Last night was the challenge. This morning — after more than 600 miles of ocean sailing and with a strong wind out of the west, a high overcast above Robin’s mast and Bermuda just over the horizon — should be the reward.
The fall of darkness last night followed a spectacular sunset over the incredibly blue Atlantic. Puffy clouds painted pink drifted across the sky to the south, and then as the dark of evening surrounded the boat, there was the incandescent glow of civilization rising where those clouds had been. My heart, seven days at sea, swelled.
And so did the wind. First came the Force 6 and 7 winds that were foretold earlier that morning by mare’s tail clouds. And then a front arrived, bringing jagged lightning, horizontal rain and, at times, nearly double the wind speed. Robin rocketed along at 7.5 knots three miles north of Bermuda’s legendary reefs until, in the early hours today, I could see nothing on the radar but the green of the squall. I hove-to and slept for two hours.
Now, with double-reefed mainsail and the staysail replacing the big genoa, I’m on a course due south, still skirting the reefs but headed almost directly for landfall. Robin is heeled to port. I’m up to starboard, my feet braced, both hands on the tiller. Again we’re sailing at better than 7 knots. I feel as I would sailing a dinghy over the 8- to 10-foot beam sea. Robin strains ahead like a willful horse smelling the barn in the breeze. And now there is a small hump on the horizon. Land. What a wonderful feeling. We’ll be in Bermuda before noon.
It took a race — the 2007 Bermuda One-Two — to lure me away from the psychological comfort of coastal cruising. I won’t say it is no big deal to be arriving on a foreign shore after nearly eight days at sea. But having completed this passage, I can recommend it to sailors and powerboaters alike, as long as they have bluewater-capable vessels.
For the offshore adventure and the beauty of both the passage and the destination, planning a cruise to Bermuda from anywhere on the East Coast is worth the considerable effort. At sea, I landed a mahi-mahi, flashing iridescent blue and jewelry-grade gold as it sliced through the water; watched incredible sunsets and dawns; and gazed in awe at the stars in the limitless, black heavens.
Ashore, Bermuda’s lush tropical foliage is offset by the harbor and reef water — somewhere between opal and topaz — and the pastel buildings in pinks and blues with white roofs. Of course, there is the pink sand, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the beauty, there is the bureaucracy. There are some formalities that accompany a Bermuda cruise. You will need to clear customs in St. George’s on the island’s east end. This requires entering the local harbor, and on any vessel — small or large — your entrance will be spectacular. You will pass through Town Cut.
Blasted from the black limestone that caps the volcanic bedrock of Bermuda, Town Cut is a short (300 yards long) channel between two cliffs. It is wide enough to permit cruise ships pregnant with 2,000 passengers to pass — one at a time and, to all appearances, just barely. (The width is about 200 feet.) You will almost certainly not sail into St. George’s Harbor because you will be heading into the prevailing wind, with little room to tack.
Nor will you be able to see Town Cut when first you turn west after passing the reefs at Northeast Breaker, Kitchen Shoal and Mills Breaker Ledge, giving all a wide berth. But you will have help. If you have left your VHF on channel 16 during your voyage, you will have begun, while still 150 miles away, hearing the very British voices of the duty officers at Bermuda Harbour Radio talking to vessels coming or going from the archipelago. When you are about 50 miles from Bermuda, you should have attempted to call Bermuda Radio yourself, letting them know you are coming. Indeed, that agency requests that you submit a lengthy checklist well before you arrive to help them know who is out there. (Bermuda Radio — www.rccbermuda.bm — coordinates search-and-rescue operations around the islands.)
The communications will become more frequent as you draw closer to Bermuda; once you reach Mills Breaker Buoy, the congenial voices of Bermuda Radio will help guide you to Town Cut if you wish. In decent weather, they can see you from their perch in a white stucco station, surrounded by a dry moat atop Fort George Hill and with a view of most of the 22-square-mile, scorpion-shaped string of some 140 islands that are Bermuda. (Tours of the station can be scheduled.) The radio operators guided 473 ships and 946 private yachts in and out of St. George’s Harbor in 2007.
After Robin’s brief passage through Town Cut, the duty officer gave me landmarks to direct me to the customs office, the mandatory first stop. As I recall, it was behind a “colonial-type building,” a description not completely helpful given my lack of architectural acumen. However, I did find the customs dock, and in a trance induced by my time at sea I was able to complete the paperwork in about five minutes, with the help of a patient and polite woman. This would be my first of many encounters with the genuine hospitality of the islanders.
Then I motored my Westsail 32 east across the harbor and anchored off the St. George’s Dinghy & Sports Club in about 15 feet of water with a good-holding bottom. The cost of parking your boat ranges from free on up. The club, which hosted our race, charges $1.50 a foot to use its dock; there is no charge for anchoring. Cruisers are welcome except when a race is in progress. This is a working-man’s club with showers, laundry, free wireless Internet and a bar.
At the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in Hamilton, halfway down the island chain, the facilities are more upscale, and the rate for a slip is around $3 a foot. There also are some marinas, and dock space can be rented in St. George’s at the town docks when the cruise ships aren’t moored there. Some who visit Bermuda by boat want lodging ashore rather than remaining aboard during their stay. The options range from in-law apartments to posh beachfront hotels.
Monica, my wife, met me in Bermuda. The plan was for her to arrive seven days after I left Newport, R.I., and to join me on the boat until we raced back to Newport together. (For those who are unfamiliar with the Bermuda One-Two, the passage from Newport to Bermuda is sailed single-handed, the return double-handed.) But I was late arriving, so she booked a room at the Royal Palms Hotel in Hamilton. The rooms are in cottages and two former manor houses, and there is an open-sided restaurant where you can eat the complimentary breakfast of scones, fresh fruit and an assortment of meats and eggs while tropical birds fly in and out. Lush gardens of frangipani, oleander and bougainvillea surround the hotel. There is no beach view because you are on a residential side street of the city. The room rate was $375 a night — not exactly Motel 6. The $500 rooms are in the beachfront hotels.
In season, the more affordable accommodations frequently are booked well in advance. “You really should do your homework” if you want a place to stay on land, says Eric Johnson, an Annapolis, Md., sailor who has cruised to Bermuda seven times. “It’s not too early to do it a year in advance, especially in the summer. If you think you’re early, you’re not.”
Johnson stays in one of the private homes near the center of St. George’s and says he pays $85 a night for a room with a kitchenette and laundry facilities. He suggests talking with sailors who have raced to Bermuda to learn about inexpensive private accommodations.
I joined Monica at the Royal Palms the night I arrived in Bermuda. The following morning, we returned to St. George’s on one of the islands’ reliable pink buses, and then hiked back to Robin. There we met fellow racer Peter McCrea, who suggested we rent a motor scooter. It was good advice. The cost was $178 for four days — the time we had left in Bermuda. We quickly adapted to driving on the left side of the narrow, winding roads, and our exploration of the islands began.
Scents and colors
In four days, one can only hope to begin absorbing the beauty of the place in its broadest strokes. I am left with the colors, the cleanliness and the congeniality of the people. We scootered to the beaches along the southern coast, where the sand, indeed, has a pink hue and the coral formations are breathtaking. We paid $16 each — U.S. dollars are interchangeable with Bermuda dollars — to tour Crystal Caves, a limestone formation fed directly be seawater. One day, we boarded a high-speed ferry in St. George’s to take in the Navy Dockyards at the far end of the islands, an historic fortification maintained as a museum, embraced by places for tourists to spend money.
There was much more to do and see, of course, so I have enlisted the memories of some other Bermuda visitors to help fill in my blanks.
“Tobacco Bay is a popular tourist spot on the north side of the Island,” says Dan Stadtlander, a Connecticut sailor and aircraft engineer. “The snorkeling and marine life is second to none. It’s just like a postcard or swimming in an aquarium. The fish are absolutely tame and will swim right up to you if you splash the surface. There are caves and other formations to swim around. You can rent snorkeling equipment there or bring your own, which you should have on the boat anyway. There is no charge to visit Tobacco Bay.”
Peter McCrea, a retired executive from Maine and a woodworking artisan, offers these “vivid recollections” culled from a dozen visits to Bermuda. “The scent of fragrant flowers as one approaches the reefs. The joy of safe landfall at a beautiful destination. Savoring an anchored-out evening, having drinks and dinner with friends, with the cacophony of peepers reaching out to us from land. Enjoying the locals’ fish chowder, spiced with sherry peppers and Goslings rum, at the Black Horse Tavern in St. Davids. Heineken at Bluebeards. And steak and kidney pie at the Hog Penny in Hamilton.”
McCrea’s wife, Peggy, an artist, has her own memories. “My personal excitement over a Bermuda landfall from Block Island [R.I.] started after we punched through the [Gulf] Stream,” she says. “Temperatures were noticeably warmer, and the sea took up the wonderful Caribbean hue, changing from a dark blue-green turquoise to a brilliant, almost surreal crystal blue. Tropicbirds and dolphins — the tropical pets of the sea — are plentiful. Drawing closer to the island, the smell of tropical blossoms is almost overwhelming, as if sprayed by a perfume atomizer.
“The first night of sleep, once safely anchored in the protected harbor of St. George’s, is the deepest and most restful sleep one can experience,” she says. “You hear nothing, you feel nothing. When you awake the next morning and climb into the cockpit your senses are bathed in spellbinding, brilliant color. Blinding turquoise water spans from the boat to shoreline, where it switches to brilliant shades of pinks, corals, blues, enveloped in lush green cactus and palm fronds.
“After attending a concert in the St. George’s town square,” Peggy McCrea recalls, “my journal comments include a description of the people we encounter: smiling, talking, happy, friendly, comfortable, honest, safe, black, white, upbeat.”
None of us has yet mentioned the first fact that strikes you when you step ashore in Bermuda: While mass transit is an affordable and convenient way to get around, almost everything else is expensive. This is not surprising when you consider that almost all goods have to be imported. So bring lots of money and expect to spend some of it. If you arrive by powerboat and need to fill your tanks to make it back to the States, expect to pay double what marinas charge at home. The price for gasoline early this year was $7 a gallon.
You can save on fuel expenses by stopping at the marina at the Royal Naval Dockyard, where your purchase will be duty-free. Getting to the dockyard — or to Hamilton or any of the other landings in Bermuda — requires following a course through reefs marked by buoys. Another option, according to Brian Oatley, rear commodore of the St. George’s Dinghy & Sports Club, is to get together with other boaters and arrange for a dockside delivery by a local fuel truck in St. George’s. You will need enough boats to make it worth the trucker’s time, but, again, your purchase will be duty-free.
I can recommend that your visit be part of a race for one good reason: Race organizers in all of the events in which Bermuda is the destination require that you and your boat meet strict safety standards. This is a good way to make certain you are not one of the statistics out there.
But about halfway into my voyage to Bermuda, I encountered evidence that this is not the only way. The moon had set, and Robin was lolling on a windless sea when, dead ahead, I saw a green light. I got on the radio and discovered that a sailboat — a Tartan 40 named Tigress, from Kent Island, Md. — was headed home under power. Later, I contacted Tigress’ owner, Robert Urlwin of Wilmington, Del. He had sailed with a crew of four to Bermuda and was returning with three crewmembers. He wasn’t racing, so when the wind died he just turned on the engine.
Urlwin says he belongs to no yacht clubs. “If I owned a motorcycle, I would not join a motorcycle club,” he explains. “I just do what I want to do. Therefore, I just teach myself.”
Urlwin planned his trip to Bermuda for a year and then slipped the lines. “It was less eventful than I expected,” he says. “I kind of wanted some weather, not too much.”
Monica and I headed back to Newport on the double-handed leg of our race with plenty of reasons to return to Bermuda. We took nearly as long getting back as I had spent sailing over. The wind remained fickle, and we managed to find more dead air than anyone else.
“I think going by boat, especially if you can motor, is a delightful — and inexpensive — way to go to a beautiful island,” she says.
For me, the voyage and the visit were the most fruitful three weeks that I have ever spent on a boat.