Friday, October 5, 2012

Local Histories Little Mysteries

This post is about the trip that the last post would have been about.. if we had made the trip we had planned to make during the last trip. But as you know (if you follow this whole blog thing)  we got sidetracked and spent the day out diving for conch instead of searching the beach for mahogany. Taking a day off to go diving was fun.  We haven't done enough of that lately. We got plenty of conch, and we'd do it again. But I still need mahogany.  And it needs to be dark mahogany, not that light colored stuff.   I'm trying to match some existing cabinetry on the sailboat.   We gave away a small fridge we didn't use and want to install an ice maker in that space.  I need mahogany.  And not just any old lumberyard stuff.  I want experienced, well traveled, ocean going mahogany. Tropical cellulose with some character.  Wood with sea stories to tell.   A weathered wooden peg leg with a bullet hole or  sword slash mark is probably out of the question in this age of modern prosthesis, although we did find a mahogany belaying pin from a tall ship on a recent trip.  That's all polished up and sitting on a shelf now.    You get the idea. So of course this translated directly into yet another excuse for a day of beach combing.

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.  

We were motoring out away from the shoreline when we noticed what we first thought were strange rock formations along the beach. . They looked like a grayish sandstone from several hundred meters away. And that would be too strange for even this place.  So we started paying closer attention to the overall location.  We noticed we were just off a very non-typical area of shoreline and  rock on the shallow sea bottom here.   Looking back at it from about a furlong out, you can see what we also noticed. There is a dip or low area between the two highest parts of the shoreline here.  And it looked almost like it had been a cut to water level at one time, that's now filled in.  I'm seeing horizontals in a line of lumps. We were not sure what it was about the rocks offshore that got our attention. Maybe the way they lined up with that notch on the beach.  And there were still the strange looking formations to examine.  We were on the way home, but we just had to go take a look at this.

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!!


Rebecca Richmond said...

I just found your blog a few days ago in a search for blogs about Caribbean food. I've sort of lost myself in it for the past few days. Great post. Of course it'd be better with Dooley!

Jack Hamlin said...

So so cool. I'm such a geek for history like this.

Anonymous said...

Great update.

I think what you found on the beach is a longliner beaper buoy. They attached it to one end of the long line so they can alway find it if the line parts.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading about your adventures.


Anonymous said...

Maybe pick up the whole series, right there in Provo?

Pity Google Earth's pic of that island is so blurry, pretty sure a nice shot from above would tell quite the story what that is and where it goes etc. Has to be some other sat images though quick searching no luck. Maybe in some private database?

Didn't you used to have a metal detector? Couldn't think of a more interesting place to use one. Got to be some stuff buried there from those eras, even things from out in the sea surely over all this time washed up onto shore.

Lastly did somethig change with the photos? Until recently you used to be able to click on the photos and get the fantastic full size mega pixel original image where you could see incredible detail, now it takes you to the same size photo and just a slide show. Is that a change by the blog software or did you move your pics to this kind of format? If you're still uploading the original full sizes, then google and the blog software is resizing it and storing it much smaller which is a great pity as the massive originals and details therein super useful and interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks JR, and you're exactly right. That photo of the beacon in the link you sent is exactly what this is. I know a little bit about oceanographic instrumentation, but diddly about long line fishing.

As for the photo questions, Google keeps making changes in the way Picasa handles photos. Before, I was re-sizing the originals in half and uploading them, and then letting Blogger size them to fit. They made changes and that wasn't working. So I measured the photos and saw that 800 pixels wide is the max that will now fit. Before, reducing them by 50% made them about 2300 pix wide. You've never seen the originals, which are around 4600 pix wide. So now I resize the originals to 800 pix wide before uploading them. Since that's the max that will display on the blog, there's really no good reason to take up more storage space in Picasa with photos that don't get displayed.

If someone has a good use for an original's resolution, we'd be happy to email them one.

Google seems to just keep making changes. No improvements, of course, just change for the sake of change. It's harder to use blogger now than it was a year ago, and the results are not as good as they were before they "improved" things.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gringos...Great post. I think I speak for all readers who say we are NOT tired of hearing about West Caicos, especially it's history...facinating. I can't even imagine chipping away at that limestone w. hand tools. Quite an ambitious project for that period.

On the totally unrelated topic of DIY.....a question. A couple of years back you got an air compressor / air tools as the environment hurt your battery / electrical tools....I got to wondering, wouldn't that just compress the salty air & reak havoc on the compressor / air tools?? -or- are you finding this was a good move?
Thanks for sharing...

Anonymous said...

The pneumatic tools are working out great. The air is filtered, and I follow instructions and put a few drops of air tool oil in each one before and after use.

I do wish there was a better selection of circular saws. My new electric table saw is shot after two years.

Anonymous said...

That is weird regarding the pictures because all the previous blog entries, the pictures are still on Picsa as before. You get the original uploaded size e.g.

Click on the first pic, of the rock, takes you to picsa with the size and data of the photo. Top right is magnifying glass and a + sign. Click that it enlarges, then at the bottom right corner is another slider which zooms in to the original size.

Gary Cottam said...

Great to hear from you again. Keep having fun!

Anonymous said...

Do you think the rocks going out into the water was either a launch of some sort, or possibly they would roll a train type of car down there to load salt onto the ships?

Anonymous said...

What we think is that this is a canal used to flood the interior lake with sea water. There was probably a gate somewhere along it, come to think of it. They would have to be able to shallowly flood an area and then keep it closed off from the sea while it evaporated and left the salt.

This kind of operation was pretty common here from the 1600's until the early 1800's.

Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for your blog.

I am not sure if you have done it before but I would be interested in the process of living in Turks and Caicos. To buy land do you have to be citizens? Are you on a extended visa? Is there a process and where can you find out more information.

Thank you

Lauren said...

Really cool stuff. I have to admit that it is one of the most beautiful places and hope I get a chance to visit.

Anonymous said...

I just love it when u beachcomb! It is my favourite "activity"!


Unknown said...

As always a good read Gringo.

Anonymous said...

To everyone reading this blog in sequence.

This is just a note to let you know that I'm writing to you from the future. This is kind of like a time machine. we came back and got some aerial photos of this spot 11 months later. We figured out a way to get decent stuff from a kite. Those photos are up in Sept. 2013 in a post cleverly named 300th Post. But it's more images of this place, right before this island gets developed.