For centuries sailing boats in the Turks and Caicos Islands was vital for trade, transport and communication. Here is a brief history of sailing in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Early European Explorers
  • Christopher Columbus set sail from Europe in three caravels, the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta, to find the western route to Asia. He made his legendary landfall on Grand Turk on the morning of 12th October 1492.
  • Juan Ponce de Leon set sail from Puerto Rico in 1512 and stopped at Grand Turk on route to exploring the Bahamian islands and searching for the mythical fountain of youth. He ended up finding Florida.
  • In 1563 Captain John Hawkins, the first Englishman to visit the Turks and Caicos Islands collected salt in the Caicos Island before sailing back across the Atlantic.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh, on route to establishing the colony of Virginia in 1587, sailed to the islands and hunted flamingos on West Caicos.
bermudian sloop caicos islands
Caribbean & Turques map

The Turks Islands owe the origin of their name to the Mediterranean term ‘turning turk’ which insinuated becoming a pirate. Introduced to more efficient ‘roundships’ in the early 1600s, pirates expanded their trade across the Atlantic. A pirate base was established on an island north of Hispaniola which preyed on the Spanish trade there. They subsequently dubbed the island Grand Turk. Piracy became rife throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. Pirates captured many different types of vessel from their victims. Some were kept, others were sunk. The preferred boats for pirating were the small low drafted sloops and brigantines (refers to the rig rather than the hull), which were typically larger but fast and manoeuvrable. The pirates attack shipping vessels or ports and then retreated quickly to the shallow waters around the Turks and Caicos where larger naval ships were often unable to follow. The islands were also used as raiding bases by privateers. These merchant seamen engaged in maritime warfare under commissions of war (also known as ‘letters of marque’) against a nation’s enemy vessels. The captured vessels and cargo were sold off and the proceeds divided.

Bermudian Sloops: workhorses of the Caribbean

The late 1600s saw Bermudian trading sloops stop in at the Turks Islands to collect the naturally occurring salt. It was a practice that grew into an industry lasting 300 years. Early Bermudian boat builders, with roots in Devon, designed and built small 40-100ft vessels from Bermudian cedar that proved fast and kind in a moderate sea. The long upwind passage from Bermuda to the Turks Islands resulted in innovative masts that allowed them to sail closer to the wind than other vessels at that time. In good conditions, the upwind journey could be made in five days. Soon these Bermudian Sloops became the mainstay of the Caribbean trade and their design was incorporated into the American Clippers.

Large Bermuda Sloop
Traditional Sloop Turks and Caicos
Local Sloops

The growth of the TCI colony during the 19th century attracted larger vessels but it was the smaller ‘Salt Lighters’ and Caicos Sloops that were used for inter-island trade, transport and communication. These vessels, ranging from 20 to 50ft in length became the backbone of the country and were of great importance to scattered island communities throughout the 19th century and most of the 20th century. Boat builders were subsequently held in high regard.

South Caicos regatta
Big South Regatta

In 1966 Caicos Sloops were the vessels of the day when Queen Elizabeth II came to visit South Caicos in grand style aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. The flotilla of attractive native built vessels that sailed through Cockburn Harbour on a beautiful morning in May to commemorate her visit inspired the annual ‘Big South’ Regatta. The sailing regatta has evolved and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017.


south caicos regatta
HMS Britannia South Caicos 1966
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip South Caicos 1966