The Islands of Bermuda

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A cruising crossroads

After another season in the Caribbean, the plan this year had been to head west for Panama and the Pacific Ocean. But we hadn’t gotten as far as we wanted last year when we cruised the US East Coast. That combined with the threat of an El Niño event this season (and I’ve crossed the Pacific before in an El Niño year), we decided to head north again to check out Maine and Nova Scotia. Setting out from the BVI, Bermuda seemed like a logical place to stop on the way.
Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Handbook suggests that Bermuda “has little to offer in the way of cruising”… but we were sailing in company with friends who have that most important navigational resource: local knowledge.
We cleared out with customs in Spanishtown, Virgin Gorda, and weighed anchor on May 16th. Quite a number of boats were headed our way around the same time, some bound for New England, others for Europe via the Azores. Bermuda makes a convenient stop for both these routes, one of the reasons it sees around 1,000 visiting yachts every year.

The islands of Bermuda

Making the most of Bermuda’s anchorages with our Athena 38 before heading North again.

Our passage north

Sailing conditions were just perfect for us: four days with an easterly wind between 12 and 20 knots, which moved slowly round to the south and died away to nothing on the fifth day. There was a reasonable swell out of the east, but this was no problem for our Founatine Pajot. We stayed in contact with friends on another cat throughout this passage. At 44 feet, their South African cat was faster than us, but with much lower bridgedeck clearance, the easterly swell made things uncomfortable for them, meaning they couldn’t stick to the rhumb line and leading them to cover a lot more distance. We arrived almost at the same time, having covered around a hundred miles less than them. Further confirmation we had chosen the right boat. And if any more proof were required, we were in communication with a three monohulls which set out the day after us. They were taking weather routing advice from ashore via SSB, whereas I prefer to download the grib files and make my own opinion. The advice they got was that a weather system was coming through and that they should heave-to, south of 24°N, to sit it out. This was confirmed by the dying wind and rainfall on our last day, but I was confident we would be well in Bermuda by the time it arrived, so we pressed on. Two of our monohull friends hove to for several days in 30 to 40 knots of wind, quite safe, but it can’t have been too much fun, and the third abandoned the plan altogether and made a new course for Puerto Rico. We were tucked up in shelter by then, but more of that later…
We motored the last 24 hours, unfortunately picking up a bunch of rope in our port propeller a few hours out. This looked like it was going to be a nuisance to clear, so we continued on one engine with no problems.
After radioing ahead we passed through the narrow Town Cut to enter Saint George’s Harbour, and were alongside the customs dock at the end of our fifth day at sea. As we approached, two customs officers came out to help us tie up. In all our thousands of miles of cruising, that’s a first. I am starting to like this place already! With formalities quickly and easily completed, we moved off the dock to anchor to the east of Ordnance Island. The fouled prop could wait for tomorrow.

The islands of Bermuda

The famous caves which were formerly used by smugglers

The Islands of Bermuda

Bermuda is actually made up of around 150 small islands, the largest of which are linked by causeways and bridges. They are bathed by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, and the most northerly coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean surround the islands, extending many miles offshore. The dangers of the reef are evidenced by the fact that Bermuda claims to have more shipwrecks per square mile than anywhere else on Earth. Perhaps this is another reason why visiting yachts tend to only stay in St.George’s, with crews preferring to visit the islands by road.
As I mentioned earlier, some friends on another boat have good local knowledge, having visited many times. With the approaching weather front, we took their advice and got the anchor up, followed them through Ferry Reach, the narrow channel between St.George’s and St.David’s Islands, and dropped the hook again in the shelter of Shelly Bay, to await the blow. Apparently the following day, the wind outside was blowing at gale force, but we felt little more than a force 4. The family enjoyed playing on the beach, and visiting the nearby aquarium and zoo. Sure beats being hove-to on a monohull in 40 knots!
After a couple of days the wind was out of the west, but had become quite light. We left our friends and continued on our own, anchoring for a night at Clarence Bay. Here we walked up the hill via caves used by smugglers in days gone by, and strolled around Admiralty Park. Being keen divers, we were pleased to find the home of the Bermuda Sub-Aqua Club, which was most welcoming of us foreign visitors and we enjoyed a great evening in the clubhouse.
Next morning we weighed anchor and continued our journey round toward Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital, where we anchored for the day just east of White’s Island. This left us with a short ride in the dinghy to be in Hamilton in time for lunch. Like the rest of the island, Hamilton is clean and neat and obviously well looked-after. People are friendly and polite.
Another couple of miles late afternoon saw us making the most of our cat’s shallow draft, anchoring just off Long Island in the shelter of several picturesque little islets. With clear water we could see plenty of fish around, so decided it was time for dinner. Fairly quickly Lorraine had caught a couple of Bermuda Chub, using only a handline, and we had them straight onto the barbecue. That’s as fresh as it gets!

The islands of Bermuda

All you need do for dinner is put out a line. It doesn’t get much fresher than this…

The world’s smallest drawbridge. And a little bit of history…

The next night was a quiet one for us, anchored in Riddell’s Bay, and then the following morning across to Somerset Island, where we anchored off Fowle’s Point. From here we took the dinghy down to Somerset Bridge which joins Somerset Island with the mainland. This is reported to be the world’s smallest working drawbridge. It dates back to around 1620, though I doubt much of the structure is original. In the center of the bridge is a timber panel measuring just 14 inches (35cm) across, which can be removed to allow a boat with an unstayed mast to slip through the gap. We went underneath in the dinghy and unfortunately didn’t see it in operation. A picture of the bridge features on the back of the Bermuda five pound note. We don’t have any of those left though.
The following afternoon we motored north just half an hour, and anchored south of the dockyard, rejoining friends also anchored there. A short dinghy ride ashore took us into the heart of the former dockyard area, now given over to tourism. It is here that the enormous cruise ships dock, disembarking their thousands of passengers into this historic part of Bermuda.
The Royal Naval Dockyard was the main Western Atlantic base for Britain’s Royal Navy from the time of the American War of Independence right up until the Cold War. The history of warfare at sea in Bermuda goes back long before that, however. It is believed that French corsairs and privateers used Bermuda as a base from which to attack Spanish ships returning from the New World in the 16th century. During the First and Second World Wars warships based here played a significant role in the protection of the convoys of merchant ships, with the dockyard eventually closing in the 1950s. Both the US Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy maintained a presence here until as recently as 1995, but from the 1980s onwards, much of the area was being developed for tourism. Many of the buildings have been renovated and the area now houses a maritime museum and a shopping mall. The mall is really aimed at the cruise ship passengers, selling souvenirs and so on which are of no real interest to us “proper” cruisers! The museum was pretty interesting though.

The islands of Bermuda

The smallest drawbridge in the world…

Out to the reef

Returning back to the anchorage, we met up with the other boats again and discussed plans for the following day. The weather forecast was for light conditions, ideal for going out to check out the reef. So next morning we got the anchor up and followed our friends out toward the reef via the North Channel. The charts show much of this area as “inadequately surveyed”, which probably accounts for the high density of shipwrecks. I was very glad to be following someone who knew the area well, but nonetheless we kept a very good lookout for coral heads and a couple of times we passed through some pretty tight gaps. Definitely something only for very calm days. Eventually we came into an open sandy area, where our little convoy of two catamarans and a monohull anchored in 6 meters of crystal turquoise water, around a mile east-southeast of North Rock. We swam, we snorkeled and we dived. The reef was alive with beautiful fish and colorful coral, and with not a breath of wind we spent a wonderful, peaceful night at anchor in the middle of the reef.
By dawn the wind was just starting to pick up again, out of the southwest. Time to get the anchor up again and head back to St.George’s, and with full mainsail and genoa we had a nice gentle sail and were anchored off Ordnance Island again by lunchtime. Our friends who had been hove-to in the gale while we were enjoying ourselves had arrived by now, so there was a bit of a reunion. We spent some days touring Bermuda using the local bus service and the ferries, including a visit to Gibb’s Hill lighthouse. This is the tallest lighthouse in Bermuda, and built in 1844, was the first lighthouse in the world to be made of cast iron. The top is at 108 meters above sea level and apparently airplanes can see the light at a distance of over one hundred miles. We climbed the many steps to the top for a great view across the islands. Anyone who knows me well will realize what an achievement this was, as I don’t deal well with heights. On board I like to keep my feet firmly on the deck, and it is always Lorraine who goes up the mast should that be necessary. As nice as the view was from the top, I was very glad to get back down again. I also made a trip up to visit Bermuda Radio. In my previous life I spent ten years working as radio operator at a Coastguard radio station, so it was interesting for me to see what went on there. Unfortunately they don’t have any jobs going right now. One last little trip saw several cruising boats round at Castle Harbour for a memorable evening’s beach party, with an international flavor with cruisers from the UK, France, the US and Canada. Then we were all back to St.George’s again the following morning, where thoughts were turning to putting to sea once more. June has brought the “official” start of the hurricane season, so we’d better get shifting.

The islands of Bermuda

Bermuda is a real cruising crossroads.

Time to move on again

Eventually it became time for everyone to go their separate ways. With our outbound customs clearance done, we were allowed to fill up with duty-free diesel prior to departing. Some boats were headed west, to cruise the Chesapeake for the summer, some northwest, bound for New York and the Hudson River and then up onto the Great Lakes, others turning east and heading home to Europe via the Azores. This place truly is a maritime crossroads. As for us, the plan had been to sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia. But on further investigation, it turns out it’s still pretty cold up there this time of year, with overnight temperatures down as low as 7°C. We didn’t fancy that much, so decided we would make for Newport, Rhode Island, one of our favorite places, and then take it slowly up the coast of Massachusets, New Hampshire and Maine, before heading across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia later in the summer when hopefully it would be a little warmer. But that’s another story…

The islands of Bermuda

Thanks to our friends on Dragonfly for helping us discover Bermuda… Great guides!

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