July 12, 2008 – Saturday – Crossing Over

By Donald Keith

The Explorer, tied to the dock on Grand Turk, comes to life about 5:00 AM. Captain Chabot wants to get an early start so we can get to our mooring off East Caicos and get to work as soon as possible. I appreciate his aggressive attitude. One third of our charter time is behind us now and only two weeks are left. We need to make hay while the sun shines.

I check our progress against the expedition plan and realize that despite the fact that we are essentially running the plan backwards, and have lost a day to bad weather, we are still only a day behind. The crossing to Grand Turk had been swift, with loading finished before dark. Collecting our equipment and refueling on Grand Turk had gone remarkably smoothly, largely due to the efforts of Museum Director Neal Hitch and supporter Neil Saxton who had moved the bulk of our equipment from the Museum to the dock in his flatbed truck.

We cast off a little after 6:00 AM and head across the Turks Island Pass. Our trip is uneventful with the sea quite calm as compared to other seasons and other crossings, giving me time for reflection. So far, we have been remarkably lucky: other than the four or five victims of Blue Liners Disease there have been no injuries worth mentioning. We found and documented the Chippewa more quickly than anticipated in spite of the absence of most of our equipment. Three of us even lucked into the once-in-a-lifetime experience of spending the better part of an hour with a friendly 40-ft whale shark.

Crossing the Turks Island Pass provides a symbolic shift in the expedition’s focus and purpose. We have worked together long enough to start thinking of ourselves as a team. Now we have all of our equipment and supplies and are far more capable than we were. We have our sea legs and the Explorer feels like home. Now people know where things are and who is supposed to do what. But the biggest challenge is still ahead of us: our continuing search for the slave ship Trouvadore. From this point forward things are going to get complicated—and highly weather dependent.

The day is bright with a light breeze from the southeast. The sea is calm. But as the Explorer rounds Phillips Reef off East Caicos I get a chill thinking about all the ships and crews that went to the bottom of the sea here. The records are full of them. It is a perfect ship trap that still to this day claims the unfortunate, unlucky, or inattentive mariner. We round Drum Point, the easternmost point of the Caicos Islands, and finally arrive at our intended anchorage only to discover that the reef is a roiling white cauldron as big, slow swells rolling in from the Atlantic, crash onto the reef that claimed Trouvadore and other vessels through time immemorial. The violent reef is not a welcome sight. We’ve been here twice before, of course, but this is the worst we’ve seen, and probably testimony to the power of hurricane Bertha, now hundreds of miles away and veering to the north but still a category 3 hurricane. We moor the Explorer in 50 feet where it will be somewhat in the lee of Drum Point.

Not wanting or needing to cross the Turks Island Pass with the Explorer, Robert Krieble and DECR Officer Levardo Talbot, took their boats to South Caicos yesterday and spent the night as guests of the School for Field Studies there. Now they rendezvous with us and tie astern. Levardo’s boat, a 33- ft sailing catamaran converted to outboard engine power, will play a critical, but risky, part of our expedition: to take position over the Black Rock Wreck (the only wooden shipwreck site we’ve found so far that could be Trouvadore) and serve as the surface support platform for all diving operations on the site.

The problem is that to get to the site he has to find an opening in the reef, surf through the breakers, and then scout a way through the maze of coral heads and shoals inside the lagoon until he reaches the Black Rock Wreck. It is a Herculean task requiring a sharp eye, a steady hand, and a willingness to take risks. We are rapidly running out of daylight. I encourage him to wait until tomorrow, but he sees no reason to wait—the tide is right and conditions will be no better tomorrow. If Levardo can position the TT Anwar over the site before dark we can start the excavation tomorrow. I ask him who he wants to take with him. He says, “Somebody who won’t complain . . . .” In the end he picks Jack and Joe and quickly scouts the route in one of our inflatable boats. Then, convinced he can make it, immediately returns to retrieve TT from the Explorer, add Randy to the team, and dash once more into the breach. I like his attitude.

An hour passes. We can’t see them from the Explorer, but radio traffic tells us the team reaches the wreck site and successfully moors TT. Another hour passes. I start to worry. Maybe I shouldn’t have let them go. But as darkness falls, the Away Team, as I have dubbed them, returns to the Explorer, weary but triumphant. Mission accomplished.