Wednesday, June 12, 2013


SAILING THE CAICOS BANK - Sailing a Sea of Color

We're sailing on water that drinks in light and pours it back out. Atop this glowing sea, beneath the blue underbellies of clouds reflecting the bright light back down, we scan the water for dangerous coral heads.

The aquamarine waters and blue clouds of the Caicos Bank.
Here, on the Caicos Bank, a shallow body of water ringed by aging coral islands slowly falling into the sea, there is rarely five feet of water beneath our keel. Sometimes the water shallows so steeply, there is less than an arms length between our 5'3” keel and the bottom. Luckily, the bottom is soft sand, though coral could be growing anywhere. We have waypoints that route us through the deepest, clearest path, but our guidebooks caution to keep a sharp look out. If we hit a coral head, it could damage our keel.

The mainsail and even the radar reflecting the aquamarine glow
of the Caicos Bank.

At first the water is an immense, uninterrupted sea of color. What else in nature is this color? A hummingbird's iridescent feathers. A drop of rain glinting in the sun. Then large, brown marks begin to blemish the seascape. Though the water is clear as air, I can't make out what the hazy brown patches are through the rippled backs of wind driven waves. George and I choose to believe that these blemishes are sea grass, though we aren't really sure. A few minutes later, we accidentally sail right through the smudgy brown water and run to look at the depth sounder. The instrument panel reads a steady 8.6 feet deep; the smudgy brown patches must be sea grass.

Still, large black areas in the water worry us most. These black stains don't look like the coral reefs I remember from the South Pacific, which change from green to yellow and then brown as the coral heads shallow to break the surface. If not coral, what are they? Now, with only a foot and a half between the keel and the bottom, there is little margin for error. If we hit a coral head, we might bulldoze through, or, depending on the size of the coral head, it might stop us like a brick wall, cracking the hull or worse. Without being sure if these large black marks are coral or not, we swing wide of them; there's no reason to play Russian roulette with the hull. Besides, I chose this route; I charted this course. It's not my boat, I'm only a hitchhiking temporary crew member, but if something were to happen to the boat ....

Cloud shadow?

Tensely, with our eyes swimming in aquamarine, we sail toward the next waypoint as clouds huddle together behind us. The harsh afternoon sun casts deep cloud shadows that look unfairly like the black marks in the water that might be coral. Its hard to tell the one from the other. Eventually, cloud shadows start to blur and then run toward the horizon while the other black spots remain firmly in place.

At times, clouds obscure the sun entirely and transform the translucent water into an opaque surface that refuses to reveal what's beneath. Then we have to trust entirely to chance as we plow through the water at six and seven knots. All the guidebooks warned us to make this passage in good light to be able to see obstructions in the water. We've planned well, the sun is high and behind us, but the clouds aren't cooperating.

All day we remain vigilant; I watch on the starboard side, George on port as we glide over neon blue-green water glowing under our boat as if back lit by the white sand beneath. For hours on end we steer around dangers real and imagined.

Five o'clock sun glinting on the waters of Providenciales.

At five o'clock, as the sun sinks in front of us, turning the surface of the water into a blinding white, we arrive in Providenciales, or Provo, in the northwestern corner of the Caicos Bank. After we drop anchor in Sapodilla Bay, George stretches out his hand and says, “Congratulations, we've made it across the bank.” Did I ever have any doubt?

Unscathed, we celebrate with a beer and a swim. Tomorrow we'll move to the South Side Marina which will be our home base to continue our underwater exploration of the Caicos Bank.

Anchored in Sapodilla Bay, Providenciales in the northwestern corner of the Caicos Bank.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013



Long Cay is a dumping ground for shells from the conch processing plant in Cockburn Town, South Caicos, or conch heaven as we called it. Yesterday after discovering the shiny pink piles that make up the conch burial ground, George and I climbed to the top of Long Cay. The long limestone island straddles the deep indigo Atlantic on one side and the glowing aquamarine waters of the shallow Caicos Bank on the other. Standing on the lanky body of Long Cay lying supine before me, I was struck by the feeling that even the most beautiful place on earth is meaningless unless you have someone meaningful to share in the experience. Maybe something fundamental inside me has changed since I was last adventuring.
Thousands of discarded conch shells on Long Cay, just south of Cockburn Town in South Caicos.
Swimming in the clear waters of the cut, the thousand foot opening between South Caicos and Long Cay where the waters of the bank and the Atlantic meet, my sense of wonder is renewed. Here the depths shallow from 5,000 to 50 to 10 feet in a flutter of an eye. Teachers from the School for Field Studies call the area, Shark Alley, and say that it is one of the best sites around for underwater wildlife. 
We couldn't resist taking a souvenir and spent hours picking
the perfect shells.

George and I anchor the dinghy, don our fins and snorkels, slip into the crystal clear seawater and swim together toward the opening of the cut against an incoming current. A few minutes pass as I acclimate to breathing through a plastic tube with waves rolling over me and then I see a giant spotted eagle ray whose wing span is as wide as my own and whose head is twice the size of mine. Its dark body flies effortlessly by in dappled glory. I turn to follow it and see two more spotted eagle rays of equal size soaring toward us from behind. I am in their world lucky enough to share this moment in time.

From the gray-blue limits of visibility, a Volkswagen of a creature emerges, round as a pancake, with two huge, deep-set eyes. Its enormous body glides over the bottom and passes beneath me. It is one of the biggest rays I have ever seen. I look for a barb on its tail that would carry poison, but don't see one.

Feeling both outnumbered and too close to the breakers crashing onto Long Cay's sharp limestone shore, we head back to the dinghy. But we are not alone. We are flanked by the long, menacing bodies of giant, open-mouthed barracuda. Their large, round eyes are trained on us - or at least that's how it feels. I know reef sharks are rarely aggressive, but not knowing anything about barracuda, I feel vulnerable in a school of carnivorous creatures as big as I am. We make it back to the boat so I can contend with an even bigger fish that night - Winston.

Long Cay between the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Caicos Bank on the right.
In South Caicos nobody believes that George and I aren't together. When I say we aren't married, but just friends, Richard gives a knowing nod and says, "Riiight, you doin' this trip to see if you can get along for the long haul." Suzette agrees, "yeah, you don't always have to get married." Try as I might, the idea of hitchhiking crew doesn't cut it for the islanders.

Still, when it comes to Winston, I appreciate the misunderstanding. Even assuming George and I are romantically involved, Winston waits till George is out of earshot to tell me I'm beautiful and that he can't wait to dance real close with me at the disco. He was the first person I met stepping off the dinghy and onto the hard ground of South Caicos after our 400 mile sail from Culebra. He took one look at my twin star fresh fade and said," You an Indian or somethin'?"

Cockburn Town, South Caicos
The second person we met was the manager of the SeaView Marina and SeaView Market, partner establishments that consist of one rough concrete jetty with three free advertised but undefinable "slips" and a dusty grocery store. The third was the immigration officer who charged us overtime for meeting after hours at the late time she had chosen when George called during regular business hours to make an appointment. The customs officer, who charged a similar fee, was the forth.

George and I get gussied up and head to the local disco, but luck is on my side. The place is empty because the whole town is at a local basketball game. I love dancing, but considering the dark hole of a dance floor and the presence of a known predator, it's just as well. Tomorrow we leave at dawn to navigate the Caicos Bank, an extremely shallow body of water dotted with shoals and reefs, with our fingers crossed that our waypoints will lead us through safely.

Sunday, June 9, 2013



The wind has shifted and I can’t steer the boat. When I push the familiar +1 button on the standard autopilot control panel to turn a few degrees to starboard, nothing happens. The boat continues on, straight as an arrow into the night. Set in track mode, the autopilot is keeping us hard on target, compensating for sideways slip and current as it drives us blindly to the next waypoint, but the wind is not so easily tethered. I press the button again, harder. No response.

It’s deep night. The moon set hours ago. The familiar rhythm of large open ocean waves sweep through the black and under the hull of the unfamiliar boat beneath my feet. I can hear the papery rustle of the restless headsail as it wanders aimlessly across the foredeck, snaking back and forth, before meandering back into place.

Wing on wing sail configuration.
We've been attempting to hold the rum line – the straight line course between where we were, Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands of Puerto Rico, and where we are going, Cockburn Harbor on the south eastern side of the Caicos Bank – but the wind is not cooperating. In an attempt to compromise, we have spread the boat’s wings wide, splaying the mainsail all the way out on one side and the headsail out on the other, to catch as much wind as possible. But the wind is fitful and when the breeze stops to catch its breath, the sails flog - their own weight pulling them down in the roll of the waves - backwinding momentarily and then falling back into position. Sometimes in these momentary lulls the headsail’s motion is confused, but gentle. When a big wave rolls the boat, though, the headsail slams out of place and back in again with a force that resonates through the rigging. That’s the sound of things breaking.

On the way to Culebra George showed me how to switch between the autopilot’s different functions, but now, a handful of days later alone on watch at three in the morning, I can’t remember how. I consider attempting to switch the autopilot setting to allow me to steer the boat to fill the sails, but if it doesn't work, I might not get the autopilot back on and would have to steer by hand. Then if I need George, who is asleep down below, I won’t be able to leave the helm to wake him. I would have to pound on the deck above his cabin or call through his open hatch, but he's a sound sleeper and I couldn't be sure he’d hear me. The absurd image of me standing at the wheel screaming as I waggle my head from side to side pops into my mind and I find the idea both humorous and terrifying. I've never felt so scared on watch.

I’m not afraid of the night or the ocean, the waves or the wind, but of being out of control. Though I've sailed over 10,000 nautical miles, I don’t know the particulars of this new boat. Do I blunder through and figure it out or do I wake the captain? I curse the fact that we didn't have a get-to-know-you sail where I could have gotten to know the boat, curse myself for not knowing how to do this simple task. And then George’s dark-haired head pops up from the main hatch and asks me how long the headsail has been flogging.

It feels like a slow and frustrating process getting up to speed on S/V Carpe Diem - figuring out new systems, new configurations, how everything works in order to become a fully functioning member of our tiny two person crew. George, a competent single-hander, can sail the boat by himself and often does during the day. I observe and try to take it in, though it’s not the same as doing. I need to remember that I've been hanging out on this boat for weeks, but this is only the second day we've been sailing.

With George on deck, we swap the wing on wing sail configuration, flying the mainsail on the port side where the headsail had been and visa versa on the starboard side which quiets the sails a bit. He shows me again how to switch between the autopilot functions cautioning that I should leave it on track and goes back to bed. I am left alone and shaken. What other fundamental tasks am I unfamiliar with on this new boat? I tell myself that while I’d felt helpless, help had been sleeping close by. Still, my stomach churns as I consider the gap of knowledge that keeps me from being able to help myself. For once it’s easy to stay awake on watch.

The view from inside the bimini in S/V Carpe Diem's cockpit. 
Sleep and sunshine erase the dark feelings of the night and I enjoy the ride on our floating house with wings as we fly hundreds of miles downwind. With the wind at our backs, I feel everything out here – the wind, the waves, the fluffy white cumulus clouds – are all going the same way we are going. Everything, the whole world, is pushing us the four hundred miles to our next destination. And then we spot the low crouching landmass that is our first sight of the Turks and Caicos, supposedly one of the most beautiful natural structures on earth.

Friday, June 7, 2013


CULEBRA - When in Borinquen, Do as the Boricuas

Mike didn’t speak much English and sitting in the chair in his barber shop draped in a blue smock, I couldn’t remember the Spanish word for shave. He understood the basics of what I wanted based entirely on the company I was in – three Americans with half their heads shaved. The difficulty was that I wanted something specific. “Dos estellas con solo la linea, pelo afuera y adentro. Corta solo la linea,” was all I could manage in my rusty Spanish. Translation: “Two stars with only the line, hair inside and outside. Cut only the line,” or at least that’s what I hoped I’d said. Unsmiling Mike nodded in response and went to work, fast and efficient with his straight razor. I hoped for the best as my brown hair fell to the floor.

Mike's handy work.

Two stars are a traditional sailor tattoo. If you can get a navigational fix on two celestial bodies with a sextant, you know where you are. If you carry these stars on your body, you’ll never get lost. That’s what they used to say. I’d like to get a twin star tattoo to commemorate my circumnavigation. In Mike’s Barbershop I settled for a celestial fade.

I’ve wanted a fresh fade-a shaved canvas of intricate designs carved into my hair-for years, but have always had some reason, professional or otherwise, to look respectable. On our first full day in Culebra, George and I met Bunny and co, a couple of punk kids from Brooklyn with shaved dos, who called Mike a wizard with the straight razor. 

Wandering around the town of Dewey we found this artist

Wandering around Dewey that afternoon, the main town on Culebra, the northernmost inhabited island in the Spanish Virgin Islands of Puerto Rico, I’d seen residents sporting spiraling designs as a testament to Mike’s skill. When in Borinquen (the native Taino name for these islands), do as the boricuas. Not that I saw any local women with fades, but hey.

Culebra is an island with a soul. The Culebrenses fought to and successfully reclaimed their island from the U.S. Navy over forty years ago. A grassroots movement of students and citizens saved Culebra from being a bombing range. The local leaders are still the heart of Culebra today.

On the right is a graffiti stencil of the island of Culebra.

The night before we were set to leave Culebra for our three day passage to the Turks and Caicos, we found out that there would be live conga music at the Dinghy Dock, a bar/restaurant with one long wall open to the waters and breeze of Ensenada Honda (Translation: Deep Cove). When we pulled up to the dock, conga drums were set up on the deck next to empty stools- the musicians were nowhere to be found-and amplified bachata, salsa and pop music was blasting through large black speakers on the floor. We threaded our way through the dance floor to the bar and ordered two Presidentes, local beer brewed in the Dominican Republic. I sat with George sipping my beer watching the dancers until the pull of the music became stronger than my timidity. I asked George if he wanted to dance, but he was content at the bar. I stepped out onto the dance floor, hoping the strangers around me would welcome a new comer.

Making friends at the Dinghy Dock.

A full-bodied woman with long curly hair shaking her cadena reached her hand out to me. I wasn’t sure what her gesture meant; did she want to dance couples style and spin me around? When my hand clasped hers I understood. Immediately, a limbo line formed, smiling bodies danced and struggled their way beneath our hands. And that was just the first song!
When the congo musicians returned, dancers moved their bodies in time to the rhythm of the drums, slowly at first, then faster and faster to a frenzied pace. The conga music possessed the dancers. Bodies became vessels for rhythm. One woman in a tight orange, one-shoulder tank top lost herself completely to the music and became a blur of hair and arms and hips. And we were all lost with her. Hector, a Puerto Rican from the main island who makes a point of coming to Culebra three or four times a year, told me that this dance, Bomba de Plena, is part of the African heritage of Puerto Rico.

Anchored behind the reef in Dakity Harbor, Culebra.

We got back to the boat after midnight and though we were leaving the next day, we didn’t plan to head out too early. After three days in Culebra we said good bye to our mooring behind the reef and set sail to the Turks and Caicos Islands, one of the most beautiful natural structures on earth.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


FIRST SAIL TO CULEBRA - Cat's Out of the Bag

The morning we sailed out of St Thomas, I couldn't believe that we were actually leaving Sapphire Marina bound for a secret island in the Spanish Virgin Islands. For the last two weeks plans had formed, shifted and fallen away. We had to planned to sail to the British Virgin Islands and then we didn't  We were going to sail to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and maybe Cuba and then we weren't  I began to lose faith that we were going to go anywhere at all. And then we were gone. Each wave that surged under Carpe Diem’s hull washed away my feelings of frustration and uncertainty and replaced them with that feeling of setting out on a journey, that feeling of openness, of infinite possibility.

The two weeks in St Thomas weren't wasted. We watched for a weather window, worked on projects to prepare the boat, and waited for the stars to align for a date to leave. Every morning we listened to Chris Parker at Marine Weather Center give updates about a low pressure trough combining with a tropical wave, a weather system that crossed the Atlantic from Africa, that brought windy, wet, squally weather around St Thomas. While George recovered from his illness, we waited out the squalls.

With a little new grease, the winches work like a dream.
Meanwhile, I got cozy with our guide books for the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. Using the guide books and Active Captain, an anchorage wiki, I put together a rough route for us to sail north with possible anchorages to explore or just rest for the night. My mind spent a lot of time out of the marina if not my body and I felt useful. George and I also did a multitude of boat projects from greasing the four cockpit winches to resealing the aft lazarettes.

I don't know it yet, but I'm gonna win this hand!
We did break from working for a beach barbecue at beautiful Lindquist beach to eat delicious pelau (a huge pot of rice and chicken also called a “cook-up”), swim in warm water, and play dominoes like some real Caribs. Terence was VERY serious about his dominoes, slamming down good plays on the table with a, “Ha!” After I won a hand everyone at the table gave me a hard time for pretending to be a green horn, which I delighted in, but it really was beginners luck.

Our day sail over to the Spanish Virgin Islands was a beautiful and disorienting. In a matter of minutes, the time it took to cast off the dock lines and motor out of Sapphire Marina, Carpe Diem transformed from a stationary, floating house to a nimble vessel flying over the water. The sight of her sails up and her hull galloping over the waves restored any faith that had faltered.

Still, I’d spent two weeks living on Carpe Diem at the dock, but hadn't sailed her. I needed to learn the ropes – literally. Along with learning the intricacies of any new boat, Carpe Diem has an in-mast furling system for the main sail I've never used before. One day was not enough to learn the boat; it will be an on-going process.