Since Diana and I last visited the Turks and Caicos Islands nearly a decade ago, very little has changed in this far-flung corner of Britains old empire. Scattered across 6,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean in an arc between 550 and 625 miles southeast of Miami, Florida, the islands remain a very special preserve for lovers of marine and submarine activities.
Providenciales, known affectionately as Provo, is the only one of the 40-odd islands and cays in the group that can be described as having a tourist infrastructure, although the island capital, Grand Turk, does offer several intriguing places to stay including a charming converted salt-merchants house and a small number of beachfront hotels. The salt trade was the islands staple industry from the 1670s until the early 1960s.
Aside from harboring an international airport, several good hotels, a brand-new golf course, two small marinas and one of the best and least-used yacht facilities within hundreds of miles, Provo has sought to develop an imaginative yacht charter operation for people seeking superb trade-wind sailing and some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world. Dividends include hobnobbing with an interesting variety of unusual wildlife and taking in more than a whiff of a lively history and a friendly people.
A weeklong cruise through the Turks and Caicos allows you to visit most of the major islands and cays; a two-week sojourn gives you time to appreciate more deeply the magic of this cruising ground. A typical weeks itinerary out of the Caicos Shipyard on Provo might start with your heading south-by-southwest on a broad reach across the shallow Caicos Bank to French Cay, and then back -- either on a course just south of east to one of the passages around Long Cay off South Caicos, or outside the reefs on the longer sail to the anchorages at Sand Cay, Salt Cay and Grand Turk. From Grand Turk, consider sailing back northeast around the largest islands of East Caicos, Middle Caicos and North Caicos. Having explored the little cays between North Caicos and Provo, and then having rounded Provo and visited West Caicos, you might set your sights on a return to the Caicos Shipyard.
French Cay lies on the very edge of the Caicos Bank. It is named after an infamous French pirate who preyed on the Spanish treasure fleets as they sailed their return journey to Seville from ports along the Spanish Main. It is also a seabird colony teeming with brown noddies, bridled terns and a breeding pair of ospreys. Once, on the reef-bound northern side of French Cay, Diana and I came across the broken remains of a Haitian sloop, her mainsail still lashed forlornly to the boom.
Underwater, French Cay offers up some of the best coral and coral-associated wildlife in the entire archipelago. We saw a nurse shark edging its way along the beach, then 20 or so different varieties of multicolored fish including a very large parrot fish. And Molasses Reef, site of what is believed to be the earliest shipwreck so far discovered in the New World, can be explored easily from here. The Molasses Reef Wreck was thought originally to be Columbuss caravel Pinta, which went down in 20 feet of water between 1510 and 1530. The remarkable collection of artifacts carefully excavated from the carcass by a team from the University of Texas form the highlight of an excellent little museum at Grand Turk.
Another fascinating wreck site and one in which all the remaining relics are clearly visible, even to snorkelers, is at the resting place of HMS Endymion, a British man-of-war that sank in 1790 on her way to Grand Turk while carrying reinforcements for the island during the wars with France. The actual site of the wreck is some miles away from where Endymion Rock has been marked on the charts. There are guns, huge anchors and much more to see scattered about the seabed even now, over 200 years after Endymion struck. The site is in the open ocean about 15 nautical miles southwest of Salt Cay, and settled weather is a prerequisite to diving or snorkeling the wreck.
Salt Cay has a good anchorage on its leeward (western) side and a shallow little harbor that once serviced the salt trade. An American who rediscovered the Endymion in 1991 runs the delightfully rambling Mount Pleasant Guest House, full of original paintings, pewter artifacts and fine furniture. This is the virtual center of Turks and Caicos dive operations. Also well worth visiting on one of the bone-shattering bicycles you rent from this enterprising fellow are old salt pans, the houses and docks of the erstwhile salt families, the ruins of a whaling station and a small but architecturally remarkable luxury hotel called The Windmills.
Grand Turk may very well have been Columbuss first New World landfall in that epic autumn of 1492. It lies a short sail northeast of Salt Cay. Grand Turk has been the administrative capital of the islands since the early 19th century, and it serves as the residence of the British governor who lives in an old Bermuda-style house built in 1815, unsurprisingly called Waterloo. You should spend time walking the streets, visiting the museum and savoring the Colonial charm of this outpost where time has stood still.
As you sail away from the anchorage at Grand Turk, you cross an amazing underwater well where depths drop instantly from 40 feet to over 6,000 feet -- the length of the average cruising sailboat to more than a mile! This wall and others like it throughout the islands provide underwater experts with some of the best diving experiences theyve ever had; in fact you owe it to yourself to snorkel over the submarine abyss and experience a bit of the thrill, even though you will be hard-pressed to see from the surface denizens such as the giant manta rays with their 10-foot wingspans that regularly ply these depths.
Should you sail north in late January, February or March, consider yourself unlucky if you miss seeing pods of humpback whales on their way south to breeding grounds on the Mouchoir Bank and Silver Bank between Grand Turk and the Dominican Republic. It is a treat to watch one of these 60-foot, 50-ton giants blow out its lungs as it surfaces like a nuclear submarine, or breach by leaping clear of the sea as we saw one do off North Caicos. Up to 3,000 humpbacks concentrate to mate and bear their calves here annually.
Although the coastlines of East Grand and North Caicos are open to the prevailing trade winds and surrounded by fierce looking reefs, there are many places where you can anchor judiciously outside the reef and take an inflatable in to explore -- mind you, in settled weather. West Caicos is uninhabited, but Grand Caicos, sometimes referred to as Middle Caicos, the largest island in the whole group, boasts three small settlements with a total of about 270 inhabitants and three small guest houses. Caves cut out of the limestone by the original Lucayan Indians are well worth investigating. North Caicos, with just over 1,500 inhabitants in its 41 square miles, still harbors vestiges of plantations carved from the bush in the period between 1789 and 1820 by Loyalists who had fought on the side of Britain during the U.S. War of Independence and subsequently were granted land in the islands by the British crown. North Caicos features the friendly, family-run Pelican Beach Hotel on Pelican Beach, a larger Italian-managed Club-Med-type place, two small condominiums and a few smaller bed-and-breakfast establishments. Flamingos, pelicans and several other notable birds call the island their home, an island best explored, typically, on a bicycle.
On your way southwest inside the reef back to Provo, you pass miles of empty secluded beaches on Parrot Cay, Dellis Cay, Fort George Cay, Pine Cay, Water Cay and Little Water Cay. Pine Cay is a private island fast becoming an upscale mini-Mustique. Off Fort George Cay lying in about three feet of water you can see cannons from the old fort built here to protect the plantations on North Caicos. On Little Water Cay iguanas as big as rabbits scoot from the mangroves to inspect visitors. On Provo you should check out both Leeward Marina and Turtle Cove Marina -- a couple of small, uncrowded gems, except when Turtle Cove fills up each summer for the annual Billfish Tournament that brings sportfishermen from far and wide. It is recommended that you call ahead for depth and entrance instructions.
One attractive option either before or after you cruise the island group is to spend some time at Le Deck, a little hotel and watersports center located at the best site on Grace Bay. Apart from the fun of sailing a Sunfish in these translucent waters, you can sample any of the other day-charter or weekend-charter boats available on Provo. These are mostly multihulls and include an extraordinary French trimaran called Aquanaute, a 62-foot aluminum craft the central hull of which consists of a totally submerged bulbous nacelle fitted with wraparound reinforced glass portlights. From this vantage you can watch at their own level the reef fish cavorting about, without so much as getting your feet wet.
Ideally, the final segment of a cruise through the Turks and Caicos Islands might be from Turtle Cove Marina around Provos northwest point and across to West Caicos. West Caicos, an important sisal producing center near the turn of the last century, is uninhabited now. Nelson captured a French sailing vessel off the island in 1777 when he commanded the sloop Little Lucy. An English entrepreneur already owns the only piece of West Caicos land that the government would ever have considered selling, and that includes a silted-up harbor ripe for development into a little yacht basin.
Returning under sail along Provos southern coastline, backed by the islands gentle hills, you may see Haitian sloops close fetching into the haven they use just west of beautiful Sapodilla Bay. It is an anchorage highly favored by cruising yachtsmen for its convenient depths of eight feet and more right up to the beach. Diana and I saw two of these ancient-looking but handy little working sloops with their triangular sails outlined against the setting sun as we closed the Caicos Shipyard one evening. Neither one of us was at all keen to relinquish this magical though understated paradise and return to civilization.
John Crookshanks career aboard a succession of ocean racers culminated in his most recent pastime, cruising the coasts of France and Spain on a Moody 375. Over a period of 30 years, he was the publishing director of 19 magazines, including Yachting World and Motor Boat And Yachting. He lives in England.
Travel: There are scheduled flights from Miami, Florida, to Providenciales by way of American Airlines. Turks & Caicos Island Airways can get you around the island group, or to Providenciales or Grand Turk from Jamaica, Nassau, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Chartering: Aquanaute is chartered by the day, as are a number of other boats and excursions in and around the Turks and Caicos. Contact Chloe Zimmerman Turtle Tours Ltd., P.O. Box 153, Butterfield Square, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, British West Indies. Phone (809) 946-4393, fax (809) 946-4048.
Climate: The temperature in the Turks and Caicos Islands seldom falls below 84 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius), and steady trade winds provide splendid sailing conditions. Normal hurricane season rules and precautions apply.
Currency: The U.S. dollar.
Charts: The relevant British Admiralty and American DMA charts plus the Yachtsmans Guide To The Bahamas ($25, Tropic Isle Publishers Inc., P.O. Box 610930, North Miami, FL) and some other American publications are valuable, but a new and indispensable chart is Turks and Caicos Islands -- Passage TC001 Edition, published in 1994 by Wavey Line Publishing, P.O. Box 113, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos Islands, British West Indies; this is backed by the Diving & Snorkeling Visitors Guide.
Caveats: The visiting boater should beware of these. For example, no firearms are allowed. If you bring any you must check them when you clear in. There are many national park areas in which no fishing or taking of any wildlife or shells is allowed; also note anchoring regulations there. For other rules see the YachtsmanÍs Guide To The Bahamas. Initial cruising permits are generally issued for only a week after which you may apply for longer periods.