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.