Ordnance Island, just off St George's - where customs and immigration procedures are completed for all private boats arriving in Bermuda
WARNING - this is a very long post - don't even think of starting unless you have an hour to spare.. OK - you were warned!
[Kyle] Bermuda is one of the few places that I have ever been that I had almost no preconceived notions about before I got there. I had almost gone out there for a few days on a whim many years ago, but at the last minute, the flights filled up and I ended up going somewhere else. At that time, I went to the library and skimmed a guidebook on Bermuda, mostly for entry requirements, etc. I was able to get the general gist that it was a pleasant enough place. There were a few pictures of sandy beaches and palm trees – the stuff you see in guidebooks for almost any island in a warm climate. This last point of advertising may explain why a lot of people I meet think that Bermuda is a tropical island in the Caribbean. Not so. Of course, Bermuda is a series of islands in the Atlantic almost 400 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer. The nearest point of land is Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Technically, it is a temperate island whose climate is moderated significantly by the warm waters east of the Gulf Stream.
With all of this in mind, I tended to avoid making any mental association between Bermuda and tropical islands. Maryanne and I had not originally planned to stop in Bermuda except as a contingency stop for emergencies/repairs until a couple of months ago. Once we were safely in the BVI, I realized I could bid a large block of days off in May for the passage to Bermuda. This would allow me to push my three month leave back a month and allow more time for the passage to Ireland/Scotland, which would also simplify my commute once we got there. Once we decided to make the stop in Bermuda, Maryanne and I were pretty busy with passage planning and preparation to worry too much about what Bermuda was like. We were going anyway, so it didn’t seem to matter much. We studied up enough to know what the entry requirements were and then it was time to leave.
Approaching from the south, the archipelago doesn’t honestly look like much. The islands are low and are not visible as much more than smudges on the horizon until within 15 miles or so, quite a contrast to the towering mountains of the Caribbean that were visible for 50 miles or so.
Our first real contact with Bermuda came about 150 miles south when we started picking up Bermuda Radio’s half of its conversations with arriving boats. They were always patient and helpful, even when they had to repeat themselves several times. They seemed to understand that every one of us out there had been sailing for days just to get that far and were probably tired and worn out and that a little understanding through the radio could be a big reassurance on a vast and indifferent sea. When they went to the trouble to forward Happy Cat’s welcome to us just as the weather turned cold and nasty, it really made the day seem better.
Once we cleared in (again, super nice people), we took Footprint to the anchorage and after several tries, we found a place we liked and settled in for a good long sleep and a lazy morning the next day. Eventually we got moving and took the dinghy out of life boat mode and made the row ashore to run some errands and have a look at the town of St. George.
As I was getting ready, a Norwegian named Lars came over from the boat "My Tina" to say hi and to tell me how impressed he was with my wife. He had seen us making our many anchoring attempts the night before and was just sure he was about to witness me getting chewed out for making her crank up all of that chain over and over again, which never happened. He was very friendly and we talked a bit before he left. He had said that he had gone into town to try to buy some Norwegian Aquavit to toast their arrival and to make an offering to Neptune for the safe passage, but they had none so he had to settle for Vodka instead.
The other cruisers also seemed very friendly. Most have waved or exchanged greetings as we pass. Maryanne thinks it has something to do with there being no charter boats here. Charter really wouldn’t work here as there are only a limited number of places to go. This eliminates the crowd of people who want to party hard until their week is up and don’t care much about the boat because it’s not theirs. Plus, a long passage tends to cause people to unwind from the insular behavior that exists in short term charter when it’s all about them and their week - to hell with everybody else. Everybody here is in the same boat, so to speak. We are all in the middle of at least two long passages and so have a real empathy for one another.
Once we got the dinghy to shore, we walked from the dinghy dock through a little passageway into the town square and were both just stunned. The place is so beautiful. Everything was trim and tidy and coated with fresh brightly colored paint. Maryanne later remarked that it seemed kind of like Nantucket, only less forced. In front of the Town Hall were old cannons that were just gleaming, brightly varnished stocks (used for loafing, not punishment) and a dunking chair, which from the state of the varnish on it, looked like they were still doing occasional demonstrations.
Maryanne got to witness a reenactment of the town gossip and nag being punished - on her way back from dropping me off at the airport.
Replica of the Deliverance - the boat built in Bermuda from the broken remains of the Sea Venture - One of the boats sent from England to resupply the new settlement of Jamestown in Virginia. Unfortunately the Sea Venture was wrecked on route but undeterred, the Admiral (Sir George Somers) landed all passengers and crew safely, and went on to build 2 new ships (one being the Deliverance), and then still take supplies to Virginia. When he finally reached Jamestown, there he found the population decimated with starvation and Indian attacks - they were in terrible urgent need of supplies - so Somers promptly returned to Bermuda for more supplies. Cruising has been a great history lesson for us.
We made our way up one of the picturesque streets to a mobile phone place to try to sort out some local communication. The guy there was warm and friendly and very helpful, as if we were cherished friends. He was that way with the other people in the store as well. From there, we headed to the local hardware store, which we eventually left empty-handed, but not after being treated again like valued customers that they actually wanted to help.
The Barque - Picton Castle, at the dock in Bermuda
After the hardware store, we took a walk down to the waterfront to see the Picton Castle, a tall ship that does square rigger training while delivering supplies to schools in remote places of the world. Apparently there’s a show about them on the Discovery Channel, which we didn’t know since we have no TV. I had heard them calling in the night before we arrived. They had only been in port a few hours longer than we had and had just left the customs dock as we were pulling in. That ship is all business with all of its purposeful rigging crisscrossing this way and that and yet it is also a thing of such beauty. How does that quote go: “A ship is the closest thing to the physical embodiment of a man’s dreams?” Something like that.
From there, we went back into town along the waterfront. We stopped in at the Tourist Information Centre and were treated to yet more Bermudian hospitality. Everybody keeps telling us to enjoy our stay on the islands. We went to a grocery store and bought a couple of cakes and some refreshments and headed for a local park to enjoy them. The park (of course!) was very well kept and looked more like a botanic garden, complete with little signs so you would know what the plants were.
Somers' Gardens - Admiral Somers so loved Bermuda that his heart is buried here (while his body was returned to England in a barrel of whisky. Note the stone ring/arch, it's called a moongate and these are found all over Bermuda, most commonly as entrances form the street to the garden of a house.
We found a nice quiet picnic table and got to try a Bermudian favorite, a Dark and Stormy. I’m sure most of the bars around do their own special versions. The one I bought was sold in a can like a beer. It was a blend of local dark rum and ginger beer. It tasted almost but not quite like a rum and coke. I washed it down with an A&W ([Maryanne]For Brits Reading, an A&W is an American brand of root beer.)
From there, we headed uphill toward the middle of the island past yet more breathtaking scenes of picturesque beauty. The houses were all pretty pastels with the unique Bermudian rain catchment roofs and tidy, freshly painted walls around them in the English style. We stopped at a church that was never finished. Only the brickwork remained. We both thought it reminded us of the Cathedral ruins in St. Andrews.
Unfinished Church - after years of infighting and division among the congregation this unfinished church was left to the elements
We had intended to start making our way back home to Footprint, but we heard what we thought were either cow or goat noises coming over the hill and decided to investigate. It turned out to be both. We got distracted by one thing after another and ended up taking the long way back via a gorgeous coastal road that started with a tiny little beach and then kept opening up to the most stunning views of the rocks on the coast and the crashing surf. The road itself had either wooden beam fences or stone walls that ran the whole way – very English, very pretty.
Bermuda Lanes - note the trees that look as though they have autumn foliage - in May! Apparently Bermudian soil has many patches very poor in magnesium which is required for plants to produce the Chlorophyll that makes them green
Our poor camera, it started complaining about low batteries early on. We forgot to bring spares but that thing would not die. It was as if it knew we needed just one more picture, just one more. In the end, we took over 250 pictures that day. I don’t think I have ever said ‘wow’ more in one day in my whole life. It was gorgeous everywhere!
Gates Fort - St Georges - Guarding the Cut into St George's Harbour
We walked back into town past a little fort that has excellent views of the narrow Town Cut onto the harbour. Town Cut is so narrow that clearance is required from Harbour Radio to transit in order to avoid conflict with cruise ships. There isn’t room for a cruise ship and a sailing yacht. It’s one way only at a time.
We passed by the yacht club that was hosting the ARC fleet. The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers is a whole group of boats that sail in company from Ft. Lauderdale or Tortola to Bermuda, then to the Azores, then to either Plymouth or Gibraltar. We’d seen a couple of them on the way up and wanted to put names to faces. The boats were mostly huge, million dollar affairs. The crews were all friendly and excited about their arrival in beautiful Bermuda and their upcoming passage to the Azores. We spent some time experiencing the buzz in the atmosphere and then started the walk back.
On the way out, we saw a thing ‘flying’ in the water like a bat. Some strange kinda thing. What the hell is that thing? After much trying to photograph it and squint at it, I jumped and waded over to it and herded it back to my marine biologist wife. She didn’t know exactly what it was either, but decided it was some kind of a sea slug. We found out later that it was a Sea Hare, a kind of sea slug. Nice going, Maryanne!
This Sea Hare we found "swimming" in a local marina.. It is about 14cm long (about the length of you hand). It has a skirt that it uses like a batman cape to flap/fly through the water - just amazing to watch. We think the species must be Aplysia fasciata. Sea slugs are related to garden snails, and many species have a residual shell embedded in their body still
We were starting to think that we didn’t have it in us to cook/clean up after dinner so we started trolling menus. On the way, we came across the roughest bar in town. We could hear raucous shouting, mostly about the card game, coming out of the windows before we were even near, too rowdy for us. We decided to stay away from the Mini Boat Club. That’s right, the Mini Boat Club. Hilarious! We eventually settled on a much quieter place by the dinghy where we were, again, treated like their favorite customer. [Maryanne]We finally ate at the White Horse Tavern, overlooking the bridge from St George's to Ordnance Island. I had a fantastic salad (Asian influenced, with mango salsa), and Kyle had pizza - Yummy food, in a great setting (although we had to retire inside for desert as the evening chilled.
[Kyle]Our second full day in Bermuda, we decided to start off with a long run on the beautiful coastal road from the day before and go out as far as Fort St Catherine and Tobacco Bay on the North side of the island. On the way, I noticed that even the radio towers had shiny, fresh orange and white paint. This place is so well kept. Maryanne finished early and waited for me at the fort while I did another lap.
Fort St Catherine - Bermuda is rich in Forts, and showcase a full range of British Military eras - 1610 through to the 1940's. Fort St Catherine is from the early 1800's
The fort, as with everything else we’ve seen here, was in very good condition, with lots of interesting displays showing how everything was done and the history of the islands. The British spent a fortune fortifying the hell out of Bermuda over the years. As far as we could tell the only “battle” that ever occurred was when a Spanish ship got too close in the 18th century. The British fired two cannon shots at them and scared them away, sparing them from using their third and last shot. Whew! Some of their later guns are the biggest cannons I have ever seen, though. I can understand why nobody would want to get too close.
One of the many boats tucked away safely in the seemingly impossible to enter Achilles Bay
From there, we went past a little boat harbour that had such an impossibly tricky entrance that I couldn’t possibly see how anybody could get a boat in. The entrance is very twisty and has no more than about 10 feet between scary, jagged rocks.
Tobacco Bay and nearby coastal rocks - not something you want your boat anywhere near!
Next was Tobacco Bay, a very similar little harbour but with a swimming beach ringed by tall rock formations. The rock is very sharp igneous rock that provides great grip for climbing around trying to get interesting photos. It will also scrape you up pretty good (or worse) if you fall. I tried a little of each. I was having so much fun though, I didn’t care.
Once we got back to Footprint, Maryanne needed my help diagnosing a pesky leak. It involved me pumping water into the boat from the outside with a portable pump. In the process, I lost hold of the pump and it sank. Great! Just what I needed! On went the mask and fins and after 20 minutes of looking in the murky water, I found it. The water is definitely colder up here. It’s okay once you get used to it but that initial dunk is pretty bracing. Once I got in, I also remembered that salt water does not feel good on rock scrapes. Ow! The air is a bit colder here, too. Midday is perfect but the nights are a little chilly. For the first time in months, we pulled out the comforter to sleep.
After dinner, we had a present for Lars. It turns out that we actually had half a bottle of Aquavit on Footprint. My friend Geoffrey (a different one than the one who welcomed us here), who studied in Scandinavia, brought us a bottle as a gift when we lived on Prydwen and we’ve been carrying it around (aging it) for years. We’ve tried to break it out at parties, but the consensus, even among the drunks, is that that stuff is too strong and it tastes like lighter fluid, so we’ve only managed to get rid of half the bottle. The label, except for one corner that says Linie Aquavit, was worn off. We rowed over to the boat and Lars was happy to see us. His Captain, another Norwegian named Pers, Invited us aboard and introduced us to their third crew, a Guyanian woman named Norma. We handed the bottle to Lars.
He untwisted the cap, took a sniff and said “Oh, you like whisky. I’ll get some glasses.”
“No, no, Lars.” Pers said, “that’s not whiskey, it’s aquavit.” There was a brief second for it to register and then his whole face lit up. You’ve never seen somebody so amazed and happy.
“Where did you get this? They don’t have this on the island! I look everywhere for this.” he said.
“Uh,” Maryanne coolly replied “we just had it lyin’ around. It’s for your next toast to Neptune.”
He wouldn’t hear it. Out came four very small shot glasses and a tumbler (for Lars) and soon we were all raising a toast for safe passages. “Cheers! “,”Skol!”
Okay, it’s not actually that bad, like a finely distilled lighter fluid. We stayed up in the dark cockpit talking and laughing for hours about boats, life, politics, Bermuda, everything. We did manage to pull ourselves away at a sensible hour so that I could get a decent night’s sleep and still get up early.
The next morning, Maryanne and I decided to walk together the four miles to the airport. On the way, we passed five people standing at a bus stop. As we walked by, every one of them wished us a good morning.
[Maryanne]OK, you made it this far... The above posting is from just a couple of afternoons of exploring; so far we have only explored one town and perhaps less than 1/12th of the typical tourist sites - so I guess you can expect a lot more from us.
We have both totally fallen in love with the place. It is beautiful, stunning, and no way we (nor most likey you) could afford to live here. The government actively discourages people from settling (e.g. cost of house to local - $1Million - cost of SAME house to non-local is + 25% - that is quite a mark up!). Oh, and if you are not a citizen, then you can only purchase from the top 5% of priced houses. If you are born on the island you don't by default get citizenship unless at least one of your parents have Bermudian citizenship. If you have 2 Bermudian parents, and are born off island - you also don't get citizenship. You can always marry a Bermudian, and stay married for 10 years and then apply for citizenship which they may or may not grant. Working visas are almost impossible to get, etc... Still, they are very welcoming to tourists, they just don't want you to make it home.
I asked at the local hardware store about propane the other day. In the US, I generally paid around $16 for a 20lb tank. In Antigua $19, in St Martin $20. By the time I made it to the BVI I was shocked at paying $27.... But oh boy - here in Bermuda - $56. And everything else seems to be at least double the price you would expect to pay in the US. Everyone drives small cars. You can't rent a car on the island (only a moped), but the bus and ferry service is excellent, clean and relatively inexpensive. I don't care about any of that it is BEAUTIFUL!
We can't stay here forever as we need to watch our weather window for the next passage, but we will certainly be exploring and sharing much more of Bermuda. Are you still reading? Here follows a few photos from the streets of St George, Enjoy.
Scenes from St George's Town, Bermuda