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Paddleboarding the Turks & Caicos

Story & Photos by Susan Chaplin


This is an odd place, I thought. Flying from Provo to Grand Turk, I wondered, Were those rivers or luminous veins on the big, coarse face of East Caicos? Was that kaleidoscope of cloud and sky a toy or the universe? For sure, if there was a pure light at the center of things, it was aquamarine and near the surface of the water on the Caicos Bank. I was a paddleboarder come to paddle the Turks and Caicos islands. I'd raced paddleboards in Hawaii and California, and toured other Caribbean island groups. No one I met in the Caribbean knew about paddleboarding, so I developed a definition: A paddleboard was an oversize surfboard driven with the hands and arms. No paddle, sail, or motor. To paddle, an athlete lay prone on the board or balanced on the knees. For touring, I had customized my 14 foot long, two foot wide board with a rudder and soft deck pad. To carry gear, I had bolted to the board a net pouch for a dry bag with clothes, toiletries, credit card, passport. I carried minimal water and food, and took essential safety items like First Aid, VHF and gps.

Looking from the little plane at the cobalt and cream waves in 22 mile, 7000 ft deep Columbus Passage, I knew I'd taken on a challenge. I felt nervous, even, when I first arrived in Providenciales with gray hair ( I was 54 ) and a little satchel, like an old carpetbagger. But the moment I arrived in TCI I was coddled. The Tourist Board transported me in a car. I was taken to lunch at Turks Head Hotel to meet representatives of The Ministry of Natural Resources. My board had arrived intact via Turks Islands Shipping and, passed through customs by able hands at Cairsea, I was ready.

It all happened so fast on slow-moving Grand Turk, I needed a stroll on Front Street. Were history and the future at odds in the TCI? Did Grand Turk and Provo bicker at each other across the Colombus Passage? I saw, in the brilliant, weathered paint of waterfront houses, the bright flags and hulls of the islands' first explorers.

On Grand Turk, the past ruled. A shrine to the past (and a favorite conundrum, Did Columbus first make landfall here?) was Turks and Caicos National Museum. Brian Riggs sat at his desk in the Museum, but he was curator of The Past. Brian made wagon wheels like those in the era of mule-drawn carts. Would he seize my gps and replace it with a sextant? He indulged my navigation questions and supplied me daily with a computerized weather report.

Good weather meant time to go. "Follow The highway", Everette Freites of Oasis Divers counseled. An aquamarine road between the edges of what locals called "deep watah" pulled me through shallow water to Salt Cay. Paddling Everette's highway between drop-offs of thousands of feet, I drove an old-fashioned suicide highway with 3 lanes. The third, or suicide lane, was the passing lane. In my case, as far as I knew, I might be driving between sharks and barracuda.

Nine miles of easy paddling brought me to Salt Cay at North Beach. A fisherman steered a boat full of rose-lipped conchs. "Where you come from?" The fisherman asked. When I said Grand Turk, he said, "You swim from Grand Turk? Den, you don need my he'd getting in to de dock." A logical man, I thought.

After laboring up steps in a cliff, I was under the wing of Candy Henwin at Pirate's Hideaway. Her voluble gray parrot entertained with ear-searing oaths, and had learned to perfectly imitate the warble of a digital phone. Could the parrot be taught to answer his own calls? The phone rang. Candy said it was Uncle Lionel, the fisherman I met coming in to Salt Cay, wanting to know if I was OK. A donkey with a can on one foot limped into the yard. Like a ballet dancer with one shoe, the donkey tried to imitate the delicate balance of the foot in the can with its three bare hooves--and fell. Candy and a wild-haired Salt Cay resident named Aurel, lassoed the donkey and removed the can. I slept in a cabin under a huge portrait of Blackbeard and woke to find a cow sheltering from the rain in my kitchen.

E-mail from Brian in the morning said the wind was northeast, not good for me. I explored Salt Cay. Wind lifting foam chips from the salina made me think the island sculptor was still at work, chipping, refining--a Georgia O'Keefe of seascape. Passing a church, I marveled at islanders' ability to mesh the incompatible: Laughter, foot-tapping song, and the solemnity and commitment of prayer.

The wind shifted. I called Everette Freites. In channels of over 20 miles I tried to get a chase boat. Training near my home in the British Virgin Islands, my hand was struck by a fish. I realized my vulnerability. Thus, I was pleased to see Everette and Scootie come over in the official Oasis dive boat from Grand Turk.

Salt Cay was soon behind us. The wind was perfect, southeast, 20 knots. I had the compass, but Everette knew where to go. He and Scootie dozed, ate mangoes, and threw me oranges. I paddled at four knots, probably the slowest Everette had crossed the channel. I surfed downwind on 4 to 6 foot waves. We were scolded by thunderstorms whose towering cloud added yet another dimension to the dark water. What could be 7000 feet down? A local on Salt Cay, said, "Deys sharks out dere bigger'n my truck." The monsters minded their own their business, and after ten hours of windswept paddling, I saw South Caicos. It was roughest here at the north end of South Caicos and I felt like a recipe advising "Fold in the spaghetti..." Except I was the thing being folded in, and I invented a new command, "Shake until seasick".

The pier at Ocean Haven was Mother Earth. I fell into the arms of Diane and Bob Musselwhite, owners of a frontier dive operation on South Caicos. Their headquarters, Ocean Haven, had been a hotel, deceased through lack of clientele. I thought Bob and Diane might have crawled into the ramshackle, overpowering structure like a crab in a cast-off shell. But the longer I stayed at Ocean Haven, the more I knew their bold new venture had brought in the best of the TCI: Do your thing, but revere nature and honor the past.

South Caicos, termed the Forgotten Island, had forgotten to deplete its marine life. Wall diving at Ocean Haven was world class. South Caicos had a swashbuckling feel. Maybe I'd swing from the yardarm of a boat I saw irrevocably tilted in the harbor mud. The town looked rough, but if South Caicos was inhabited by former pirates, it assembled a posse of do-gooders for my benefit. I was directed to restaurants & stores. Famished, I stopped at Muriel's for conch, then Cafe Columbus for peas and rice.

I planned to paddle from South Caicos to the north side of Middle Caicos through Windward Going Through. The trip was 30 miles--if done as a paddler. But the Banks could be exposed at low tide, the bottom ankle-deep in places, neck-deep in others. My board drew two feet. Wading 15 miles of such terrain would tax a 19-year-old Navy Seal.  My purist spirit cringed when Bob suggested a boat drop me at Windward Going Through. But I searched for a boatman. Most South Caicos locals had a nickname. "Cow" Claire, I was told, had taken kayakers to Windward Going Through. Cow and a friend whose name might have been Horse had a boat. We skimmed the Banks to Windward Going Through, Alone at the entrance of the remote channel, I tasted countless degrees of wilderness. Like the Everglades this was a realm of waterways. Each meander knew its life's goal, but was heedless to the plans of others. My gps said I was al right, but was I lost? "Follow the horizon," Cow had said "Go where it looks clear." I saw rushing water, the flash of waves.

I'd made it through to the crystal and sapphire Atlantic with 15 miles yet to paddle along the shore of Middle Caicos to Blue Horizon Resort. Boat corpses strung along a measureless beach looked like the footprints of disaster. Near Conch Bar, I saw a ship skeleton. By its rusted bones, looking vulnerably small, yet like model escapists in paradise, were a pair of swimmers. "Look up," a swimmer said: Blue roofs, Blue Horizon.

Mike Witt, resort captain,  picked me up in...well...a golf cart on Viagra? Harmless-looking, the odd vehicle made a noise like a junk car-crusher, and charged uphill like a tank. Still, the area's desert and seascape poetry found voice in the Witt's tasteful clifftop resort. A poet also was Mike's mother, Dale. She handed me a sample of her poetry, and took me to a peaceful cabin. Mike and his wife, Mickey, counseled me on the Caicos' rough water crucible, Juniper Hole. Told I would spend the night on Parrot Cay, Dale said, "Not in that you won't!" I was wearing tattered shorts. Dale and I giggled like kids (Dale was 80) while Dale dressed me up. We settled on a fiery silk blouse, bone-pale pants and flip-flops that were fancier than my dive slippers.  "But Dale, I have to paddle with all that."

The Witts waved from above Mudjin Harbor as I paddled toward Juniper Hole, an undercut prow of rock that focused unpredictable current and had a giant barracuda as a resident. I fell off my board in the surf and was scraped on the reef, but made it through to Bottle Creek. Hardly a ripple stirred this lagoon, and the only living hazard were sting rays which swooped away like my former fears. I VHFed Howard Gibb, MC at Bottle Creek Lodge about my arrival.

"This is an echo lodge," Howard said. "You mean eecko-lodge?" I asked. Howard said he meant what he said and took me to see a composting toilet. The toilet stood six feet high, was reached by a staircase, and made an ominous--or should I say amorous--roar.

"Aint so bad." Howard winked. The view from the lodge, especially after a bottle of Guinness, was Green Euphoria: a green stripe of water below a green island below a green sky. Some greens, I noticed, were almost blue, but green still. Green Euphoria made you wonder. Howard and I discussed what it was like to run an eco-lodge in the middle of nowhere, and what it was like to paddle through nowhere. "And then," Howard admitted," there's Nothing." Nothing in the Turks and Caicos, Howard advised, was wonderful. But sometimes it was hard on him and his wife, Cheryl, who, I noticed, waited tables with great artistry--even love. "In the beginning there was something," Howard rambled. "When we were setting things up. Now there's nothing. But sometimes there's too much. The place is catching on... and no dishwasher."  Howard groped in a bag and pulled out a huge needle attached to a cylinder of compressed gas. The needle, Howard said (We had discussed the idea that my paddling might be safer if I had an anti-shark device) was plunged into the shark, the gas cylinder punctured. And the shark? "Well... Blooey!"

Nothing, I found, was riveting at Bottle Creek. I biked into the boonies which were everywhere on North Caicos, and learned Big Sky wasn't just a function of Montana. The sky in North Caicos was loud with color and purpose, thunderstorms. And Green Euphoria clung to the bottom of clouds and made me think I'd lost my mind.

"No one but a fool," Howard said, "could get lost going to Parrot Cay. Keep North Caicos on your left." I paddled away, and soon found myself, the fool. Bottle Creek divided into many creeks. My gps said, "Honey, you're lost," I raced through watery labyrinths and miles of empty conch shells in search of the sea. Would Howard say, Welcome back, you fool? Sages have said, "Give up and find the way." I cried, but when I saw current in the water, I thought Rivers flow to the sea. I climbed on my board and floated to sea. Dutifully following North Caico's coast, I arrived at Parrot Cay. I couldn't wait to wear Dale's fancy clothes and eat too much. I longed for surplus.

Certainly, at Parrot Cay, I got surfeit. Except Dale's clothes were just enough. I was proud to have paddled the clothes to their just reward of intended use. Parrot Cay had seen fancy clothes, and greater folk than me. But I was sure Parrot Cay had never seen red silk like Dale's, and never fed a hungrier guest than me.

Breakfast at Parrot Cay took me to my last day on tour. On North Caicos, I'd met Islanders who invited me to stay with them in Providenciales: Robbie and Fay cheered me to the conclusion of my adventure at Leeward Going Through. My friends' home was a place of magic circless, 360 degrees of sky and sea. One evening, we saw a little running boy. "See?" Robbie collapsed in laughter. Robbie had eyes, especially when he laughed, that reminded me of the luminous light I'd seen so often in nature in Turks & Caicos. Faye pointed at a tractor below the house. The tractor ran like the boy--with no one in it. "That boy," Robbie gloated, "turn on de tractor." How did the kid feel as he ran home? I wondered. Maybe, like me, he was scared to do something big. He did it. And he got away with it.



Copyright 2001 Susan Chaplin. All rights reserved.
Copyright 1996-2001 Eaton Enterprises. All rights reserved.
May not be republished without permission.