About 550 miles southeast of Miami, northeast of Cuba, and north of Hispaniola lay the islands of the Turks and Caicos, perched atop the world’s third largest coral reef.
Although contiguous to the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos haven’t been part of the same government since the Bahamas gained independence from Great Britain. The territory was governed independently from 1976 until 2009, when corruption led the United Kingdom to dissolve the government and make the islands part of the British Overseas territory.
Politics aside, the Turks and Caicos, which cover some 6,00 square miles, offer some of the best cruising grounds, diving, and unpopulated beaches to be found near the United States. Since the Turks and Caicos are so far south the climate is far less affected by fronts rolling off the U.S mainland than the northern Bahamas. The average low temperature in January is 73, and the average is 81. As with the main islands of the Caribbean (Puerto Rico is a shade over 400 miles from the Turks and Caicos) trade winds blowing from the east and northeast are the norm, and make for excellent sailing. As with the Bahamas, hurricane season isn’t the best time to cruise the Turks and Caicos.
Providenciales, referred to by many as Provo, is the main island of the Caicos and where the international airport is located; it has regularly scheduled flights to and from the U.S. There are several marinas, including three in very well-protected locations: the Cooper Jack marina and the South Side marina, both on the south side of Providenciales; and the Turtle Cove marina on the north side, which also has a great anchorage.
Some travelers have commented that Provo can be pricey, and that some of the marinas are less than welcoming to smaller yachts, but for provisioning and support, it’s a must.
Grand Turk is the main island of the Turks, and where Cockburn Town, the administrative capital of the islands is located. It’s also the home of a modern cruise ship terminal and a thriving tourist industry.
When entering the Turks and Caicos from the U.S. or the Bahamas, cruisers are required to check in with Customs, which can be found at the following locations:
Providenciales: South Dock, Caicos Marina & Shipyard, Sapodilla Bay, Turtle Cove Marina, Leeward Marina.
South Caicos: Government Dock, South Caicos Island. You’ll need to obtain a cruising permit ($300) if you’re staying longer than seven days. The fee is $100 for seven days.
Cruising guides are essential for the Turks and Caicos, as is good trip planning. The islands are spread out, and you’ll have passages as long as 45 to 80 miles in duration. For cruising guides check out Wavey Lines Publishing and the Explorer chart books. For some insider tips and tricks for the TCI, check out a great blog by some folks who have spent a lot of time there. Their pictures and descriptions will whet your appetite for cruising there.
Navigating the bank and reefs around the Turks and Caicos is relatively simple, as the water is wonderfully clear. Coral heads and rocks are clearly visible when the sun is high, and because the water is so clear they appear far closer than they actually are. All of the private chart companies’ charts and cruising guides show recommended routes, which is good because navigational aids are few and far between except at the ports of entries and main harbors. Shallow-draft vessels will fare better than deep draft, and as a result catamarans are as popular for bareboaters as they’ve become in the Bahamas and the rest of the Caribbean. At any draft, transiting the banks at night is never a good idea in this part of the world.
After leaving Provo, head across the Caicos Bank to less-crowded anchorages. The water is so shallow across the bank that anchoring is possible anywhere, even when you’re not near a harbor, but it may be a little bouncy if the breeze is up.
Heading to the east will take you towards North Caicos and Middle Caicos, where the water is between seven and three feet deep. If you stay outside of Gingerbread Channel the depths are better, averaging between seven and 14 feet. Anchorages can be found off Point Vine on Middle Caicos, about 22 miles from Provo, and off South Caicos, about 40 miles away. Both anchorages are in wildlife reserves, as are the anchorages off the tiny islands of Six Hill Cays, just to the west of South Caicos.
As you make your way down the bank there are many places to stop, such as French Cay, straight south from Provo and southeast of West Caicos. This tiny island is a popular stop and while it doesn’t offer anything in the way of amenities (it’s uninhabited), the snorkeling and diving are spectacular. The west side of the island is a perfect spot to look for migrating humpback whales.
Next stop are the Ambergris Cays at the eastern end of the world’s second-largest sandbar. Little Ambergris is unpopulated, and Big Ambergris is a private island being developed as a sportsman’s club and will soon be the site of a large marina. Anchorages for both islands can be found on the northern portion between the two islands.
South Caicos is a well-established, popular anchorage and offers provisioning. It’s a good spot to jump off from the Caicos Bank and make the deepwater passage to the Turks. The other island chain is less than 20 miles away, but plan the crossing carefully; it can be rough thanks to exposure to northeasterly winds and the swell.
The Turks are surrounded by very deep water and while they cover a much smaller area than the Caicos, they’re worth a visit. Thanks to the deep water, Grand Turk is a popular destination for large cruise ships and, as a result, can be quite busy ashore. There is shopping, fuel and water available. Flamingo Cove Marina, a small marina at the north end of the island that is tucked away in a hurricane hole at the end of North Creek, offers a couple of dock spaces accessible only to shallow-draft boats.
Salt Cay, seven miles away, is a less-crowded island, as are Cotton Cay, Pear Cay, and Pinzon Cay (also known as Pear Cay), and they’re all within easy striking distance of Grand Turk. Big Sand Cay, a protected wildlife sanctuary where one can only land with special permission, lies six miles south of Salt Cay and has an anchorage off the east side. It’s also the very last bit of land long-distance cruisers will see in the Turks before making the 75-mile leap down to Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.