonder? I looked into it. Since sisal is still being used today, I would assume that it was just not economically feasible to grow it in these remote locations for a competitive market. I also read that a source of cheap hemp from Asia drove the price of sisal down, but I haven't done any other research into it. There's a lot of info on sisal here in this link . Now if you look at a standard West Caicos Map, you'll see an old causeway that crosses part of a saline inland pond called Lake Catharine. It's a good sized pond. That causeway was used to haul sisal from the growing areas back to the loading facility on the west side. There are ruins there. An old steam engine. A sisal pressing plant. The reef comes right up close to shore on the west side of the island. Much easier to get sizable boats near shore there in the lee, with deep water right up to the island.
But this is not on the west side, nor is it hooked up with the sisal causeway. And the more we thought about it, the less we though that it was a wharf. There are several reasons we can think of that this is not a wharf. First off, this is absolutely not the best side of the island for a wharf or dock. The prevailing winds and storms are always battering this shoreline. That's why it's such good beach combing. Another reason is that the water here is shallow. It doesn't make sense to have a boat tied up here for any serious level of activity. There are much better places on the other side of the island. And finally, the way these rocks are cut and arranged, and mortared in place, are not what we would expect on a wharf. These have straight edges on the inside, not on the side that a ship would tie up to.
This view shows how the straight inside edges line up all the way out into the sand.
Naturally we had to climb up onto the mounds that were flanking this man made cut. If you decide to come here, be careful. The footing on the hills is treacherous and unlike the normal packed sand over rock that composes most of the beach area. These mounds are made from the broken up rock that was dug out of what we now believed must be some kind of canal dug into the island. It's a combination of loose sand and crumbly limestone bits. It wouldn't take much for one's feet to suddenly shoot out from under one, dumping one heavily on one's posterior briefly before one experiences sliding downhill through sharp rocks and bushes accumulating a nice collection of bruises and scrape marks during the excursion. Don't even ask.
This trench is filled in with sand, driftwood, and plant life now. There is a trail running alongside it. The trail doesn't look like it's used much, if at all. This island is essentially uninhabited at the present, except for a few security guards over at the Molassas Reef site. I mean the paused resort, not the actual Molassas Reef wreck site. Both of those sites are within sight.
La Gringa noticed that some of the rocks at the shoreline are a blue color that we don't normally see here. The only blue rocks we've found are ballast stones from one of the old wrecks we've located. Those are slate from Portugal. I intended to take a small sample of one of these home with us to take a better look at it. But I forgot.
From canal-side view the cut through the dunes is obvious. At this point we were pretty firmly convinced that this was built to allow the passage of the sea water, and not for boat navigation. Unless it was something the size of a canoe. Someone did a good job for this mortar to survive this long in the surf zone.
This is another look at the non-typical blue rocks. The structure is similar to the native marine sedimentary carbonates here, except it's definitely blue. I think copper can turn things blue under some conditions, but I might not have that right. Chemistry class was long ago and far away and it was the 60's and I wasn't interested in blue rocks back then. And anyhow even if I got it right, where's there any copper around here? What are those big metal bands on wooden treasure chests made of, anyhow? What else is blue? Indigo? Another little mystery, eh wot? Do any of you guys know what would stain limestone blue? permanently?
I hope to stop by here again and pick up a fragment of this stuff to take "back to the lab" with us. I can play detective with my magnifying lenses and internet searches. I've got some assorted acids. Phosphoric, hydrochloric, sulphuric. We've got sodium hydroxide. There must be some tests we can do. I think that something has stained this limestone. I should have broken one open. I think this justifies another boat trip.
This next photo is of the cut through the little coastal limestone ridge that parallels the beach here. The cuts line up with the rows of mortared rocks. I was thinking of what it must have been like to dig these canals through this limestone by hand. There's no source of fresh water here, that I know of. I suppose it's possible there's a fresh water lens somewhere on the island. There are shallow fresh water wells on several of the islands.
The old canal is now filled up with sand and debris and collapsed walls. I'd love to do some digging into it. I was very curious as to how old this canal was, and who built it. So of course I got onto the internet that evening and did some more digging into the past history of this little island. Mental digging this time. No risk of sunburn there, in my case. I'm just not that bright.
My various internet searches keep turning up little snippets of information, and I am slowly getting a better picture of West Caicos' history. We knew about the sisal plantation around 1900. We have read about the early Arawaks, the Bermudians raking salt in the 1600's and the pirates hiding in coves a half a mile west of here in the 1700's, Loyalists coming down here around 1800, and the dictator Trujillo trying to buy the place as a hideout in the 1900s. An oil company tried to buy the place to build a refinery, which went nowhere. You know the DEA and the CIA have been around. We're still getting little bits here and there about other nefarious and illegal activities, but that's the nature of isolated, uninhabited islands. We had seen the salt farming ponds and canals on Salt Cay, and finally recognized this as a canal. We were just surprised that it doesn't show up on any charts or maps of the island.
In my wanderings, I came across this snippet from a blog called Spirit and Adventure;
"In the 1850’s a Grand Turk company began building Salinas for salt production but a quarrel between the partners ended this venture. Shortly after, the Belle Isle Manufacturing Company of West Caicos spend a considerable amount of money (for that time period) constructing a salt-water canal and installing a tramway and other facilities. This venture also didn’t last long due to financial conditions as a result of the American Civil War and the company was foreclosed on. (Fact)"
I'm hoping these nice people won't mind me quoting their blog as long as I give them credit for it. She sounded like she knew what she was talking about.
I did some more checking around and found some other similar mentions of a brief attempt to start a salt mining business. Somewhere, I have to believe, there is a diary or journal from someone who was there supervising the digging of that canal. And I'm willing to bet that the people providing the labor were not volunteers. The venture came to a halt at the start of the War Between the States. While researching this, I also discovered that George Washington was buying Caicos salt to preserve food for his troops. I love this history stuff.
So that was really what this post was about. An old relic of the past here. One that doesn't seem to show up on maps, charts, or in the history books. I keep thinking of those long ago laborers, cutting limestone blocks, mixing mortar, digging out a canal by hand. And the fact that these mortared stone joints are still holding together on an exposed beach in this climate 160 years later impresses me. These rocks have stayed in place for over 234,000 tidal cycles. How many storms, I wonder? The men that built this were probably slaves, I realize. They did good work,and that's for sure.
We have no ideas what the offshore rock structure was intended to accomplish. The only thing I could come up with was that perhaps it was a breakwater. Maybe, it would help keep the water around the inlet to the canal calm in the prevailing winds. Calm water would be water without sand stirred up in it. Maybe that produces cleaner salt. Or slows down the re-silting of the canal. Must be some reason for someone to go through that much work. If you figure it out, please let me know.
I'm still curious about the blue stained rock. And that old trail along the canal might be worth a walk. I know you guys might be weary of West Caicos by now, but we've still got some more looking around to do. I want to break one of those blue rocks open to see how deep the blue penetrates. And I'm thinking how nice it would be to get some low level aerial photos of places like this.
And the mahogany I picked up is too light colored for a good match. We're just going to have to grit our teeth and go boating again, as tedious and unpleasant as that might sound...
Hey at least you got a break from reading about sailing for a change!!