Sunday, September 9, 2012

Dooley the Dogpaddler

 This post was originally going to be about searching for mahogany driftwood.  I guess technically it's not driftwood, but flotsam that I'm looking for.  I've used up what I had 'in stock' . I've gone through several little woodworking projects recently and have several more planned.  I've been wanting to run out to Flea Market Beach to look for more.  It's been several months since our last beachcombing trip, and there have been some storms through here.  Storms wash stuff ashore on remote beaches.   We were overdue for some beach time, and were only waiting for a calm weekend to do it.

I know it's illogical to use mental body english while watching cyclone predictions on the weather forecasts but I confess that I do.  I find myself whispering 'North...turn north, you blankety blank."  But when we're not mentally trying to dodge storms, the summer weather here is as good as it gets.  This weekend we got some of that.

We loaded up the little skiff with some cameras, snorkeling gear, a picnic lunch and the dog.  September is the height of summertime at this latitude.  We get our hottest temperatures and some of the calmest seas of the year between the storms.  We can pretty much count on having to dodge a few squalls and thunderstorms from time to time.  Almost every afternoon.  With the catamaran, we just batten down the hatches and  sail on through.  At a blistering maximum speed that equals the pace of a brisk walk we don't have much choice. With the skiff and that 90 horse Suzuki, on the other hand,  we literally can dodge them.  And we can see them coming from miles away.

Dooley the Disturbed gets nervous about even the rumor of a thunderstorm. We assure him that the trip we have planned doesn't include boating through a squall.  We wrap him up tight in one of his life jackets (an island thundershirt?), and give him a lot of reassuring pats when he starts obsessing on the thunderheads.  He's an attention junkie and will take anything he can get in the way of physical contact.

We think we can tell when there's an active electrical storm anywhere on the planet by watching the dog. I wouldn't think that distant storms should freak him out, but the problem is that he's also been through a few big ones  up close and personal.  We've had lightning hit within a hundred yards of us a few times.   One might think he'd embrace the magnificence of it all, enjoy the raw nature experience.  That moment when the lightning hits close enough for you to see what it hit.  That huge sound of the superheated air making your ears pop.  The smell of the ozone.  The relief when you realize it didn't hit you, mixed with the heightened sense of danger as you realize the next one might.    But he doesn't seem to enjoy it at all.  It seems to have left him emotionally fragile. That trip to French Cay sort of set our bar for open ocean skiff riding in storms. As a result of that trip I've added a compass and a VHF radio to the boat.  It makes us feel better, but I don't think  Dooley is all that impressed by electronics.  He refuses to even read the manual for the  VHF radio.  I suspect this dog would be near useless in a real emergency.

On our way across the Caicos Bank to the fleamarket we noticed that the water was very clear  with excellent visibility.  We hadn't been diving in a while and this was a good day for it. We decided to  hop overboard to see  what the conch crop is like this year.  Crazy things have been happening in the TCI conch fishery lately.   Between poachers and the Chinese buying up all the empty conch shells they can find, we weren't sure if we would see any at all.   We stopped at one of the regular conch hangouts we've scouted over the years.  I've got a list of about a dozen spots where we always seem to find enough for a meal.   We put up the boat's bimini top to give the dog some shade, and La Gringa and I donned our face plates and flippers and hopped overboard to take a look.  She had seen a huge stingray right before she dropped the anchor.  I always swim up to check the anchor as a matter of habit.  We were anchored near a strip of sandybottom running through this area, and I spotted the stingray where he had snuggled down and partially covered himself to hide in the sand.  I didn't want to get much closer to this guy, he was easily six or seven feet long.

And with everything magnified underwater, he looked pretty formidible.  I've been known to spook these guys in order to get a good photo in the past.  I decided to leave this one alone.  He was that big.

We had only been in the water a few minutes when I heard La Gringa yelling something about a dog.  I raised my head to see what the commotion was, but I already had a pretty good idea just which dog she was referring to.  You just don't run into that many dogs while conch diving.  He came paddling by in his life jacket.   The little booger had jumped overboard to join us.

In the past when he's done this (which is every time we go swimming) we've put him back on the boat and browbeat him into following orders.   This time we decided to just let him swim, and see what happened.  It was a very calm day and we knew he really couldn't get into much trouble in that life jacket.   Unless something ate him, of course.  That would be trouble.  but the only thing we could think of that we've seen in this area to give us cause for worry was a big tiger shark, and that was a long time ago.  I had the Olympus with me and took some photos of him from underneath.  I was curious to see what type of dog paddle stroke he was using.

He gets around pretty good for a little breed that is not especially known for being water dogs. Dooley's a terrier.  He was bred for chasing foxes into their dens. He's not a retriever or a Portuguese Water Dog.  At least, he won't admit to any of that in his heritage.  But he can swim pretty well even without the life jacket.  We've been leaving it on him lately, especially when we're far from land.  This little excursion, for example, was almost five miles from the nearest land.  He doesn't care about that at all.  Here's what he looks like from underwater:

Well, the three of us swam around for a while, just enjoying the nice weather and looking for conch.   We saw a lot of fish, and a fair number of conch.  I counted at least ten that I saw, which is pretty good density.  We were within 40 yards of the boat and this area is much bigger than that.  And I have to assume that for every conch I saw, I missed two others.  They can be hard to spot.  And I was rusty.  We hadn't done this in a long time.

I also noticed this group of about eight blue fish every time I looked behind me.  You know that feeling you get sometimes that makes you think you're being followed?  It gets to the point where you finally turn around and look.  And yeah, I was being followed, and I mean real closely.  Inches from my feet.  A dozen times I turned to look, and  I kept trying to get a good photo of  them but it was difficult.  As soon as I turned they'd scoot off to the side.   People who go spear fishing can tell you that many species of fish don't panic until you look at them.  In fact a good technique to get close enough to a fish to spear it is to swim at an angle that is not directly at the fish, but will pass by it within range of your spear.  You watch the fish out of your peripheral vision, and never look directly at it.  If they think you're looking at something else, sometimes they won't swim away.  Some of them will even get closer.  Fish are curious.  Then when you know you're at your closest point to your real target, you pull back your sling, turn and release the spear all in a smooth motion.  If you try to swim directly at the fish, it sees your eyes focued on it, knows you want to eat it, and goes into evasive mode.  I didn't want to eat these guys, just wanted to take a photo.  I felt like I was point man for a platoon of ghost fish. 

Every time I turned and raised the camera, they boogied off out of range.  It became a kind of game for me to try to get some useable photos.  These fish are all at least 14 inches long.  They were really acting curious and staying right with me as long as I flippered along ignoring them.    But soon as I turned and they saw my face, they scooted.  I never realized that fish understood the concept of 'ugly'.

About this time I felt the thump thump thump drumbeat of four tireless little paws churning the water, and looked up to see Dooley the Diligent circling me.

He was all around me, and the complete opposite problem from the one I was having with the fish. He was too close for a good photo.  If I'd been an island, he was storming the beach.   It wasn't until later that I found out that he'd been doing the same thing to La Gringa.  She paid more attention to him than I did. I was chasing fish for a photo and also looking for conch.   She told me that Dooley was driving her nuts.  He kept trying to herd her back to the boat.   She finally climbed back on board, and he came over to me and started the same behavior.  He wanted us all back on the boat.  It was obvious that this was his intention, once I thought about what she was telling me. So, from being a terrified terrier he morphs into this combination Labrador retriever / Border Collie dog. And a pushy one. Dooley the Divemaster.

Before I gave up and headed for the boat I tried again to get a photo of my new blue retinue.  I tried spinning around and snapping the photo before they could scatter.   Unfortunatey, I guess I don't spin as fast in actuality as I do in my imagination. The best I could do was a photo of them in the act of scattering.  These fellows had been flying formation with my flippers just seconds before this.

I looked around and found La Gringa back on the skiff  relaxing in what turned out to be increasingly sparse sunlight. I'd noticed that the visibility underwater was dimming, as it does when clouds roll in.  And on the surface I could see that we were becoming surrounded by towering  piles of serious looking clouds.   This might have explained Dooley's determination to drive us back to the boat.  He can't spell or correctly pronounce meteorology (as far as I know) but he knows a cumulonimbus when he sees one.

I had picked up four conch at that point, and although that should be enough for more than a decent dinner for the two of us, I thought I'd try to pick up one more just to be sure.  This is like a Caicos Bank version of Where's Waldo.  

I made it easy for you  by pointing the camera right at it.  This one wasn't particularly well camouflaged, either.  Sometimes they have entire ecosystems growing on their shells.  They look like moss covered rocks.  Of course the answer to that is to check out everything that looks like a moss covered rock.  They are a lot easier to see on smooth sandy bottoms.  You can often follow their trails across open sand.

I also followed a small sting ray around for a while. Anything to extend my excuse to be in the warm, clear ocean. I could do this for hours.

Except we were now tired from diving, getting fried by the tropical summer sun, and watching a line of thunderstorms forming over the island.

I climbed back on board the still un-named skiff and we made the decision to head back to Provo and try to beat the squalls.  We still had the rest of a long holiday weekend ahead of us, with good weather forecasts for the next week.   We would make the West Caicos shopping trip on another day.

Dooley the Dogpaddler promply nodded off in the boat.  I don't know how far he had swum, but he never stopped paddling for about an hour in the water. No more nervous nattering now, he had all his people back where he could watch them.  IF he could but just keep his eyes open.

Can you tell he's listing to starboard as he falls asleep?

I was looking at these photos when I realized that I might have the answer to a question that had been in my mind while swimming .   Those are my swim fins that Dooley is snoring next to.  I looked at them, and then back at the color of the fish that  I thought were  trying to recruit me for their gang, and I realized that it wasn't me they were following.   I think they were following what might have looked like two BIG blue "fish" that were sneaking up behind the old guy with the camera... my swim fins. Can fish see colors?    I think some of them must be able to.   The undersea world is a real colorful place.  So maybe these guys were hanging around waiting for scraps when the two big fish finished me off.      And I thought they were my friends....

Dooley's snooze didn't last long.  Once again we found ourselves scooting between squalls and trying to get into the canal before the next violent little storm blew by..  The line of rain straight ahead is falling on the point where we make our turn into South Side Marina.   There were a few nice lightning bolts with this one.

If you look straight up over the bow of the boat in that photo above, you can see where a water spout was trying to form underneath the storm.  It's the little funnel shaped piece that looks like it's hanging below the main cloud.   I was hoping it would continue down to the water and become a full fledged water spout.   We haven't had the opportunity to get photos of one of those from up close yet.   This one never developed beyond this point.   I guess something somewhere does listen to the prayers of terrified terriers.

Back at the canal La Gringa backed the boat trailer around and down the ramp.   She's getting pretty good at backing trailers.

It wasn't until we got home that we discovered some kind soul had stolen our hitch pin while the truck was parked here.   Nice.   We could have lost the whole boat if we'd been going down the highway at 40 mph.  Fortunately we only had a couple miles of slow dirt road and the safety cables held the hitch together until we got home.   Totally unbeknown to us at the time.

Back at the house I had five conch to clean.   I'll spare you the messy photos.  There are plenty of other conch cleaning images in this blog if you go looking for them, anyway.

The  squalls continued to march majestically from east to west just south of the house for the rest of the afternoon.  So we knew we had made a good decision to not travel the rest of the way out to West Caicos. It was a lot more comfortable to watch things from the patio.  With the sun behind us and rain falling offshore we even saw a few rainbows forming from time to time.   Dooley will trade waterspouts for rainbows  any time.

And that's the end of our little story about what we did on Saturday, this Labor Day Weekend of 2012.  We started out planning to walk a beach looking for driftwood and interesting stuff, and ended up snorkeling for conch five miles out onto the Caicos Bank. I'm not sure why we haven't been doing more of that. It's one of our favorite things to do here.  It does need for us to have the time, the boat, and the weather all just right on the same day, though. Lately, that only seems to happen once in a Blue Moon.

I had to get one of La Gringa's moon photos in there.  I read that this is the last Blue Moon for a while.

With a lot of time spent trying to get caught up with all the things that corroded, died, overgrew, or just mutinied while we were sailing down from Florida, we haven't had all that much time for just boating and exploring.  We have continued to put work in on our catamaran, Twisted Sheets.  We swapped the dinghy mounts around so that the stern of the dinghy is on the same side of the boat as the outboard motor boom.  Duh.  Sounds simple, I know.  It took an entire afternoon.

We haven't been back out with the "yacht" since our overnight trip a few weeks ago.  We've noticed that Dooley is a lot more comfortable with the boat these days.  He must be getting accustomed to it.  This is a good thing.   We have a lot of plans for this boat.

By the way, I wanted to direct your attention to the fishing boat in that photo.  There's another photo of it a little later on.   That photo was taken near a normal high tide here at South Side Marina.  Notice how the shore is about  foot above the level of the main deck.

Now that  Dooley the Displaced realizes that Twisted Sheets is both a boat and a home, he's more or less decided that it now belongs to him. He's managed to go over it from one end to the other.  He shows a lot more interest in it now that he's slept aboard at anchor overnight.  Once he discovered that we stock dog food aboard, he was all in.  This is a 26 year old boat and we are the fourth owners since it was built in England.  He spends a lot of time walking around sniffing.   I have no idea what he thought he would find up on the cabin roof, though.  That fiberglass has been washed by a hundred squalls, and sterilized by thousands of days of sunshine. Not much up there of interest to a snuffling dog that I can determine.  But what do I know.

I mentioned earlier that we had TS Issac go by us to the south.  We got a couple days of bad weather out of that.  We had 40+ kt. winds and there were 15 ft. seas offshore.   We know how these things can make sudden turns and intensify.   We were not relaxed.   From mid-August until late October a really nervous feeling sets in while we hope no storms cross over us.   This is a sunrise with Issac just 150 miles south of us:

We were down at the marina checking on the boat several times during the storm.  High tide coincided with the maximum storm surge, and we were at the boat watching it.  We lost a boat to what we thought was a tropical storm when Hannah came through.  We're a lot more cautious now.
Remember the fishing boat I pointed out earlier??  These guys were retying it to keep it from being damaged by the rocky shore during the storm surge.  Notice that the water is about three feet higher, and we didn't know how high it would get at it's max.  There were a lot of nervous boat owners at the marinas.  We doubled the lines on Twisted Sheets and were constantly adjusting for chafing.

We didn't have any damage to speak of.   We did get some storm surge.   The marina in front of Prince's new vacation home overflowed and drained ocean water across the road we have to drive on, again.   This is sea water.  We have to cross through it in the Land Rover.  There's really no mystery about why all the steel parts of it are falling into iron oxide at an alarming rate.  It's the corrosive equivalent of living and driving on the beach.  Very hard on cars.

Speaking of the Land Rovers, I managed to make use of the little 90's  open bed.   This looks like something a helicopter would follow home, doesn't it?

We were away from the island during most of the growth season for plants here, and the buttonwoods had grown about three feet higher in places.  I dreaded the job, and put it off for as long as I could, but finally felt like I needed to trim things back.  I need to find some pygmy plants.

And work does continue on the boat.  Now we're looking closely at everything we got in this deal.  Some things are first rate.  All of the original equipment on the boat is still working fine, for example.  What we are finding, though, is that some of the additions or modifications made along the way are less than satisfactory.   Someone made a cover for the life raft, for example.  That was a great idea.   But they used cut-rate grommets instead of spending the money for marine grade hardware.  This is what brass plated grommets look like after a few seasons on the water.

Of course this would never do.  Since that photo was taken we've re-sewn the cover and replaced all the corroded grommets with new, solid brass hardware.  Should be good for a long time. Brass should last longer than cloth, I suspect.

Working on the boat means a lot of hanging out around the marina, too.  We finally got to see how Bob launches boats with his crane an hoist setup here at South side.  Pretty neat system.

Someone had written us asking when Bob will have his new restaurant on the hill going, and he still assures us he's hoping to open in September.   These things always slip to the right on the calendar.   But even if he gets delayed a month, opening in October is still plenty of time for this upcoming cruising season.   We await this development with keen anticipation.  I suspect he's got a couple built in customers, here.   And quite a few more in the surrounding 'neighborhood'.  

We did get the skiff out to West Caicos for some beach combing.  We found something totally unexpected and got a lot of photos.   Unless something more exciting happens in the next few days I'll post those next. As Roy Rogers used to say, 'Happy Trails, 'til then.'