Sailing, Old School

A travel tale of a 1954 journey around the Islands in a Caicos sloop.

By Edwin Doran, Jr.

The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in Motor Boating in December, 1957. The author, Dr. Edwin Doran, Jr., was a geographer and a sailor, a keen observer and recorder. His descriptions of the Islands and the sea around them during his 1954 voyage in a Caicos sloop remind us of what it was like here before the appearance of air travel, roads, cars, or even motor boats. Before cell phones, TV, or radio. A time when the Caicos were terra incognita, the unexplored country, the end of the world—but from the perspective of this intrepid writer, achingly perfect in their isolation and unspoiled natural beauty.


2-SloopApproaching low over the water from the south, the small pink dot quickly enlarged into a cluster of flame-colored birds, flying in flexible but cohesive formation. With steady, powerful wing beats the flamingoes, a breath-taking salmon and pink accented with black, their ungainly legs trailing behind, skimmed over the surface. Then, taking flight, the flock swirled to the west with a flash of color in striking contrast to the apple green below, the color which transparent tropical water assumes when it lies two fathoms deep over clear sand bottom. Without a change in the rhythm of wings the formation lifted slightly, soared over the beach ridge, and dropped out of sight to the abandoned salt ponds which lay beyond.

As the birds disappeared from sight our ancient rusty fluke dug into the bottom tautening the chain, the slacking peak halyard eased the boom down into its crutch, and the mainsail faked into a furl with gaff resting on top. We lay in Clear Sand Road off the southeast end of West Caicos Island, and the sloop, a 30-foot Caicos boat, was uneasily at rest again in a relatively safe anchorage. Old Nick kindled a fire in the sand-floored cooking box, and soon smoke was trailing out astern, shredded by the stiff breeze, as grits and conch simmered in a blackened iron pot. While Cle, captain of Lady Leona, and Fe, the ebony giant of a mate, secured the vessel for the night I sat below in the tiny cabin, feet propped against the gear-cluttered bunk opposite to steady against the rolling, and brought the log up to date.

The conch and grits supper was quickly stowed, and shortly after dark there was silence except for the periodic grate of a hatch slide as Cle went on deck to check the mooring and glance down at the dark mass of West Caicos a few hundred yards to leeward.

Three days before we had left Matthewtown, Great Inagua, base of operations for my research in the Southeast Bahamas. The islands we had just reached are geologically a continuation of the Bahamas chain, low limestone isles and reefs lying on the northern flank of a great but shallow submarine bank, but politically the Turks & Caicos Islands are a dependency of Jamaica. Although there is a certain amount of customs and immigration formality between the groups, the people of Caicos often sail up to Nassau or on to Grand Bahama for work in the lumber camps or to bring back a deckload of pine timbers to the somewhat barren shores they inhabit.

Because of low rainfall, about twenty-five inches annually, and a scarcity of good farm land the principal economic activity for centuries has been the making of salt, which forms rapidly in man-made ponds under the evaporating effect of strong, continuous wind and hot sun. In recent decades, however, prices have dropped to such an extent that non-mechanized techniques do not permit Turks & Caicos to compete successfully, and what once were prosperous islands, suppliers of fishery salt to New England and Newfoundland, have had many years of economic depression. Attempts to remedy the situation have not been especially successful, and after the local owners of the salt ponds were bought out in the 1951 nationalization program, many left the islands. As a result the once small proportion of whites to Negroes has dropped to almost none, and only a small group of whites (about 65), nearly all resident on Grand Turk, are all that remain in a total Turks & Caicos population of about 6,100. Almost no whites remain in the Caicos Islands, and the 3,700 black inhabitants are scattered thinly over the islands in less than a dozen small settlements. West Caicos, off which we lay, had 140 residents, according to the records, before the First World War but has been deserted for forty years.

During the night the wind freshened and shifted to east-southeast, once again a head wind for our new course across the Caicos Bank.

After tying in a reef we got under way at sunrise and edged on, close-hauled on the starboard tack, past the little village of Five Cays on Providenciales. A short port tack took us clear of the land, and we came about again on the course for North Caicos. As the afternoon wore on there appeared finally a thin line of land to the northeast, Muddy Point on the low southwestern shore of the island. Soon after, and still perhaps three miles offshore, Fe glanced astern, then turned to call forward that the sloop was “mudding.” After a quick look at the succession of silty circles, a line of muddy periods punctuating our wake, we “changed her side” and sailed half a mile farther off before anchoring for the night. Here, far in on the bank but almost out of sight of the low-lying island to the north there was nearly a fathom of water, enough for safe anchorage considering the soft bottom.

Despite the fact that Miami—Puerto Rico planes fly over every day and thousands of passengers have glanced idly down at the curiously intricate tracery of tidal channels on the island, almost no one, other than local islanders, has visited the inner Caicos Bank. Many have seen it from above, but few have looked from water level at this waste of shoals and muddy bottom, beautiful in its isolated expanse of sea and sky, empty save for a dozen huge circles of turbid water where schools of hungry bonefish feed on the bottom. The first fisherman who drops a fly south of Muddy Point, North Caicos, should be prepared with strong tackle for a fight against outraged monsters that have never seen a hook.

In such shoal water waves could not build up, and we enjoyed a quiet night’s sleep, the sloop nodding just a bit as she veered in the small chop.

In the early morning the wind dropped to a brief calm, and, after weighing anchor, Fe and I sculled away in the dinghy a few yards from the sloop for a look at her under sail. Thirty feet overall, with a 5′ draft, and measured at 5.6 tons, Lady Leona is representative of the more than fifty sloops working around the Caicos Islands. Where the land is so poor many men have turned to boats and the sea for a livelihood, and fish is an important food. But the main source of protein food for the islanders is conch, the large marine snail Stombus gigas.

In 1954, fishermen harvested conch using a water glass and rake.

In 1954, fishermen harvested conch using a water glass and rake.

Abundant around the cays, conchs form a part of most meals and also are a source of cash income. Crews go out in the sloops, usually for trips that last weeks at a time, hook up the conchs with two-pronged rakes after locating them by means of a water glass, clean and dry them by the thousands, and eventually take the wrinkled, evil-smelling product over to Haiti for sale. On the return trip the cargo generally consists of corn, vegetables, fruit, clothing, and a few surreptitious bottles of tafia, a turpentine-like Haitian rum usually smuggled in to avoid duty.

Invariably, the sloops have the jib tacked to the stem and can thus be differentiated at a glance from Bahamian sloops with their typical bowsprits. A small cabin lies abaft the cooking box and is separated by a partial bulkhead from the hold forward, to which access is obtained by a large hatch abaft the mast and a small manhole in the forward deck.

Essential for conching are two dinghies which are carried on the side decks while under way, bows even with the shrouds, keels resting just inside the low plank rails, and weight canted in against the cabin.

Although frequent open ocean runs, to Haiti or island-hopping up the chain of the Bahamas, take the sloops across 75 or 100 miles of blue water, the only navigational equipment is a compass. No sextant, log, chronometer, or even a chart is found on the boats. Memorized courses, in the old style of E by S rather than 102 degrees, are followed, and the dead reckoning position is kept mentally as estimates of speed are made by casting an experienced glance over the side.

Once, after an attempt at learning the rudiments of piloting, taking a course off the chart and scaling the distance, Cle, the captain asked, “Boss, what’s the course from Devil’s Point to Castle Island Light?” After a bit of calculation, “NNW, 85 miles.” With a big smile that revealed he had been somewhat suspicious of the accuracy of this sort of thing and wanted to check it, he agreed, “That’s right!”

Despite the crudity of such methods few sloops come to grief unless a hurricane sweeps across the islands without the usual warning signs. Dozens of lives have been lost when the conching fleet was caught at sea, and to avoid such an eventuality the boats often are laid up in a secure cove during August and September, the crews working in their fields or repairing gear during the idle months. Line in use on the boats, which is often laid up at home from the sisal grown locally as a minor cash crop, is fuzzy and relatively weak but used in sizes that afford ample strength. Blocks often are carved laboriously, cheeks and sheave, from lignum vitae, the standard wood also for tillers and deadeyes; the latter are used frequently in rigging where we would consider it absolutely essential to have blocks. Metal fittings are reduced to the absolute minimum which can be obtained by ransacking wrecked vessels. Lady Leona, for example, boasted only one cleat, and the main sheet was secured by passing a bight below the bulge of the lower sheet tackle block and belaying with two half hitches.

As the wind increased the dinghy was hauled aboard and our course laid due south on the port tack to take a line of soundings and bottom samples across the bank. Every hour we luffed up, backed the jib, dragged a bucket on the sand, and recorded the depth. Although forty miles from the nearest island, by afternoon when the south side of the bank was reached, the deepest sounding of the day was 13 feet, and through the light green water the bottom was as clearly visible as that in a tumbler of ice water. On many another occasion the sea floor, with fish swimming among the sea-fans, was distinctly visible at depths of 60 feet and still apparent at 80.

Big Ambergris Cay, to the east, is formed by eroded ridges 100 feet or more in height, but Little Ambergris is a low, rock and sand spit that has built westward in a lee eddy of the bigger island. Both cays are barren and waterless with a low cover of thorny acacia shrubs among which birds and small iguanas are the only visible life. Mindful of stories about the delicious flavor of iguanas we killed two and handed them to the cook on boarding the sloop for supper. Perhaps Old Nick’s skill was not the best; at any rate the only thing I have ever eaten that was tougher was an ancient monkey years before on the Amazon.

On the bank coral shoals can be seen plainly as widely scattered dark blotches against the light green of the water over sand and may be avoided with little effort other than a good lookout. With these cautions there is no reason why vessels of six-foot draft cannot go anywhere they wish.

In 1960, the South Caicos beach was nearly covered with conch shells.

In 1960, the South Caicos beach was nearly covered with conch shells.

Passing between Big Ambergris and Fish Cays we sailed off soundings into dark blue water, altered course to port, and on a broad reach headed for South Caicos and Cockburn Harbour (known universally in the Turks & Caicos, however, as East Harbour). Here, for the first time since we left West Caicos, the food fishing would be good, and soon a six-inch spoon on a heavy wire leader, attached to nylon parachute line, was streamed astern. Fishing was a matter of supper rather than sport for the crew, and when a kingfish or barracuda struck the lure the steersman, sitting on the line and feeling the vibration of the strike, would sing out, “Taut line!” Scrambling aft over the dinghy Old Nick would rapidly haul in the fish hand over hand, swing it to leeward around the helmsman to the deck, and club it viciously with a piece of stove wood. Great excitement for a minute or two, then the hook was cut free, fish heaved into one of the dinghies, and the line paid out again.

In these waters barracuda are often poisonous, smaller ones, “sinnicks,” being less so, and wry jokes about who would take whom to the hospital on Grand Turk were bandied about while Nick prepared the fish. Our cruise was fortunate in this respect, but many people have been made severely ill by eating barracuda, horse-eyed jack, and other fish known locally as occasionally poisonous.

The yachtsman who needs a Nassau in miniature will do well to avoid East Harbour since it is a quiet little place of about 800 people with few supplies other than basic food and water. But the person interested in quaint places, particularly those unspoiled by large numbers of visiting tourists, will find a visit worthwhile. The village is headquarters for the District Commissioner, John Astwood, who was born and raised in the islands but is well educated and traveled and probably knows more about Caicos than anyone else. He can recount many an interesting tale of events in the islands, and Betty, his wife, cooks the most delicious conch chowder southeast of New Providence. An evening in their home is a fascinating and pleasant experience, as John regales the group, tall glasses of Barbados rum in their hands, with an account of the latest hurricane or perhaps the storm in ’32 when so many fishermen were drowned.

A visit to the salt ponds behind the village provides a curious contrast between the ancient and modern. Several trucks and mechanized salt-loaders can be seen in operation adjacent to pans where laborers are hand-raking crystals of salt into long windrows, while in the distance windmills pump water from one pan to the next as they have done for 200 years. The blinding glare of the sun on white pyramids of raked salt is relieved by a glance off at the unbelievably pink brine, occasionally matched in color by a flamingo with upside-down head sorting through the mud for tiny snails. Above is the bright blue sky with little white puffs of cottony clouds drifting steadily west before the constant pressure of the trades. A climb to the hills just east gives one a view out over Turks Island Passage, white-crested waves advancing to break in foamy thunder on the reef below, and even a sailor’s desire for good breezes is occasionally satiated as he seeks shelter from the continuous blast of wind.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Although the Caicos Bank affords good sailing, the area of most interest extends along the north side of the chain of islands, where tiny settlements lie behind protecting barrier reefs enclosing lagoons studded with coral pinnacles. While there are many places where local boats negotiate passages through the reef and thread their way among the coral heads, it might be wiser for a skipper inexperienced among reefs to hire a man at East Harbour to pilot his vessel on the north coast. A number of the local captains are skilled at this sort of sailing, and it is a thrilling experience to make three or four 30-foot tacks in order to beat dead to windward through a tiny passage only fifty feet wide but perhaps 100 feet long—and this without the slightest scratch of paint on the harsh talons of bordering coral. Such a procedure is not recommended for the faint of heart.

Of many delightful spots along the north side of Caicos only two can be mentioned here. They are somewhat difficult of access, despite location near the two easiest passes on the whole coastline.

At Lorimer Creek, where the channel known as Windward Going Through separates East and Grand Caicos, there is a pass through the reef that leads into a quiet anchorage with high hills to the east providing a fine lee. Here there are two little pocket beaches on a tiny islet within the bay that are an escapist’s delight. White coral sand as unstained as fresh snow, translucent pale green water, tiny rainbow-tinted fish around the deeper coral, and the reef out toward the horizon with great rollers crashing into high-flung spume—these are the fabric of a deserted cove where one can lazily swim or gaze idly up at the steady westward march of the clouds—where only sea and wind disturb the stillness.

Flamingoes, Bonefish and Mosquitoes

Back along the maze of shallow channels between the islands, channels which weave in and out like skeins of yarn, is a world of seabirds and hawksbill turtle, of mangrove swamps with multitudes of stilt-like roots to give firm anchorage in the mud, and—in restricted localities—of mosquitoes to remind us that even the best falls a little short of perfection. Here one may see a dozen flamingoes feeding in a shallow pond, strange contrast of grace and awkwardness, of beautiful plumage and angular scaly legs. Far above, a man-o’-war bird, grace incarnate as he soars on narrow black wings, casts a speculative eye down at the awkward flight of boobies flying westward with fishy burdens. And on the shoal flats, schools of bonefish graze across the mud.

Between North Caicos and Providenciales extends a scattering of tiny islets with names like Parrot Cay, Dellis Cay, Pine Cay, and Water Cay—to list only the largest of perhaps two dozen. On the proper range one can sail in from the ocean through a miles-wide pass, across coral heads far below, and, as the water shoals, across clear white sand bottom to within a stone’s throw of the beach, the beach which must be one of the most beautiful in the world. Not too long, only four or five miles, from one horizon to the other when one stands in the center, it is absolutely, completely deserted. Like others formed of finely ground particles of coral and shells it is a white beach—but of an almost indescribable whiteness. In the midday sun it reflects with nearly blinding brilliance; in pitch-black darkness, as the phosphorescent life of the shallows roils, the faint rays of the stars are reflected so strongly that one can see to walk with confidence; under a full moon one’s gaze can follow the shimmering ghostly whiteness of it off to the horizon. It is a beautiful beach, more so than beaches ever can be in colder latitudes. And it is a deserted beach, with not a person, not one candy wrapper for miles; only an occasional spherical glass net float, drifted across from Portugal, or a weathered bamboo culm from the Lesser Antilles breaks its even texture.

Open Pools of Fresh Water

Back from the beach there is another strange thing, open pools of fresh water, where rainwater floats on the salt liquid below. And behind the tiny pools are pines that sough in the trades with a soothing murmur above the rustling carpet of needles. Beyond the pines are mud flats, expanses of polygonal cracks where the sun has baked and shrunk the clay.

Between the little islands are larger tidal channels which connect the great bank with the ocean, and through them the daily surge of tides brings out particles which are winnowed by the surf, leaving white sand for the beaches. Although tidal scour keeps these channels two or three fathoms deep, the sand is deposited at both ends in shallow bars crossed by slightly deeper but tortuous passes.

An Offbeat Cruising Ground

It is easy to understand why the Caicos Islands have been neglected by travelers and isolated from the world. Reefs await the unskilled and unfortunate, harbors are few, and the tiny villages are primitive in their attractions. But for the yachtsman who dislikes the trodden path and has the ability and courage to handle his vessel in somewhat precarious territory, Caicos offers a rewarding cruising ground. Here one can find an isolation that is increasingly rare in our society and, at the same time, a challenge to his seamanship and his boat’s maneuverability in sailing through coral-studded lagoons. The fisherman can treasure a thousand square miles of shallow water where the fish have never seen a fly. And there one can find beauty of a quiet, unspectacular sort, the beauty of translucent tropical water in its myriad rippling shades of green and blue and the beauty of unspoiled, deserted islands.

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