Paradise Found - The Turks and Caicos –- “When Chicken Was Invented”

A Great Time In VP5JM’s Hamlet

Tom Sowden K0GKD

Last fall I took a gander when I saw Jody Millspaugh’s Turks & Caicos island “hamlet” up for auction on the ARRL’s first online auction. Without knowing where the Turks & Caicos islands were, other then in the Caribbean, I pushed the bid button and presto I was the winning bidder! It was an easy decision - at the time it was snowing outside. Now what? I had to tell and sell the idea to my XYL and, of course, bring her along. Ham radio had to take a “back seat”, and rightfully so. For all I knew we would have to take a slow boat to find the place. Not so - US Air has great connections out of our home QTH, Kansas City. In fact we could leave in the morning and get there in the early afternoon? Book it! Shortly after my winning bid I got in touch with the owner, VP5JM – Jody Millspaugh. She suggested the last week in January as it was open on her calendar of availability. Wow! Things were happening fast, and with a promise to the XYL that “islanding” would be our main agenda we were ready to go. It seemed like we needed to know a lot more about this chain of islands in the Caribbean.

VP5JM's Hamlet

The Turks and Caicos Islands is a country of eight major islands and numerous uninhabited cays located 575 miles south of Miami. Somewhere I read that the locals claimed that the islands were the first landfall of Columbus. Reportedly on Grand Turk there is a monument in stone with this claim. The arrival of Europeans spelled the end for the Taínos Indians, the first known inhabitants. Most had either been forced into slavery or had succumbed to European-born diseases by the mid-16th century. Over the next few centuries, ownership of the islands bounced between the French, Spanish and British, ending finally with Great Britain. Despite the colonial struggle for power, the islands' development slowed down as they were not on the main sailing routes, possessed no gold or decent anchorages and lacked sufficient rain to grow sugar. The islands remained virtually uninhabited until 1678, when a group of Bermudans settled and began extracting salt and harvesting sisal for rope. Salt traders cleared the land and created the salinas (salt-drying pans) that still exist on many islands. The majority of the salt went aboard boats to supply the cod-fishing industries of New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

Jody Millspaugh (VP5JM) played a major role in the latter discovery of these islands. This incredible woman is living out a fantasy that most of us can only dream about. Consider this – Jody is a mother of three grown children, an accomplished pilot, an amateur radio operator, a sailor (and shipwreck survivor), a rated scuba diver, and above all a very nice person. She has been in and out of these islands for 37 years. She also hobnobbed with the seven dwarfs – a band of adventurers that brought this place to life in the early 1970’s. While the three children stayed home with their nanny, Jody and her husband Kirk would fly down in their Piper Aztec (Jody had her own plane, a Cessna 182, which she flew down on occasion) from their home in Maryland. They would land on Providenciales’s (the main island) makeshift airstrip, a runway cut out of the coral. There they would join the “seven dwarfs” at the only island hotel, the Third Turtle Inn. Arriving often times at night the hotel guests would drive out to the strip with one of three vehicles on the island to light up the runway. Interestingly among the seven were Teddy Roosevelt III and a couple of Dupont’s, and a good friend Billy Dobson. One of the seven, Ed Hegner, was known as “sweet lips”, a nickname he got due to his ability to sell anyone anything. Ed flew supplies and parts into the Island on a regular basis. Billy was skilled at driving the islands only bulldozer, something that became increasingly important in those early days. Also among the seven was Count Ferdinand Czernin, a son of the last prime minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Turtle Inn Location Today (The Original Inn Is Gone)

To hear Jody describe the islands one can only imagine what it was like in those early days. There was no electricity, phones, cars, gasoline, groceries, or other amenities. Everything had to be brought in by boat or plane. The islanders ate conch, fish, lobster, and iguanas; and so did the seven dwarfs. Jody recalls that a good-sized lobster cost fifty cents They actually got tired of eating lobster.

Are You Kidding Me - Four Bits Each!

In one of their early trips Kirk had acquired a generator and managed to get it shipped to the island. He also had a house trailer brought over that would double as an office and a place to sleep when the Third Turtle Inn was full. Jody fell in love with the islands from the moment she first set foot on Providenciales. Her growing passions for this paradise begin to instill a long-range plan that would eventually allow her to permanently settle here. Kirk did not share her enthusiasm, and they eventually divorced. After the divorce Jody had to spend most of her time in Maryland raising their children, Jo, Kirk Jr., and Nancy. Never losing site of her passion she was finally able to relocate to the islands in 1983. Her three children were grown and either in college or off and running on their own. The divorce was costly and she lost her airplane in the settlement, but not the land in Providenciales. In their settlement Jody managed to carve out a portion of the acreage she and Kirk had received in exchange for the large generator. Jody eventually built the “hamlet” with building materials that she traded for the office-trailer. As she now describes it – “my cost basis is one office-trailer.

From The Deck of VP5JM’s QTH

Probably the fact that there was no reliable method of communications prompted Jody to become an amateur radio operator. A friend and owner of one of the island’s only radio station, WIV, Bob Cooper (VP5D), helped her get licensed and start putting together a station. Just one more badge to go with her pilot’s license, scuba license, and sailing credentials et. al! It did not take long for the “magic” to take hold and she was ticketed in 1990 as VP5JM. She has been an avid amateur ever since involving herself in contests and expeditions. She still shies at never having told her mother about a DX-Pedition to Desecho, a remote island off the coast of Puerto Rico, with six men.

Jody with “Lizzy”

Over the years that followed there have been countless numbers of hams come and go, operating out of the “hamlet”. Jody has many friends and some special memories. Among them was a wedding she organized for Taka Murakami (JR4VDV) and his bride to be Sally. Taka wanted a church wedding in town. Acting as the bride’s maid, and getting a local islander to step in as the best man, Taka and Sally were married at Jody’s church and a reception was held on the deck overlooking the beautiful Caribbean. What a day for everyone!

Taka (JR4DVD) and Sally

One her most amazing guests was Giulio Nardone (I0LL) and his wife. Blinded later in life Giulio came to the islands to operate as VP5 and to scuba dive – just imagine! His dive master said later that the experience was amazing. The fish seemed to sense that they would not be harmed with him. A grouper actually allowed Giulio to wrap his arms around him. Giulio has written a book for blind divers, and also set up a museum in Italy with different species of coral so that blind people from all over the world can visit and “feel” the different corals. Jody lamented that she would observe Giulio’s wife setting with him on the upper deck in the “hamlet” describing the beauty of the ocean scenery, helping him visualize “paradise”.

We were intrigued with the rich background of this paradise “hamlet”, and wanted to take it all in during our one-week stay. With my XYL, Becky, we did it all - snorkeling, reading and hanging out, hitting the many wonderful restaurants, fishing, and just people watching. We also arranged a bone fishing trip, which was especially memorable since we met Hammerhead Joe. Hammerhead is the second oldest native fisherman on Providenciales. He told us the story of how he would walk by the Third Turtle Inn on his way to school. On one occasion he had to help pull an airplane out of the sand where it had nosed over in landing. Later in his young life he worked at the inn and knew all of the seven dwarfs, as well as Jody. I asked him what they would eat in those days. His response was “before chicken was invented we would eat fish, conch, and iguanas”! I could not help but chuckle.

Hammerhead Joe

The fishing experience Hammerhead orchestrated for us was awesome. After a fried grouper sandwich with fries, the house specialty at Giley’s (a “must” lunch), we took off for the conch banks nearby. In shallow water Hammerhead jumped out of the boat and within five minutes we he had ten Conch (pronounced 'konk'), which we would use for bait. Conch is the second best known edible snail, the first being escargot from Burgundy, France. It has been a popular food source throughout the Caribbean, and when prepared properly is delicious.

Conch

Once we had our bait we took off over the most beautiful flats I have ever seen. In about ten to 20 feet of perfectly crystal clear Caribbean water we sped to Hammerhead’s favorite fishing grounds. There are many small-uninhabited islands and cays throughout the Turks & Caicos, and they are wonderful breeding grounds for all kinds of different fish species. Bone fishing for the purist is usually done with a fly rod in shallow water, and this area is one of the world’s most famous for this prey. Since we wanted to “catch” a lot of fish we let Hammerhead call the shots, which was to use bait. It was not long before we saw a lot of top water action near one of the smaller cays, so we threw out the anchor. Hammerhead expertly removed the conch meat and baited up our hooks. With the current doing the work Becky got a good strike and with effort pulled in a nice bonefish. Almost simultaneously my rod bent over and I boated a two-pound snapper. We kept this up until the sun started to set, and then headed home. Seeing the sun drop to the horizon, casting multiple colors over the blue Caribbean was a site never to forget. What a day!

Heading Home

Of course during the time we had together I had to ask Hammerhead about his name. With the exact date and time to the second he told me the story. He was chasing a 15 lb. lobster when he noticed his hair was standing straight up and he knew he was not alone. Carefully turning around he saw a 17-foot hammerhead shark approaching. With lightening speed he headed for the surface and his rowboat. For the next two hours the shark repeatedly hit the boat looking for “hammerhead”. To this day any signs of sharks send chills up his back and he no longer dives.

At night with Becky watching television I took advantage of the “hamlet” Jody was able to get my license from the local government so I could operate as VP5/K0GKD. The hamlet is fully equipped with an Icom-738 transceiver, and antennas for all HF bands. In addition to two wire dipoles for 160M and 80M there is a tower with a Mosley Pro 67 for 10-40M. Also the roof supports yaggis for six meters. The dipoles work especially well as the “hamlet” is about 150 feet above the water built on solid rock. My guess is that the waveforms don’t see the ground until they hit the ocean. Most of my contacts were stateside with friends or just enjoying mini-pileups on 20M late in the day. There was a lot of confusion with my VP5 “stroke” call but it did not impede the fun. It was very easy to work South Africa, and the VK’s could be contacted with the beam headed either East or West.

We managed to take in most of the better restaurants, and our favorites were The Aqua Bar and Terrace, The Tike Hut Bar and Restaurant, the Saltmills Café, along with many more, all of them very good. We did not have to wait once and reservations were not necessary. The food was magnificent with many fresh fish entrees, and of course lobster – but not for fifty cents!

In looking back on this trip to paradise both my wife and I reminisced that this was our best vacation every. Don’t hesitate a minute if you get a chance to go and hang out in Jody’s “hamlet”. O yes, you may want to take a driving course on “left side” driving, and learn how to handle the “round-a-bouts” that make up most of the highways. Entering the latter is somewhat like a Chinese fire drill…cars seem to come at you from every direction. The big risk is the tourists who tend to drive on the “right” side!

Beaches on Grace Bay

More information on the “hamlet” is available on the web at www.vp5jm.com.