The Wild Life and the Wildlife Ep. 52

Having said good-bye to Tom’s father and step-mom yesterday evening, we got right to work this Saturday morning on moving Thalia along on her journey. May 5th was a busy day for us. Tom dropped me off on the dinghy dock early in the morning so I could drive the rental car back to the local airport and get a taxi back to the harbor. When I arrived back on the boat, Tom and the kids were nearly ready to get underway. We would move Thalia 50 miles west along the southern coast of Puerto Rico today. Both the wind and currents were in our favor and we had a great sail. The kids did school work after somewhat of a vacation while their grandparents were on board. It is always so difficult to get them back into the routine when it has been interrupted for a few days. How I sympathize with educators!

We dropped the hook right at the southwest corner of Puerto Rico in an area called, “Bahia Salinas” or Salinas Bay. We chose this spot for purely tactical purposes. We wanted to get to the next major bay but that bay is quite surrounded by reefs and the guide books recommend that you enter in daylight and we would lose daylight by the time we reached there. It is so often the unplanned stops which provide the greatest reward, as was the case for Bahia Salinas. We were anchored in very shallow water in this little nook in the land, not far off the beautiful lighthouse pictured here.

I absolutely love the architecture of Puerto Rico’s light houses! They are so colonial and proud, standing guard over the rocky shores for the aid of mariners.

Another reason we found this anchorage special is that we swam for quite some time with some very large tarpon. We were all hot from the day’s sail and changed into our suits in record time. As Zachary prepared himself to jump in, he spotted several very large fish swimming right off of our swim platform. Since none of us are very good at marine specimen identification, we consulted our handy, full-color, Caribbean Fish handbook! A tarpon they were! Not at all dangerous, but curious and unafraid. Ok, Tom, you go in first … you know, as our brave manly leader?!?! Luckily, he got up the nerve and tentatively lowered himself down the swim platform and into the water. It was a good 8 minutes before he felt comfortable that they would not bother us. Zachary was in next and then me. Our youngest just never warmed to the idea!

I counted 8 that were right around with us and a few were easily the size of me! They swam up to within 2 or 3 feet of us and followed us as we all swam — together — to check on the set of our anchor. When we had had enough of staring at one another, we moved on to evening activities. This is the first of this week’s “wildlife” encounters which helped me select a title for my web entry! Stay tuned.

The next morning (Sunday), we took Thalia up to Boqueron, PR – a popular harbor for cruisers and honeymooners. We used the afternoon to get to know the town and its services as we had to obtain water, fuel, food provisions and a place to do laundry. We could see right off the attraction of so many to this cute town. It was a steamy day and we were fading quickly as we walked the streets in the unforgivable afternoon sun, so we found a fun little establishment which served cold drinks. What a place … I could kick myself for not taking our camera to shore on any of our trips. I have absolutely NO pictures of this town — our last to visit in Puerto Rico.

We rose early Monday morning and began our day of errands with me taking four loads of laundry to the local laundromat. Tom accomplished some maintenance projects on the boat and returned to help me carry the clean clothes back to the dinghy. Once the clothes were put away and the beds re-made, I ventured back into town to get groceries. Back to the dinghy, then to the boat to put THESE away. I know, you are asking, “ok, when does the WILD LIFE mentioned in the title come into play”. I’ll get there — believe me, I’m not a domestic goddess who considers this drudgery “WILD”!

One last major task and we could enjoy ourselves a bit. We needed to take “Thalia” to the fuel dock to get fuel and water. This was the only place along this area of the coast to get fuel and we were headed out to the Turks and Caicos the following morning– a 325 mile non-stop trip. Normally, it isn’t a big project to lift anchor, drive the boat to a dock, fill up on fuel/water and then re-anchor. Tom had just taken the dinghy and a hand-held depth-sounder over to the fuel dock to check the water depth because it was reported to be a shallow harbor. Thalia draws 7 feet of water and his readings were 6.5 and 7. The attendant assured us that the bottom was mud so we decided to go ahead. The depth read fine until we were right next to the dock and it quickly went to 1999 which means a depth can not be read. We were in the mud … aground. Well, we were at the dock so we quickly filled up with water and fuel but it obviously wasn’t done quickly enough. We had sat there long enough to create a suction between the mud and our keel! We had to put Thalia in a hard reverse and have Zack, me and two dock hands push us off the dock. We dove on our rudder and keel and all seems fine. The rudder probably did not go aground at all as it is nearly a foot shorter than the keel. We were ready for a swim!!

Off to the beach we went and we all benefited from the refreshing water and relaxation after nearly getting Thalia stuck in the mud! I think it was at this point that Tom and I talked about being somewhat anxious about the month ahead. We have several overnight hops remaining and none of us like them very much. The Turks and Caicos and Bahamas islands are all very shallow entry points and anchorages with masses of reefs everywhere. While this will be beautiful and exciting to explore, it also requires us to be vigilant on our watches.

Tuesday morning (May 8), we departed Boqueron around 6:30am and set a course in the northwest direction which would take us not far off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. This trip would have two overnights, so once we were underway, we discussed a watch schedule. We decided we would each take a two-hour break in the afternoon to rest or sleep as needed but the remainder of the daylight hours would be manned together as we would have school work, meal prep, navigation and sail trimming to do. Our night watch schedule would be 3 hours on, 3 hours off (sleeping) and would run from 7 pm to 7 am. As I am more of a night owl and Tom a morning person, I took the first watch of the night.

Once you get north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic/Haiti it becomes a crazy part of the ocean! The depths plunge from 100 feet just off shore to 13000 feet as little as 10 miles off. Then, as you turn more north and approach the Turks islands and the Caicos Bank and their islands, there is a massive amount of water from those great depths which must pass through the passages and cuts between the many islands giving you as much as 4 knots of current! Wild. I believe this huge variation in water depth (and therefore, in water temperature) contributes to the ferocity of the thunder and lightning storms in this area. Combine that with a very hot and muggy spring we have been experiencing and it feels like there are always significant storm clouds threatening from somewhere in the sky. On both nights of this passage to Grand Turk island, we had to use the radar to detect location, direction of movement and relative strength of the storms. Unfortunately, a radar can only pick up the areas of rain, but it is one key aid in our efforts of dodging the systems. We spent a lot of time staring at the sky for lightning to see how the storms were moving relative to us. Sometimes, the storm clouds stall over a land mass or shallow bank where the warmer air concentrates, sometimes they move in the same direction and speed as the surface air, and sometimes they move according to the direction and speed of the upper atmosphere! Therefore, it is key that we visually track them and adjust accordingly. It is an unwelcome exercise which provides Tom and I with immense anxiety! Normally, with the sunrise the storm clouds dissipate and we are allowed to resume our direct course.

I promised you more WILDLIFE!

Towards the end of my first watch on the first night I was sitting in the cockpit reading. It was about 9 pm and I was on until 10 pm. I heard this small crunch and rustle near our companionway stairs and saw what looked like several sheets of loose-leaf white paper falling into our salon below. Zachary must have heard it too, because as I descended the companionway he was coming out of his cabin. I noticed what I thought was the culprit — a flying fish, dead, on the floor of our main salon. Then, we heard a sound from something that wasn’t dead coming from under our table. Zachary looked under and said, “A BIG BIRD”! The bird scuttled away from us and got into a corner right in front of the door leading into the forward cabin where Tom was likely sound asleep. This bird was really HUGE, with an equally large beak! This wasn’t going to be easy. I began yelling for Tom to help while I shut off the kid’s cabins and asked Zachary to take the watch upstairs so we didn’t have any more troubles.

Eventually, Tom heard me over the noise of the fan running in his cabin and attempted to open his door. Each time he did, the bird would stick its impressive beak through the opening and flap to push himself in. Tom was stuck, but I was going to need his help to get this bird out of our salon. I got some cushions from the cockpit and guarded my hands/arms behind it while I encouraged the bird to move away from Tom’s door. Finally, Tom and I were both on the mission! We used four huge salon seat cushions to corral him toward the bottom of the companionway steps. He didn’t take the hint that this was the way out. We were going to need to somehow lift him up the 6 steps to the deck so he would get himself away. After a fair bit of contemplation, we decided on covering him with a large bucket. Zachary lowered a bucket to us for this purpose and while Tom distracted him, I brought the bucket over the back of his head and down over his body. Luckily, he was standing on a rug, so we lifted the rug with bird and bucket on it and precariously carried it up the steps and onto the deck. Remember that we are still moving through the water at 6.5 knots in the pitch black night! Tom set the rug, bird and bucket on the front deck and became thoughtful of what his next step should be. I was yelling, just lift off the bucket and use it as your protection. He had a flashlight and 6-foot boat hook in his hands that Zachary and I chuckled about — “What was he going to do with this stuff”, we thought!! Finally, Tom agreed that lifting off the bucket and backing away was an ok approach. Once the bird was free, it calmly walked to the edge of the boat, dropped himself over the side and floated away!

We began cleaning up while Zachary maintained the watch. We found half of a second flying fish which probably arrived on the boat in the gull’s mouth! Yuck, scales were all over the floor with bird poop! All rugs went up into the cockpit for a daylight cleaning and Tom washed the floor to rid the salon of the lovely smell. With cushions back on seats and our nerves somewhat calmed, we had a great laugh over the experience. We had had our share of flying fish come aboard, as do most cruisers, but this was a first for us! Two fish and one large gull in one swoop, literally!

Other than the lightning to add to our wild life, the night progressed without additional wildlife!

The second day, we had this massive tanker pass less than a half mile off our starboard side. It is great to see activity and other life at sea and we saw several tankers going in all directions during this passage — probably a result of all the refining capacity on Puerto Rico and St. Croix.

We anchored off Grand Turk’s South Base, an industrial and governmental area with a cruise ship port. Customs/immigration tasks needed to be accomplished here before we moved to a more picturesque anchorage to the north. While Tom was preparing the needed documents for his trip to clear in, we heard a heated radio conversation between the captain of a massive cruise ship and a tug boat pulling a barge of sand or soil of some sort. We had seen the tug and barge approaching as we closed in on the island and he continued to maneuver off shore a bit for some time. Shortly before he began his approach toward the three docks, the cruise ship rounded the north end of the island and took a course for the southern most dock of the three in our immediate area. The cruise ship captain attempted to hail the tug captain over and over again to ask if he could please stand off while the cruise ship anchored. We thought this was sort of bold of the cruise ship captain as the tug was very clearly on an approach and had been in the waters for some time before the cruise ship showed up! We quickly changed our tune when the tug and barge operator didn’t have the courtesy to respond to the radio calls which were becoming more and more frequent and animated! Finally, the tug captain responded and mumbled something about continuing full-steam ahead. The cruise ship captain continued to make his requests and eventually the tug captain turned out to sea and aborted his approach — he did this without communicating his intentions at all. We were amazed at his brazen tactics. The cruise ship then completed his approach, deftly tied along side the pier and began to discharge its passengers. Here is the cruise ship as it passes us on its way to the pier.

Tom left in the dinghy for customs and we continued to monitor the activities of the tug and barge … not much else to look at and we had completed a lesson’s worth of school work for the day. This tug captain must have been a rookie. Now, don’t think I don’t appreciate how difficult a task they have of maneuvering what was probably an immensely heavy load. He crossed the ocean with the barge on a very long cable and had shortened the cable substantially as part of his off-shore fidgeting. He was now resuming his approach and had tied off his port side to the barge’s port side and was hoping to nudge the barge toward the dock while he was in reverse. Here is a picture of the barge coming closer and closer to us as I attempt to reach the operator on the radio. The dock he is approaching is a good 400 – 600 feet ahead of us so I know he is pretty far off his mark.

Notice that I can not see the tug … it is tied to the rear, right hand corner of the barge and this shows he probably can not see me! Luckily, we had had the insight to prepare to release our anchor line and drive away should his efforts become dangerous to us — as they were turning out to be! To release our connection to our anchor, we would have to let out the additional amount of chain still in our anchor locker then feed out the additional 150 feet of rope tied to the chain. If we just let this go, we would have no way of getting back our main anchor and the 150 feet of chain and 150 feet of rope unless we employed the services of a dive company to retrieve it. So, we hooked up a buoy to the end of the rope to allow us to retrieve our anchor ourselves! Zachary and I set this all up in advance so should it become immediately necessary to release, we could do it without incident and quickly. Of course, the tug operator never responded to my radio calls; but, eventually he aborted this second approach. He pulled further out to sea and began to rework his lines. He was close enough to us at one point that I was able to count 8 workmen on the decks of the tug and barge and I assumed at least two people in the tug’s bridge. Now, I was truly amazed. If he had been operating short handed, I would have had more sympathy for his continued blunders. He made at least two more approaches with different configurations and was still not safely tied to the pier when we high-tailed it out of there to the nicer anchorage. It took sizable restraint to keep myself from saying “Adios, you bozo tug operator!” over the radio waves. Since my calm, gentle, southern-California-raised husband is the one of us with the US Coast Guard Captain’s License, I figured it wasn’t really right for his spirited, New Yorker wife to shout out insults over the VHF — though I REALLY wanted to!

We anchored off of Cockburn town and went ashore to explore. While this town was very quiet, it was charming and welcoming. Here are two shots of the coastline.

Grand Turk is considered part of the outer islands and we would understand this classification. We felt very isolated on this tiny island. We spent three nights and accomplished boat projects, food shopping, snorkeling and some exploration. There was a GREAT little museum in the town which talked about the geology of the Turks and Caicos islands and its place in history. It turns out that Grand Turk is where the US space capsules were brought to in the early space exploration days when they splashed down into the ocean. There were great photos and commentary about Astronauts Glenn and Carpenter who manned Friendship 7 and Freedom 7 — the capsules which were brought to Grand Turk.

Salt production was a big part of Grand Turk’s history and the salt was exported heavily to the New England area for salting the cod! So much of what we are learning is coming full circle to the history we learned in Nova Scotia, New England and along the eastern seaboard of the US.

Have a great week!

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