The flag of Bermuda features a big red monster attacking a ship… or, at least, that’s what it seems to show at first glance.
“I s’pose it’s something to do with the Bermuda triangle,” said I to myself. “All those boats and planes disappearing out here… P’raps there’s a legend about a sea monster.”
The Isles of Bermuda
The last time we crossed from the Caribbean to Europe we passed within fifty miles of Bermuda. Near enough to excite such interest that we dug out the chart. Until that time we hadn’t realised that the place is not just one single sea girt shore; it actually consists of three long thin isles, tacked onto each other in a row, plus several dozen islets and hundreds of smaller rocky bits which lie scattered over a huge reef.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that we were feeling the pinch we would certainly have pulled over and had a look at the place, then and there, eighteen years ago; but clearing into Bermuda was said to cost somewhere in the region of $50 per person.
If it hadn’t been for our cruising companion, Paul Johnson, we would probably never have got round to visiting Bermuda this time either – and yet, funnily enough, he was the one who wanted to give it a miss.
“Yes, it’s outrageous.” Johnson confirmed the rumour. “And it’s really not worth going there. I know I won’t ever go there again; the place is utterly ruined.”
Way Back When…
But every time he put the place down, the old sea-dog would then tell us nostalgic tales; tales such as the one of how, forty-odd years ago, he and his mates built their yachts – to Johnson’s adaption of a Colin Archer design – in an old, near-derelict shed in the disused naval dockyard in Bermuda.
Venus and Cherub and John Frith’s Moon were all built, side by side, by the merry band of young men and women who had fallen under Johnson’s spell. And then they launched the boats, and lived on them, and anchored them off those little islets which lie in the lee of the “mainland” chain.
“Those were the days…”
And perhaps those days were not yet gone, for we were given to understand that the whole of Bermuda was crawling with members of the Paul Johnson fan club, sailing about in Venus yachts of one size or another.
“And of course, John and Gill Frith still spend the summer there, on their island.”
“They have their own island!”
“Yes. I used to live there too, for a while…” (Now we had to listen again – for the umpteenth time – to the story of how Johnson survived a hurricane whilst anchored off the Frith’s island; and then we had to hear the one about the time when Johnson was discovered sunbathing in the nude, by a journalist who had hired a boat especially so that he could get out to the island and meet the living legend…)
“An island of their very own?” I said, when I could get a word in edgeways.
“Very own island. Yes.”
“Yes. And their daughter has another island of her very own.” (And then we had to hear, again, about John and Gill’s Very Famous Daughter and their Very Famous Son). “All jolly nice, it is… But I won’t go back; not again; not ever.”
So it was that that Bermuda came to appear on Molly and Cherub‘s Whistle Stop Tour itinerary.
One Nation’s Reef is Another’s Refuge
Bermuda was first discovered by the Spanish, who were quicker off the mark than the rest of us when it came to exploring the wide blue sea. However, having found the place those highly skilled ancient mariners then did their best to avoid it. A glance at the chart soon supplies the reason why. Essentially, Bermuda is just a massive reef lying in the middle of nowhere. It has no resources – no spices, and no gold – and so it was just an obstruction to navigation.
Then along came an Englishman by the name of George Somers. Admiral Somers was in command of a brand-new ship called Sea Venture which was on its way from Olde Englande to Ye New Worlde, with supplies of men, women, and food for the equally brand-new colony of Jamestown, Virginia.
Alas, whilst traversing the ocean (at a rather odd latitude, one might remark, for an east-west crossing) the ship was caught up in a hurricane. Her caulking not having hardened, we are told, she began to leak like a sieve. For three days and nights without cease the crew and the passengers bailed and pumped, but the water in the bilge continued to rise.
Despite the weather conditions – which must have made celestial navigation almost impossible – Somers was aware that his ship was close to Bermuda, and so he made the decision to find the island and run his command aground on the reef.
That he was able to find the place, perform the deed, and get the entire company ashore without loss of life is a tremendous testimony to Somers’ seamanship. Then, for an encore, he had the men salvage all that they could of the old vessel and construct two smaller craft, which were named Deliverance and Patience. These two boats subsequently set off for Virginia and arrived just in time to save the first ever English outpost in the Americas from abandonment.
Britain’s Oldest Colony
In the course of his stay here George Somers came to realise that Bermuda might serve as more than just a convenient place to park a leaking ship, and on reading his report of the island the Crown decided to claim it and set up a colony.
They even named the place The Somers’ Isles, in honour of the Admiral. (Bermuda is a corruption of Bermudez, which was the name of the Spaniard who first stumbled upon the place, 100 years earlier.)
The first settlement on the islands was originally named New London but this over-ambitious title was soon dropped in favour of St Georges. George is, of course, the patron saint of England – but one suspects that if the Admiral had been called Patrick then the colony might have been named after the patron saint of Ireland.
Since the first settlement in Virginia was eventually abandoned, St Georges can claim to be the oldest English overseas town in the world.
That Ain’t No Monster!
No, the creature depicted on Bermuda’s defaced red duster is NOT a monster; of course it isn’t. And nor is the ship just any old vessel, carelessly crashing into the cliffs.
The monster is actually a griffin, and the ship is none other than the Sea Venture.
As for the cliffs, towering above the hapless vessel… they don’t exist.
Isn’t that just typical of the chain-of-communication problem which exists in all big organisations?
“How about a picture of the ship rocking up on the isle,” said the governor in his despatch home.
“Draw us a ship being wrecked on the island,” the bureaucrats told the artist – and so he did.
Well, how was he to know what a reef looked like? ‘Poor chap had probably never been further than the white cliffs of Dover.
The first settlers in Bermuda were fishermen and small-time farmers, but they quickly discovered a better way to make a living: they became middle-men. Cod, caught and salted on the Grand Banks, were bought in and then sold out again to the West Indian planters.
Vitals were also imported and then sold to ships travelling back to Europe.
And today, things are little different. The island produces nothing, but its people are said to be the richest in the world, with the highest GDP. Nowadays they don’t even have to get their hands dirty shuffling salt-fish to and fro; they just press a few buttons, and a pile of gold passes invisibly through the island shedding a little of itself on the way.
Yachtsmen arriving in Bermuda are required to clear in at St Georges. This town lies at the further end of the island and is reached through a narrow cut in the reef.
Approaching the island, you should have your VHF tuned to channel 16. The local radio station is manned by folk who are as enthusiastic as a bunch of “hammys”, and if you don’t call them up they will soon call you; probably while you are still two miles off the southern shore. Having made contact you will be asked to answer questions on a variety of subjects, such as your call-sign, the registration number of your EPIRB, the manufacture of your liferaft, and various other things which don’t even have proper names to pick them up by; things which are called DSC and MMSI and AIS and SSB.
The spurious (and unconfirmed) information gleaned from this interview has no relevance whatsoever to your reception in this happy isle. One imagines that it is probably fed into a computer and shaped into statistics.
“Talk about star-counting…!”
On entering St Georges harbour the new arrival should proceed to the Customs wharf and tie up.
(Look for a large, off-white building, which lies beyond the anchored yachts. The wharf is on the far side of the building, opposite the place where the dinghies are tied.)
Why they want us alongside, I can’t say. We were not boarded, but we had hardly finished securing the boat before we were being hassled to report to the office, adjacent.
Inside the office we were welcomed and asked to fill in various forms, excerpts of which are reproduced here, verbatim:
Declaration of Health
Has there been on board during the voyage any case or suspected case of plague, yellow fever or typhus fever?
Has plague occurred or been suspected amongst the rats or mice on board during the voyage or has there been an unusual mortality among them?
Has any person died on board during the voyage, otherwise than as a result of an accident?
Disposal of Case. (State whether still aboard or buried at sea.)
NOTE : If more than six weeks have elapsed since the start of the voyage it will suffice to give particulars of the last six weeks.
Clearance into Bermuda costs $35 per person and is valid for a maximum of 21 days.
Before our arrival here we had been warned that Poppy would be persona non grata. It would have been virtually impossible for us to comply with the island’s importation requirements (one of which is that the dog must have been inspected by a vet no more than 10 days before arrival) and we had been warned that, lacking an importation certificate, we would be required to anchor one mile from the town.
Since we don’t carry enough cable to be able to anchor out there, in the ocean, we were mentally prepared for a big show-down… but, in the event, we were simply told that the dog must be kept aboard the boat for the duration of our stay.
(This same injunction was also applied in Antigua and in Nevis, two other places where – according to rumour – it is impossible to clear in at all if you have a dog on the crew list.)
Don’t Stock Up in Bermuda
The sale of over-priced vitals to passing ships is still a concern in Bermuda, albeit an incidental one.
It’s like this: the richest folk in the world are not interested in buying Tesco’s cut-price quiche and baked beans, so their shops don’t stock that kind of fare. When the people want quiche and beans they want the very best kind, so that’s what the shops stock.
Passing quarter-masters therefore search in vain for bargains.
We reckoned that, on average, food items cost four times more in Bermuda than they do in Europe.
If you can afford to shop regularly in Waitrose or Marks and Spencer, you’ll be just fine in Bermuda. If not, be sure to provision for the entire Atlantic crossing before you leave the Caribbean.
Other Things Which Are Not Worth Doing in Bermuda
St Georges is a nice enough place – the anchorage is secure and the surroundings are scenic – but whether it is really worth the exorbitant entrance fee is a matter of some doubt. Frankly, if you only have the time or the inclination to visit this one place then I would suggest giving Bermuda a miss.
St Georges is a rather like Camberwick Green: nice people, pretty houses… There’s even a toy train trundling around the town.
The tiny supermarket is the most expensive one I have ever visited in my life. A pint of milk, if I remember rightly, cost about $5 US. (If you really must shop during your stay in Bermuda, try to get to one of the out-of-town supermarkets.)
One could leave the yacht in St Georges (in perfect safety), hire a fleet of scooters, and skid off to visit the aquarium.
Or, one could hop on a bus and travel the length of the island to the old naval dockyard.
Scooter hire is NOT actually reckoned to be very safe – jokes abound about tourists coming off their rental scooters – and car hire is not an option. This skinny piece of sand-topped coral boasts a population of some 70,000 very affluent souls, and they have trouble enough fitting their own vehicles onto the roads.
Again, to be frank, I would say that a tour of the island by road is a waste of time and money. As you will have noticed during your approach, this place is covered all over in little white houses capped with white roofs. They occupy every inch of the land like gannets’ nests on a stack. Amongst the houses there is as surprising amount of greenery, with each habitation seeming to sit in its own tiny oasis of trees and bushes, but still this is a suburban place. There is absolutely no open countryside to explore.
But there are those islets.
What’s Good to Do in Bermuda
If you mean to break your crossing in Bermuda, get yourself a good chart and the local cruising guide, and plan to tour the archipelago – by boat.
From St Georges one can travel either around the outside of the island or across the middle, via the canal known as Ferry Reach. This second route involves passing through a “lifting” bridge – it doesn’t really lift; it twists – and it only opens every half hour. No problem; whichever direction you approach it from there is plenty of space to anchor, and while you are there you can watch the planes taking off from the airport, adjacent.
Stick to the channel as you make your way south, with the island to port and the reef to starboard. The prevailing wind is such that one can normally fetch the entire length in one tack, but we had to beat. Whilst doing so we discovered that there are coral heads lying right on the very edge of the channel. One patch is marked with a starboard-hand buoy – or so it seemed to us as we approached it. Thus, we decided to stand on until it was right alongside.
We were close enough to read the name on the top of the marker before we realised that something was amiss:
“Shelly Bay Shoal – and, you know, it isn’t actually red. It’s so rusty that it looks red all over, from a distance, but it’s actually red and black striped. I wonder…”
“Yi-i-i! That’s not a starboard hand mark; it’s an isolated danger! Put about! Put about!”
At the far end of the big ship channel lies a pleasant cruising ground where narrow passages wend their way amongst the scattered islets. Seemingly, one can anchor wherever one wishes, although the holding is better in some places than in others.
The capital of Bermuda is Hamilton. Like many towns, it’s a place which is better seen from the sea than from a car. For an island town it is astonishingly big and busy. It must be easily four times the size of St John’s, Antigua (a country which has a slightly larger population). I guess this is where the money shuffling all takes place.
We had the good fortune to arrive in town on the morning when Bermuda was celebrating the Queen’s birthday. Unfortunately she could not be present, but the governor, in his red-plumed pith helmet, acted as stand-in, and her majesty’s colours were run up and down the flag-pole.
The soldiers marched up and down and danced their guns about in response to the orders of their sergeant; cannons were fired; and the band played the Monty-Python theme tune and various other bits of Strauss.
Then they played the national anthem, seven times over, in short snatches, in between the firing of a twenty-one gun salute.
“Damn’ fine show.”
Also worthy of a visit is the famous royal naval dockyard, where Johnson’s ketches were built. No longer derelict, the dockyard has been fitted out as a tourist attraction (complete with Noddy trains…).
The shed in which the boats were built is now home to a cake shop and a glass-blowing factory.
The clock-tower building is now a shopping arcade, or mall.
The fort where Johnson and his friends once partied is now a museum, complete with dolphinarium.
The museum is undoubtedly well worth a visit if you can afford the entrance fee of $10 US per person. For our crew of five this added up to… about a week’s vitals (albeit not at Bermudian prices).
Would-be dolphin-tamers may like to know that a visit to the dolphinarium includes the opportunity to swim with the bottle-nosed dolphins and to become a temporary trainer.
A five day course costs $3,250.
A 20 minute session costs $160.
(In Cuba, a similar 20 minute swim with the dolphins, in their pool, costs only $60.)
A Friend With a Washing Machine is a Friend Indeed
As ever – for cruising folk – it’s not what you know, nor even who you know, but whether you know anyone at all in your new venue.
For example, some French friends, Jeremie and Aude, chanced to meet up with a Bermudian who just happened to be a professional diver, and he subsequently took them out to visit various reefs and wrecks. He also got them a ride in one of the local racing dinghies – crazily over-canvassed and over-manned craft which have to be baled throughout the duration of the voyage to stop them from sinking.
Cruising in company with Cherub we found ourselves already kitted out with a wide social circle. Since he has been trundling around in these waters for more than forty years it is only to be expected that Paul Johnson should have friends all around the Atlantic circuit, but Bermuda is an extra special case. All throughout our stay here we were feted as part of His retinue, by His worshipful friends, and we sunbathed in His reflected glory, lapping up the opportunities for free food, booze, and the use of the washing machine.
And the old braggart was right. Up every other creek there is a Venus yacht anchored.
Ship’s Naturalist Meets a Real Live Pro
For Roxanne the highlight of our stay in Bermuda was an introduction to local birder and conservation expert, David Wingate. David took the ship’s naturalist with him on his weekly tour of the local terns’ nests, and he also taught her all about the nesting habits of tropic birds (or long-tails, as they are locally known).
David’s main claim to fame is his part in the discovery of a petrel which was once thought to be extinct, and his subsequent project to save the bird from joining the ranks of the dodo, the great auk, and countless other species.
David was only 16 at the time when he set off, with two professional birders, to find proof for the existence of the Bermuda Petrel (or Cahow) and keeping the bird from extinction was a job which kept him busy throughout his whole working life. His tale is one which made a great impression on our own junior naturalist – now 12, going on 13 – and she will be penning her own account of the septaguinarian conservationist and of bird life in Bermuda.