The timing of our departure from Ocean World Marina is a complicated decision. Saturday’s forecast calls for moderate winds with 8 foot seas. On Sunday, the seas are expected to settle down considerably, but there may be insufficient breeze to sail to the Turks and Caicos. Beyond Sunday, an extended period of moderation in the weather will shut off the supply of wind completely. Not wishing to motor 100 miles to Great Sand Cay, the decision is reached to depart Ocean World at 8 AM on Saturday morning.
Ocean World Marina is similar to the saga of Hotel California. Getting into the marina is relatively easy. Departing Ocean World Marina is yet another story.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been our preference to depart on a journey of this magnitude at 4 PM, arriving in Grand Turk just after sunrise. However, the weather pattern on the north coast of the DR precludes a late afternoon departure from Ocean World.
The entrance channel to the marina is exposed to the northeast and the prevailing wind direction is ENE. In order to avoid powering through huge waves on the bow, it is critical to depart before 9 AM when the wind is still relatively calm. By mid-morning, the wind typically reaches 20 knots. In late afternoon squalls, wind speeds are even higher.
At precisely 8 AM on Saturday, we are in the marina office to settle our account and to clear Customs and Immigration. Today, the Customs officer arrives 90 minutes late. Since he has forgotten the key to his office, “Navy” (our new friend and resident naval officer) is recruited to jimmy a sliding window in order to gain access to the office. After clearing Customs, Navy accompanies us to the dock where the final Despacho document is signed and delivered. Part of Navy’s official duties is to observe the departure of our vessel from the marina.
At 10 AM, the dock lines are cast off as we bid a final adios to Navy. Cutter Loose is finally underway…hobby-horsing her way under full power into 6- foot waves in the channel. After 15 minutes of rocking and rolling, the sails are set for a rollicking beam reach to Big Sand Cay in the Turks and Caicos.
A few miles offshore of DR, the wind freshens to 23 knots with gusts to 28 knots while the waves increase to 8 feet. Under a deeply reefed mainsail and genoa, Cutter Loose is sailing smartly at 8+ knots, spreading a shower of salt over everything in sight as she surges through the northeast swell. Each time the wind subsides to 18 knots, we are certain that this signals the moderation promised in the forecast. But this hope proved to be wishful thinking.
At 11:30 PM, Cutter Loose passes Endymion Rock to port on final approach to Big Sand Cay. Since this is the site of numerous shipwrecks, caution and concentration are the watchwords of the evening. Falling into the lee of Sand Cay, the sails are doused as we thread the needle into the anchorage. Suddenly the waves subside but the wind continues to howl over this low-lying, sandy spit of an island. Using radar and chart plotter, we ease our way through the darkness, gradually moving closer to the beach while allowing sufficient distance from an anchored boat to starboard. Entering an unfamiliar anchorage at night is stressful under any circumstances, let alone after pounding through eight foot waves for 14 hours.
Fortunately, the hook sets instantly in 15 feet of water over a sand bottom. There is a rolly surge in the anchorage. The wind is whistling through the rigging. But, there is no motion or noise that can deter us from falling instantly and deeply asleep.
At 8 AM on Sunday, the relentless cries of shore birds slowly penetrate our consciousness. Still groggy from a deep sleep, we are afforded a view of our surroundings that was obscured by the black of night just eight hours earlier. It is as if we are children on Christmas morning. A magnificent gift awaits our awakening. Just beyond the bow of Cutter Loose is a pristine white sand beach. We are surrounded by electric aquamarine water made brilliant by the morning sun. There is a gentle hint of a breeze from the east. The moderation in the weather we had hoped for the night before has finally arrived. Sand Cay makes for an outstanding welcome to the Turks and Caicos Islands. We already feel at home in this remote place.
After lingering at Great Sand Cay until noon, the anchor is up and Cutter Loose is bound for Grand Turk, about 18 miles to the north. In 12 knots of breeze on the beam, today’s sail is a leisurely event with 4 to 5 knots of boat speed. Salt Cay passes slowly to starboard. The unmistakable boxy outline of a cruise boat on the horizon serves as a convenient steering target.
The southeastern tip of Grand Turk is a cruise boat destination, inasmuch as it is the sole deep water port in the Turks and Caicos. Accordingly, the Turk economy is largely oriented to the cruise boat trade. The designated anchorage area just off the beach near the cruise boat dock is filled with local excursion boats on moorings, but we manage to drop the hook in a small opening on the periphery of the anchorage area near the concrete cargo ship pier. Our mission this afternoon is to clear Customs. Customs officials everywhere are notoriously feisty with cruisers about clearing in as soon as possible upon arrival.
After landing the dinghy and scaling the walls of the massive pier, we learn from Port Authority employees that Customs officials have departed for the day and cannot be reached by telephone. Therefore, clearance must wait until Monday morning. Once today’s cruise boat departs at 6 PM, the loud music disappears as the beach chair vendors pack away their umbrellas for a few hours of relaxation before a new wave of cruise boats arrive at dawn.
At 9 AM on Monday, we re-scale the massive concrete pier and enter the Customs office with a warm greeting. After a brief explanation of our efforts to clear in on Sunday afternoon, the Customs officer explains that we will be charged a $15 “overtime surcharge” for arriving during the weekend. The fact that no Customs officer was on duty at the time of our arrival is irrelevant. The fact that our actual clearance took place on Monday morning is also irrelevant. According to Customs officials, it is the day of arrival, not the day of actual clearance that triggers the overtime fee.
Although it seems like a technicality, we smile and go along with this verdict. It is simply not prudent for visitors to question a $15 Customs overtime fee. Likewise, it is not the time or place to suggest the novel notion that “overtime surcharges” be contributed to a fund for the construction of a decent dinghy dock. Since it is off the beaten path, relatively few cruising boats clear in or out at Grand Turk. Besides, these employees don’t make the rules…they simply enforce the law of the land. Without exception, we are treated warmly and politely by these public servants. Once Immigration officials arrive to stamp our passports, we are free to cruise the Turks and Caicos for seven days. A longer stay will require a more expensive cruising permit.
With clearance documents in hand, it is a long, two-mile hike past the airport to Cockburn Town, the Capital of the Turks and Caicos. Shuttle buses are already delivering cruise boat passengers to the Front Street historic district.
There are a handful of historic buildings, small restaurants, guest houses and boutique hotels that line the waterfront.
Merchants are busy hustling their wares to the tourists. But there is no evidence that this sleepy village is the nerve center of a national government. Nor is there any sign whatsoever that this community is an international banking center for clients that wish to stash cash in anonymous accounts.
Waiting for a taxi to South Dock where Cutter Loose is anchored, Pat discovers a rumpled $5 bill along the sidewalk. About this time, a gentleman in a pickup truck stops to ask if he may offer us a lift. We crawl into the truck and arrive at South Dock within a few minute’s time, contributing our newly found cash to the cause. The driver initially refuses to accept our contribution, but we insist and he relents. The Turks are genuine and kind.
At 1 PM, the anchor is up in Grand Turk. Cutter Loose is bound for Cockburn Harbor on the island of South Caicos, some 25 miles to the west. The wind has disappeared almost entirely by the time of our departure. As the afternoon progresses, cumulus clouds overhead begin to thicken and spill their excess cargo of moisture. This mild squall serves the dual purpose of creating enhanced wind to boost boat speed while rinsing the outermost layer of salt from the decks. By 5 PM, the anchor is down in Cockburn Harbor. Cutter Loose is one of three cruising boats at anchor in the harbor tonight.
After a quiet night at anchor and the daily 6:30 AM synopsis and windless forecast from marine weatherman Chris Parker, Cutter Loose is under way again at 7:30 AM on Tuesday. Today’s 60-mile journey takes us south to Fish Cays, then northwest across the shallow Caicos Bank to Providenciales, or “Provo” for short. Water depths on the Bank are in the 10 foot range. The bottom is white sand. Today, the underside of clouds overhead are tinged in a light green…a reflection of the sun’s rays bouncing off of the colorful water below.
There is barely sufficient wind today to keep the head sail full. Barring a few small fishing boats, Cutter Loose is the sole vessel transiting the Banks today. It is as if we are sailing in our very own infinity pool.
Our primary navigational task today is to recognize and steer around coral heads that appear as black holes in the iridescent blue-green water.
Following a night at anchor in Sapodilla Bay, we arrive at high tide to negotiate the thin entrance channel to Southside Marina. Here we will clean the boat, tend to the laundry and rent a car for provisioning and sightseeing.
Sapodilla Bay and Southside Marina are the most popular cruiser destinations in the Turks and Caicos. Bob Pratt owns this 22-slip marina and serves as the controller for the 7:30 AM cruiser’s net on VHF 68. Upon our arrival, Bob takes time out of his busy schedule to drive Pat to an appointment with the hairdresser.
Bob’s childhood chum, Cam (on left) from British Columbia, spends several months here during the high season, lending a helping hand with the operation of the marina. Together, they are a dynamic duo. We have thoroughly enjoyed their hospitality.
On Wednesday evening, there is a potluck dinner at the marina where we meet several intrepid cruisers that are bound for the Caribbean via the “Thorny Path”. These folks are elated with the weather forecast in light of the fact that the wind is expected to remain light for the foreseeable future. This is good news for eastbound sailors who are accustomed to motoring. For westbound sailors, the lack of sufficient wind to sail is a disappointment. It means that we will be listening to the sound of the engine more than we would have preferred. Feast or famine is the dilemma faced by cruising sailors everywhere.
On Thursday, we are off in the rental car to explore the island. Provo is the polar opposite of Grand Turk. There are no cruise ships here because of the absence of a deep water port. The four-lane Leeward Highway is busy with traffic, particularly at the numerous roundabouts in the early morning and late afternoon hours.
Provo’s north coast beaches are dotted with high- rise condo towers, perfectly manicured resorts, trendy restaurants and mixed use shopping districts. At times, some of the more upscale neighborhoods here in Provo seem more like West Palm Beach, FL.
The cynical view of Provo is that it resembles a suburb in Florida rather than a Caribbean destination. From our perspective, Provo is an excellent place to provision the galley and enjoy a good meal ashore before heading to the remote out islands of the Bahamas.
One additional benefit of securing a slip at Southside Marina is that it is an official port of entry. This means that Customs and Immigration officials come here, as needed, to provide clearance services. This eliminates the need to scale the commercial pier at South Dock to obtain outbound clearance. Another $15 “overtime fee” is incurred for a Friday afternoon clearance because our intended departure will occur on the weekend. At this stage of our visit to TCI, the issue of overtime fees has become an inexpensive source of entertainment. It is all part of the island experience.
Our mission is accomplished in Provo. For us, the Turks and Caicos have always been perceived as a convenient stepping stone rather than a must-see destination unto itself. As such, this visit has exceeded our expectations. On Sunday, March 22nd, Cutter Loose is bound for the island of Mayaguana in the Bahamas.