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When Bermuda Beckons

For ocean weary sailors in the mid Atlantic, the sight of the Town Cut leading into the sanctuary of St. George's Harbor is like spying an oasis in the Sahara.
A friend called the other day and after a bit of banter he came to the point. Mike has a lovely Beneteau 50 that he has sailed up down the east coast several times. Still, he doesn’t ‘speak sailing’ very well, which is actually a bit refreshing.

“I’ve been thinking about Bermuda, you know John, going out there from Newport, spending a couple of days and then shooting down to Lauderdale. It seems a like a better bet than fighting against the Gulf Stream, what do you think, I know you are always going on and on about Bermuda?”

“I think that sounds like a good plan, Mike, the offshore route is better, you don’t have to deal with as much traffic, and after four or five days you can stretch your legs. And yes, Bermuda is one of my favorite landfalls. I’m pretty sure there is a bar stool at the White Horse Tavern with your name on it.”

“Well here’s the deal, why don’t you sail out there with us? You can just slide up to Newport after the Annapolis Boat Show, and if there aren’t any hurricanes drifting around out there, we’ll hit the road around October 15. I’ll pay your going rate, just name it, but promise you won’t sing on watch.”

Some passages to the land of the famous onions are unremarkable, and others, as the author can attest, are the stuff of legend.
That was a most tempting offer. This, by the way, is the type of casual conversation that leads to most of my deliveries—it’s a very informal business. Although Mike has logged a few thousand miles, having made the coastal passage between Florida and New England four times, Bermuda will be his first offshore passage and landfall, and I could sense the excitement and seriousness in his voice. Bermuda does that to people.

I liked the prospect of sailing with Mike and his associate Frank, they’re good friends and good shipmates, and besides, I’m beginning to feel like a landlubber after a summer spent working on our boat, not sailing it. Also, the prospect of a nice paycheck for simply doing what I like best is always appealing, especially after a summer spent spending money, not earning it. And then of course there is Bermuda. The island triggers a host of sea stories adrift in the hard drive that rests on my shoulders.

I ran out fingers and nearly out of toes trying to remember how many times I’ve sailed to Bermuda. An unscientific survey, with a plus or minus error ratio that has increased with age, recalled 18 trips to the little fairy land in the Atlantic, in a great variety of boats. Unlike racers who descend on the island in frenzied mass, for me, ironically, Bermuda has never been a destination in it’s own right, always just a stop on the way to somewhere else. Maybe that’s why I think of the island so fondly, I have never spent more than a couple of weeks there at one stretch. Bermuda is my island mistress.

"Maybe that’s why I think of the island so fondly, I have never spent more than a couple of weeks there at one stretch. Bermuda is my island mistress."
With any mistress, or so I have been told, the rendezvous is the hard part and just getting to the island is always a challenge. Some of my toughest passages have been to Bermuda. Once anchored in the picturesque and protected St. George’s Harbor, however, the hardships of every passage fade away like a pale moon. There is terrific camaraderie with other yachties as everybody has come from someplace far away, and the pubs are only a stumble away from the dinghy dock. The island is small enough to comprehend yet big enough to keep you amused. And you never have to make a commitment to Bermuda, it’s just perfectly placed 600 miles offshore for your convenience. Sure it is expensive, but what mistress isn’t? Once you have dealt with necessary repairs, replenished provisions and renewed your spirit, you kiss your amiga goodbye and push off, bound for the Caribbean, Europe or North America, destinations where you do have commitments.

Like Mike, my first offshore passage was also to Bermuda, but his experience was Slocum-like compared to mine. I was a 22-year old, idealistic but woefully under-prepared skipper, sailing a 37-foot Jeanneau Gin Fizz sloop. I had purchased the boat in partnership with my mother, an odd arrangement that was further complicated by the fact that my 19-year-old girl friend was crew. Heading the wrong way, naturally, we ambled north from Miami in August, dipping in and out the Intracoastal Waterway. By mid October we realized it was getting colder, so we cleared out of Wrightsville Beach, NC, bound for Bermuda. A brisk northwest breeze hurried us on our way. I was a nervous wreck and despite the fact that we were making great progress, I was seasick and secretly terrified. What I had done?

Much of the azure waters that surround Bermuda are strewn with reefs, making landfalls here a serious business.
Once the coast faded from view the realities of the passage hit me like cold slap from an errant wave. Bermuda was 600 miles away; a tiny speck of island less than 20 miles long and all I had to guide us there was a plastic sextant. The fact that I had never actually had a sight work out, or least place our position within 20 miles of where we actually were, didn’t seem serious as we plied the coast. Now, heading for Bermuda, I realized that my wayward navigation was more than serious; it was downright dangerous.

Anyone who has been there knows that Bermuda is fringed by off-lying reefs and the only safe approach for a novice navigator coming from the west, is a southeasterly approach. I set a ridiculously cautious course to take us well south of the island. In between quick dashes to the rail, I perched myself at the nav station and studied the approach chart to Bermuda until every detail was etched into my brain. I also clandestinely studied my celestial navigation books and took a bewildering array of sights, my plotting sheet looked like kid’s rendering on an Etch-a-Sketch. Occasional chats with passing ships “confirmed” my scribbles and buoyed my confidence. After three straight 150-mile days we could almost taste the fish and chips. With typical hubris, I remember thinking, “hell this offshore sailing isn’t so hard after all.”

It doesn’t take a novelist to predict the next turn in this plot. Of course a northeast gale rolled in and clobbered us. We pounded into rising winds and confused seas for 24 hours, hoping to make landfall before it intensified. No such luck. Although my DR put us just 50 miles west of Bermuda we were stopped dead in our tracks, I decided to heave-to. One day rolled by, then another. I had no idea where we were, but I knew that at least we drifting away from Bermuda. Finally a rusty containership loomed on the horizon. I hailed the ship on the VHF and the Spanish Captain gave us a position. He was curious about the details of our voyage, but when I told him that my crew consisted of my mother and girlfriend I could hear the gasp at the other end of the microphone. “My friend,” he said, as only a Spaniard can, “I will lower the long boat and send over rum. You should never take a woman to sea!” I decided not to tell him that while I was frightened and seasick my mother was her usual perky self, smoking cigarettes and marveling at nature’s fury during the height of the gale.

"'My friend,' he said, as only a Spaniard can, 'I will lower the long boat and send over rum. You should never take a woman to sea!'"
The gale gave way, as they always do, and we were left bobbing and becalmed. Somehow water had found its way into the fuel rendering the engine useless. Finally on the eleventh day, we spotted the rolling green hills of Bermuda. I managed to bleed the mechanical monster and I will never forget motoring through Town Cut Channel into St. George’s harbor and gaping at the anchored boats. I was humbled but still proud, I felt like I had joined the fraternity of offshore sailors. Bermuda will do that to you.

Over the years Bermuda continued to play a role in my sailing affairs, wrangling her way into book chapters and magazine articles every chance she could. Bermuda was our shakedown destination on the first leg of our voyage from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn aboard Gigi, our stalwart Contessa 32. We weathered another nor’easter on the approach and doing so gave me confidence that maybe we might have the right stuff to make it around Cape Horn. Of course, leaving the Island a week later we ran into a late season tropical storm and suffered a violent, nearly dream-ending knock down, which shattered my newfound confidence. Ah Bermuda, I guess she wasn’t ready for me to leave.

One of the best parts about the picturesque environs of St. Georges Harbor is that several pubs are within stumbling distance of the main dinghy dock.
One of my longer stays on the island was when a cranky 50-foot schooner I was delivering across the Atlantic nearly sank en-route from Florida. We hauled the boat at the St. George’s Shipyard, and came to know a few islanders well as we scrambled around for parts to replace a cracked shaft log. With help from the classic colonial throwback administrator, Mr. Bullet, resplendent in his tie, sport coat, and Bermuda shorts, to the elusive scrap chap, a.k.a., the island junk man, we eventually put the boat back together and carried on.

Don’t get me wrong; I have had several delightful passages to and from the island. One in particular was pleasant reach north from St. Thomas aboard a lively Hinckley Bermuda 40. Another was with wife my wife Lesa, who was five months pregnant at the time. We were delivering a Gallart 44 across the Atlantic and enjoyed an idyllic six-day run from Ft. Lauderdale. Of course, the subsequent leg to the Azores was unusually rough, the result of showing up on the island with another woman no doubt. Just last year I sailed to Bermuda from the Caribbean aboard a Hylas 46 and had a magical passage. One my crew had lived in Honduras for 30 years and he was stupefied when we picked up a few provisions for the next leg to New York. A modest bunch of bananas cost $12.00.

“Twelve bucks,” he cried, “they won’t believe it back home when I tell them we paid a buck a banana.”

All this talk of Bermuda, it’s too much for me to take, I need to revisit my mistress. I can put off those writing assignments for a couple of weeks, I’m sure my editors will understand. Excuse me, but I have to sign off now, I need to call Mike back. 

Suggested Reading:

Stopover in Bermuda by Sue & Larry

Heading out to Bermuda by John Rousmaniere

Newport to Bermuda the Navigator's Race by Bill Biewenga

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