Gaps between islands, or islands and reefs, look tiny on charts and when you get there they are huge!
Getting a better feel for the scale of stuff was an important part of our next trip going north from Culebra Island, Puerto Rico to Providenciales, a north-westerly island in the Turks & Caicos.
I had booked a flight from Providenciales airport via Miami to see my family in the UK for Christmas 2017. “Provo” as it’s known, was about 450 nautical miles away (bit longer than 450 miles), so our boat being happy to trot along at 7 knots (bit more than 7 mph) we would be sailing for at least three days and nights, as long as the weather was middling as promised.
Night sailing is kind of like the first time you drive on the motorway – sweaty palms with anticipation of what might go wrong and once you start you just have to keep going. We got the charts out and dredged up the January navigation classes from our brains, choosing the North Atlantic route over the top side of the Turks and Caicos, which we hoped would have less container vessels, oil tankers, cruise ships and other boats to avoid! It did look like a long way…
The initial challenge was to travel through a gap between some rocky islands and a reef to get into the open ocean – the closer we got to the gap, the more nervous we felt and the gap seemed to shrink and play tricks, until we reminded ourselves again it was actually two miles wide! Not a gap you would worry about in a car.
We had the wind behind us, so the sailing was easy initially with just a jib sail out front pulling us along, but gradually that day the wind increased with gusts of 30 knots (quite a lot) and rolling swells of waves over 10 feet (quite high). We never had any doubt about whether our boat could take it – tough ocean sailing bird that she is – but what about us?
I had never seen L throw up in 26 years together, but he certainly made up for it on that trip…The other things I learned during those days were;
- The colour of the ocean is intensely, amazingly, unbelievably blue. Even the foam is pale blue.
- You can throw up and do a watch at the same time.
- If I know I am back on watch again at 3am I can somehow make myself fall asleep surrounded by banging and slamming, wearing full wet weather gear and a life vest. Outside. In the rain.
- Mr Autohelm is one of my favourite people in the whole world.
When you have done that for 24 hours and you look at the chart and see how little you have travelled it can be quite liberating in a way. You just have to let it happen.
We did spot and avoid other ships by eye and with our marvellous and massive new radar dome, most memorably two cruise liners, doing large twinkly circles together out at sea so as to arrive in port for the morning. I watched and wondered what they were eating and drinking on Dining Deck C at that moment.
We watched the phosphorescence bobble in our wakes, flocks of silver flying fish skimming impossibly low and long, passed the days in a blur and were elated in an exhausted kind of way one morning to see a family of dolphins enjoying a race with us. And then the wind died, adding another day to the whole exercise!
Finally arriving at the Turks and Caicos Islands was a most surreal experience. Flat calm and only 15 feet deep for miles and miles, we motored through milky, turquoise nothingness – an alien planet. A fringe of bizarre bumps on the horizon turned into a deserted housing development with Dutch style roofs on a flat atoll.
Head for the crane at the corner of Sapodilla Bay, go round the rusty wreck, find 7 feet of sandy bottom, drop anchor and breathe!