The Spirit of South Caicos

Strong, proud and persevering, the “Big South” looks to the future.

By Kathy Borsuk ~ Photos By Paradise Photography

One thing I’ve learned in over twenty years of living in the Turks & Caicos Islands is that Islanders bear a strong sense of pride and national identity. Perhaps it’s due to the small, close-knit population and the hard work and perseverance it took for the early generations to survive. The rapid and drastic changes that have taken place in recent years, including an influx of foreign investment and labor, likely play a part. Nowhere else is this more true than on the island of South Caicos. We recently took a trip there to check the pulse of the people, take the temperature of the development that is starting to come to fruition on the country’s fishing capital.

The flight to South Caicos International Airport from Providenciales (offered daily via Inter-caribbean Airways) offers a glimpse of the island’s stunning scenery, from its high-ridged peninsula, to its sprawling salinas, natural harbor and pristine beaches, all surrounded by a deep-green/turquoise ocean tinged by frilly crests of white. Unfortunately, a new airport terminal was one of the casualties of the post-2008 economic downturn. Government funding evaporated and the concrete skeletons of the planned expansion await brighter days.

“Reef Villa” is among the first to be completed of homesites planned for the Peninsula Passage area of the Sailrock development in South Caicos.

“Reef Villa” is among the first to be completed of homesites planned for the Peninsula Passage area of the Sailrock development in South Caicos.

We were picked up by Albert “Butch” Clare, a South Caicos native who is the vice president of development for Sailrock, South Caicos’ most promising development. Butch bemoaned the airport situation, too, noting that finishing construction would greatly aid in attracting more visitors. Our plan was to meet a cross-section of South Caicos residents and talk to them about the history, hope, and dreams of the island.

A bit of background, reiterated by nearly everyone we spoke to: In the 1970s and 1980s, the “Big South” was considered the Miami of the Caribbean. The airport was a bustling refueling stop for planes traveling to South America and money was flowing. It was not uncommon to see brand-new Cadillacs on the road, gold jewelry adorning many and stores offering the latest clothing, fabrics, shoes and foods. The Admiral’s Arms Inn, TCI’s first, was usually full and the restaurants and bars lively. (Prior to that, the salt industry thrived in South Caicos from 1850 to the 1960s. It exported most of the salt produced in the Turks & Caicos Islands.)

During the traditional 24th of May Regatta, folks would boat to South Caicos from across the country for a weekend of sailing races, Maypole dancing, music and good food. The fishing industry flourished, and many island couples supported their families and educated their children on wages earned by selling conch, lobster and scale fish—the women working in the seafood processing plants.

South Caicos residents agree that the 1985 arrest of Chief Minister Norman Saunders for drug trafficking not only revealed the source of much of this prosperity, but also brought it to a screeching halt and somewhat besmirched the island’s reputation.

The fishing industry is still the backbone of the South Caicos economy. Daily, as many as twenty-five small fishing boats ply the waters for conch, lobster and scalefish.

The fishing industry is still the backbone of the South Caicos economy. Daily, as many as twenty-five small fishing boats ply the waters for conch, lobster and scalefish.

Mr. Clare started our day with a quick tour of Cockburn Harbour, South Caicos’ historic business district. He reviewed Sailrock’s plans for revitalization of the Bermudian-era homes, fishing wharf and oceanfront Queen’s Parade Grounds and salt shed area. Plans are to lease buildings to locals for opening small shops, including a fish market and native restaurants.

We took a look at East Bay Resort, a 120-room beachfront condominium-resort planned to open later this year. Butch explained that it had gone through several different owners, but the latest seems serious about completing the project! Nearby is the School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies, a US-based educational facility. The field station occupies the former Admiral’s Arms Inn.

We passed by the three seafood processing plants, the largest of which is owned by Lewis Cox, one of South Caicos’ most successful businessmen. This hard-working, Christian septuagenarian also operates the local supermarket, Shell fuel station and the Ocean and Beach Resort, currently the island’s only operational hotel. The other processing plants are owned and operated by Jimmy Baker, an American transplant married to a Cox daughter, and prominent politician Norman Saunders. Mr. Clare noted that the fishing industry has been challenged since Hurricane Ike in 2008, which damaged the banks, and is also weakened by poaching from nearby countries.

Our first stop was at the home of Timothy Hamilton, a fisherman who now supplements his income with fishing, snorkeling and beachcombing charters, along with his son Tamal, at T & V Tours (649-345-6616/341-0665/331-0665). The soft-spoken Captain Hamilton is a man of few words, yet it’s clear he enjoys his sea-based profession. Almost daily, he pilots one of his two nineteen-foot boats into waters he knows intimately, diving for conch, lobster and/or fish depending on what is in season and the fishing conditions. He comes from a long line of boat builders from Middle Caicos and was taught to dive by his father, Onward Hamilton. These days, he says, about twenty-five boats fish daily, covering twenty to forty miles of ocean from 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM. Of the three processing plants, he says fishermen choose the one that is offering the best price for the day.

Visitors who spend a day on the boat with Timothy are in good hands. He recommends visiting the beach between East Caicos and McCartney Cay, which is exceptionally pretty and tranquil, snorkeling the coral heads in front of the Sailrock villas or beachcombing on Columbus Cay. He demonstrated his skill with the fly rod, the ideal way to fish South Caicos’ world-class bonefish flats. Timothy says he learned to scuba dive in the 1980s from record-holding French free-diver Jacques Mayol, and he still recalls the late Mayol’s love for Joe Grant Cay and South Caicos.

Timothy describes South Caicos residents as proud, strong, and independent, and looks forward to a brighter future as construction continues on the Sailrock Peninsula Villas and The Villas at Great House, bringing more part-time residents and visitors.

It was lunchtime, and we headed to the Ocean and Beach Resort’s restaurant to feast on fresh lobster salad and cracked conch, along with a view of Dragon Cay and the windswept sea. Our charming companions were Noreane Lightbourne and Emily Malcolm, staunchly representing South Caicos’ female point of view. Noreane was a teacher for many years and currently works in the Special Needs Department; Emily is a former teacher and District Commissioner. They speak of their island with passion, describing its people as the most hospitable (I agree, noticing that everyone waves as they walk, drive, or cycle by), its harbor as the country’s best and its seafood as the freshest and tastiest. There are features such as the Boiling Hole, wild donkeys remaining from salt industry days, deserted beaches and mangrove-lined bays. They also boast of South Caicos’ great eco-tourism potential.

The loyal folks who have stayed “home” (rather than migrate to Provo or elsewhere for better opportunities) deserve recognition. They say that the island itself should have the same opportunities and benefits that other Islands in the country have been granted. Both women emphasize that there is “no place they’d rather be,” and are looking forward to helping create “a South Caicos where people can be happy, as they were in the old days.”

They recall their solid schooling, complemented by Sunday School, Youth Club, and leisure activities such as bush picnics, softball games, riding donkeys, and swimming before and after school. Teenagers were expected to learn a trade such as carpentry or sewing. Emily went to Jamaica for teacher’s training, while Noreane studied in the Bahamas. Both thanked their parents for the sacrifices made and proclaim, “We had the drive and pride to come back certified and make our contribution to our country.”

Emily shared some tidbits of South Caicos history, including its role in the sponging industry, acting as a depot to clean and transport sponges to the Bahamas. She also noted that the Anglican Church is the country’s third oldest building and that the Kerstiener salt shed used to be the backdrop for old motion pictures! Of the salt industry, she recalls the various grades of salts that were produced via the cunning salina drainage system, utilizing the Boiling Hole, a natural feature which pulled water in and out of the salina with the tides. Many of the old stone walls (recently restored courtesy of Sailrock), pond trenches and stone buildings were built from ballast left behind by the freighters coming from Bermuda to pick up salt. The Shell Factory was the name of a building and also a boat that brought in goods and furniture from Miami and exported conch shells which were made into souvenirs. When it sank, the thriving “department store” it supported became a fishing plant.

Of the future, the women are cautiously optimistic. “The developers of Sailrock have good plans for the community, but do we have enough workers? When it comes will we be ready?” Both encourage government and community to work together towards educating and preparing the youth for the future.

It was finally time to drop off our bags at the Sailrock “Reef Villa” where we would be staying the night. Dueney Musgrove drove us to the site in an electric cart. We passed by the airport, skirting the shallows of Bell Sound, where local contractor Delano Gardiner was supervising re-grading of the road to the Sailrock peninsula. D & D Construction has installed the utility infrastructure under the center of the roads to protect the native vegetation along the roadways. In fact, Dueney says of his eco-conscious employer, “You can get in trouble for breaking a branch off a tree!” Delano’s construction crew is 100% Turks Islanders, about half from South Caicos, keeping with Sailrock’s commitment to local hiring and training. Dueney says his first job at Sailrock was cleaning the beach; his strong work ethic was soon noticed and he was rapidly promoted to doing general maintenance and administration tasks, with a bright future ahead.

As of March 2014, the first two villas at Sailrock Peninsula are completed, along with the related infrastructure (reverse osmosis water treatment facility, underground electricity and water, wireless telecommunications network.) One villa belongs to Canadian Moira Dietrich. Over dinner at her house that night, we learned that she was attracted to Sailrock for its commitment to preserving the wild natural beauty of South Caicos and its environmentally friendly design. Moira is an accomplished artist, and her paintings of South Caicos are not only striking, but quite popular at art galleries on Providenciales. Moira says construction of her ridge top “Coral Villa” exceeded her expectations and she doesn’t flinch at the occasional wild donkey walking by or iguana scratching at her door. She chose her site for its dual sunrise/sunset views, which she often paints. South Caicos residents, she says, have embraced her with open arms, and the feeling is mutual.


The living area of Sailrock’s “Reef Villa,” framed by a view of the Atlantic Ocean and patio infinity pool, epitomizes the “barefoot luxury” planned throughout the development.

We stayed in a three-bedroom villa perched atop the bluff on South Caicos’ long peninsula, currently serving as the Sailrock model. After the golf cart scrambled up the road through the lush native bush tinged golden in the late afternoon sunlight, our first sight of the ocean was breathtaking. The villa’s view is a panoramic of the Atlantic Ocean, with rocky bluffs at the base, a small secluded beach tucked between the bluffs, and a fresh, foliage-scented breeze steadily blowing.

Inside, floor to ceiling sliding windows frame the sea view, and open onto an infinity pool on the oceanfront patio, one of many outdoor terraces and sitting areas. Furnishings are elegantly organic, much of it reclaimed or built from sustainable materials. But this is no out-island cabin. All bedrooms have exquisite ensuite bathrooms and the state-of-the-art kitchen boasts all the bells and whistles.

It was hard to leave, but our next appointment was with Reverend John Malcolm, a survivor of the backlash of the drug trade who has turned trouble into triumph. From the living room of his beautiful ranch home, the charismatic pastor detailed his personal rise and fall. Drugs were flowing in South Caicos “back in the days,” and he says buying crack was as easy as buying cigarettes. He became heavily addicted, with all the corresponding vices, and it was only through the grace of God that he was able to become clean and sober over thirty years ago. Since then, he was ordained as a minister, and besides preaching at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, he counsels young boys and men in the schools and prison about better ways of handling poverty, anger, and fatherlessness than turning to drugs.

Rev. Malcolm’s honesty and passion were inspiring. His views go beyond the church to empowering local fishermen by forming fishing cooperatives. He says, “The average fisherman is just not making it these days. I believe if they could come together to have their own gas station and processing plant, they would be more profitable.” In his spare time, Rev. Malcolm leads a concert band, teaching trumpet, saxophone, trombone and clarinet to local children. He firmly states that he does not want to see South Caicos turn into another Providenciales. Instead, it should develop at a pace that allows the people to grow along with it. Sailrock’s long-term outlook (decades into the future), with its emphasis on building around the community and keeping the people involved, fits firmly into this scenario.

After dinner at Moira’s and a welcome slumber, lullabied by the wind whistling through the jalousie windows and the sea’s symphonic murmur, we woke early as dawn broke in a blaze of orange over the horizon. The plan for today was to include whale watching and snorkeling, but the sea was a bit too rough for the former. During the winter months, whales in droves pass through the Columbus Passage and it is not uncommon to see them in the sea here.

Plan B included a boat ride along the coast with Anthony “Blue” Pinder from Big Blue Unlimited, accompanied by Tim Hamilton’s son “Mally” at the wheel. A former government fisheries officer from Middle Caicos, Blue now shares his environmental and marine know-how with clients aboard Big Blue Unlimited charter trips. Whether kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding through the mangroves, touring historical landmarks, scuba diving the near-virgin reefs just outside Cockburn Harbour, kiteboarding near Jerry Camp or mountain biking the donkey trails through the Highlands, the TCI’s top eco-tourism/outdoor adventure specialty company sees great potential in South Caicos. Blue says they are poised to expand regular trips to the island, working closely with local fishermen such as Tim Hamilton.

As we slowly boated past appropriately-named Long Cay and the protected conch breeding ground there, I was so impressed by Blue’s strong conservation ethos. As a fisheries officer across the country, he’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and is fiercely committed to keeping the waters and land of this island nation “beautiful by nature.”

We were returning to Providenciales via the 60+ minute ferry boat. (Operated by Caicos Cruisin’, the 35-seat ferry provides a smooth ride across the Caicos Banks. Ferry service is currently scheduled on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Russell Jennings also operates the South Caicos Ferry daily, 649-341-9479.)

First, we had lunch at Sunset Café (a.k.a. “Darryl’s”, 649-242-7109) located on the road above Conch Ground Bay, close by the area where the fishing boats come in every afternoon. Entrepreneur Darryl Forbes is an exuberant thirty-year-old who chose to stay “home.” After working in Cham-B’s Supermarket with his parents Sherlock and Blanche Forbes during the 2007 “golden years,” he decided to start a small restaurant and bar. Focusing on “from the boat into the pot” seafood including grilled, fried, and steamed fish, cracked conch and lobster salad, Darryl’s is the perfect place to get a taste of South Caicos.

But I especially appreciated Darryl’s optimistic, good natured spirit. He says, “Visitors can feel out of harm’s way in peaceful, quiet South Caicos. Everyone is super-cool and super-friendly, and we love to welcome people who love the island as much as we do. It’s called sharing the glory.” One of Darryl’s dreams is to expand his catering business, perhaps as a private villa chef for Sailrock residents/visitors or on day trips to deserted cays. He says, “As things move along, new opportunities will pop up and I’ll be right at the door. For now, I’m satisfied with what I make and who I am. I wake up and thank God for life every day. Right now, I’m about the youngest guy in the community trying to make it. I believe in God’s blessing . . . you can’t stop what God has in store for you. I wait with patience and hope.” He adds, “South Caicos is 100% us—friendly, warm and genuine Turks & Caicos Islanders. That’s what visitors and potential residents can expect.” After my sojourn in South Caicos, I would call that a blessing indeed.

Construction on the Sailrock development is going strong. On March 18, just prior to press time, there was a ground-breaking ceremony for The Villas at Great House, the focal point for the development of the property. The Villas at Great House will ultimately service sixty-six ridge top one and two bedroom suites, fourteen beach villas and nine Bell Sound villas. The two, three, and four bedroom beach villas are perched on the ridge with the finest out-island villa value in the Caribbean. Construction of the third and fourth villas on Peninsula Passage is well underway. Sailrock recently brought to the island over $1 million in construction material and equipment for these projects.

John Morley is Sailrock’s director of sales and marketing. He says, “This is a South Caicos project that WILL happen. Because all the land is bought and paid for, the project is all equity. That’s why they can plan a long-term future. Both Sailrock President Colin Kihnke, one of Chicago’s premiere developers and On-island Principal/Director of Development Ted Weldon are emotionally attached to South Caicos, and care about the community. Now is a great time to buy. Not only can you choose the site that best meets your needs, but, once the Great House is open and the Beach Villas start to be built, prices are bound to increase along with demand.” For more information, visit southcaicos.com.

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Phil and Karen Gara
Apr 18, 2014 18:19

Visited island one day after ground breaking at Sailrock. Amazing. Loved it so much ,we are buying a lot. cannot wait to Fly fish on the banks.

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