Cockburn Harbour, South Caicos - Turks & Caicos Islands - 21:28.61N, 071:32.42W
Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Thu 14 May 2009 22:20
We arrived just off the Turks and Caicos Islands shortly after midnight. Not having good information for this area we opted to motor to within one mile of the off-lying reef on Grand Turk's safe leeward (west) side, duly backed the staysail, put the helm hard over and shut the engines down. We maintained the watch system (it was Nikki's watch) and drifted for 2-3 hours in the lee of Grand Turk before running slowly under the staysail across to our intended destination of South Caicos some 17 miles to the west to arrive around dawn. That plan worked (for a change) and we duly arrived in Cockburn Harbour South Caicos when we could actually see what we were doing. Sailing along at 5-6 knots in a dark empty ocean is all very well but approaching land we are unfamiliar with or don't have sufficient pilotage information on is another matter and we prefer to spend an extra night standing off in deeper water stooging around until we can see where we are going.
We anchored in 8ft of water on a soft sandy sea bed (quite deep for this harbour) and let out over 40 metres of chain due to a bad weather forecast. We were the only yacht in the harbour. Astern of us stretching for 50 miles were the Caicos Banks - shallow coral reefs, in some places only a few feet deep. Dragging onto the banks could be disastrous. Close by a lived-on rusty looking 40ft steel fishing trawler type boat from Arkansas Texas was anchored, They waved as we passed. They didn't look terribly Texan to us.
Athough the Turks and Caicos are a British Colony it's still necessary to go through the clearance procedures when coming from another port - in our case St Thomas in the USVI's. Besides, they usually want some $$$ from you. So, with the dinghy launched and Nikki on guard duties I duly motored ashore with the ship's papers across the choppy water kicked up by a breezy tradewind and headed off to find Customs and Immigration officers to report our arrival. This clearance would also cancel out the time now running on our visa for the USA, as US Immigration in St Thomas stated that we would have to "be deemed to have made a meaningful exit from the USVI's which are USA territory" . We need the maximum 6 months on the USA mainland and the visit to the USVI's had already started the 6 months period allowed at any one time ticking down.
Once ashore I went to seek out Customs. When in doubt ask a local they say. So I did, a young man, who without hessitation said he would take me to Customs himself. I would never have found it, so thankyou to him, it was a kind gesture. Inside the Customs office I was met with more friendly faces from behind the counter. The formalities of our arrival in the TCI's as they are called was watched over by an extremely flattering but tatty picture of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh taken in their younger days. The same pictures probably adorn official buildings in crown territories throughout the world. In fact the Queen had visited South Caicos many years ago. In grim contrast in the back office an interview could be heard with a local politician on the TCI radio station - the subject - Freedom for the Turks & Caicos Islands! What good timing!
Having paid the required $15 entry fee I was then requested to visit the Immigration offices to present the stamped Customs form etc. This proved slightly more challenging, si I asked the way from another local man who was sat outside his house texting on his mobile. He gave full directions, only back in the direction I had just walked in the seering heat from, then adding those five magic words guaranteed to ensure the very opposite conclusion - "You just can't miss it". Well, I did. I walked down one road then up another, then round the next corner until I was back on the same road as before, as the man with the mobile phone could clearly be seen in the distance. Desperation suddenly took hold and I flagged down a large old American car that had stopped at the T junction next to me. The window was wound down an inch or so, a worried face on the other side. When I asked for the direction to the Immigration office the lady behind the wheel started to describe the wayand then said - "jump in, its easier if I take you there". Another act of kindness and I had only been ashore 30 minutes. The car had seen better days, the seats looking as if a large rotweiler had been locked inside at some time in the past and had become very angry and destructive. "You're lucky Honey, if this had been Nassau I would have just drove on by" I had been tempted to reply that if this was Nassau I certainly wouldn't be standing on street corners asking directions, but that was as much as she could say in the 30 secs or so it took to drive round the next corner straight to the Immigration office. I had in fact already walked past it twice, but then without any outside signage to give any hint to it's actual function how was I supposed to know.
Again, friendly faces were in evidence behind the desks and the business was soon concluded. The 'Freedom for the Turks and Caicos' interview was still in full swing and getting quite lively, so I took my leave and once outside radioed on the handheld to Nikki to say I was on the way back to Ajaya via the supermarket, although I had forgotten to take the shopping list as usual. Inside the general store which was devoid of shoppers, the shopkeeper was avidly listening to the radio - that interview again. Having picked myself up from the floor from shock to pay for the bread it was back to the boat with a loaf of South Caicos most nutritious multigrain wheatgerm with no preservatives loaf, which, at $5.50 immediately became the current winning contender in the 'Just how much can you possibly pay for a loaf of bread when cruising' competition.
Our afternoon entertainment sailed into sight later in the day as another yacht appeared through the harbour entrance. Any pleasure and excitement they may have derived from their arrival, no doubt looking forward to a cool sundowner was quickly dulled when they went hard aground in the shallow waters near the ferry dock. What then started as a minor inconvenience turned first to major inconvenience and then up significantly in status into the 'what the hell are we doing here' catagory. With all sail quickly set to induce as much heel as possible the newish looking yacht of French extraction looked a splendid picture of sailing elegance - except it wasn't elegently sailing anywhere. It was truly stuck fast. Time for some local help, and help they did, for over an hour huge amounts of petrol and diesel were consumed, producing much horsepower from the various craft. But still the stranded yacht wouldn't budge. The situation looked desperate and we ourselves had nothing powerful enough (except the binnoculars we were using to eyeball the situation) to assist in their recovery either. Finally, after an hour or so, when they must have been running out of ideas they decided on a method that would be totally impossible on our catamaran, but which has been used over many centuries to work on ships bottoms. Careening. A line taken from the masthead at right angles to, in this case one of the powerful local boats. If it didn't work then their mast couldpossibly break! So, with all sail set, 20knts of wind on the beam, engines at full throttle and with gunwales well under the 55 ft yacht suddenly heaved and then shot forward, the keel free from the clutches of the seabed at last. Once the sails had been furled and power taken off they re-layed it's anchor in less shallow water, only then to spend the same sort of night at anchor that we were about to spend - wet and windy!
We had been warned to expect some incoming bad weather and we weren't disappointed. By gale and by bucketful the wind and rain came. Today is the same, overcast with periods of heavy showers. a good day to catch up with household chores onboard. Mid-morning, we received a visit from the steel 'Texan' fishing boat cook (not Texan) offering us two snapper. A largish one about 1ft long and a smaller one about 9 inches. When asked how much he wanted, he said - "nothing". He had caught a bucketful of them in the morning and had some spare. We gratefully accepted, for after all, free fish when loaves of bread are eyewateringly pricey all helps to balance the cruising funds. However, to tell a truth they weren't actually free after all. The big one certainly was, but the small one definetly wasn't. Whilst I was scaling and gutting the little one it slipped out of the hand and bounced down the 2 back steps into the water to drift gently down to the sea bed 8ft below, no doubt to the delight of waiting crabs and other crustaecians. I was told in no uncertain terms to go after it, whilst being handed a mask and snorkel at the same time. I dutifully jumped in. Retrieving the fish was easy in 8 ft of crystal-clear water but forgetting to take off the new $12.50 'water resistant' watch bought in St Thomas before I started to swim meant that the watch ceased to function almost immediately after only a week's use. So the little fish had cost after all! Notwithstanding the scrape marks left behind from the fishermans dinghy when coming alongside in the strong wind - Oh well, - C'est La Vie - as they say in paradise.