Bermuda has often been referred to as “the Onion Patch”, because of the famous crop grown there in the days of sail, when the island was settled. After passing sailors (and locals) had cut down almost all of the native cedar trees, they needed something to provide them with trade goods (something other than moving lighthouses around and wrecking passing ships, which was a significant part of the economy in the island’s early years). Onions are a great source of the vitamins that help prevent scurvy, the sailors’ disease, and they travel better than most of those sources, so they were a great crop for a tiny island in the middle of the ocean, and Bermuda’s onions became justly famous – sweet, hearty and delicious. They still grow onions in some parts of Bermuda, but not like they used to – scurvy isn’t much of a problem any more, so onions are no longer a high-value crop. The land is too valuable, and Bermudians mostly grow tax havens and reinsurance companies nowadays.
When one approaches Bermuda by boat, often the first way that one can tell one is getting close is by seeing the island’s signature bird, the Bermuda Longtail, which is a local name for a white-tailed tropicbird, a seabird with great range that lives in the Caribbean Atlantic, calls Bermuda home mostly in the summer months, and ranges well out to sea. We were apparently late in the season to catch the Longtail doing that hunting offshore (the recent passing of a hurricane may have also had something to do with that), but I saw and heard a couple once we got there.
The next sign of approaching Bermuda is often the smell of oleander, which was introduced to the island in the 18th century and is now everywhere. The fragrant flowers can be smelled for miles out to sea in the right wind conditions, particularly in the spring and summer. Sadly, the passing storm and the wind direction when we approached were not enough to get the fragrance miles out from shore this time, but we did smell it as we got close – always a welcoming smell, and very pretty, even though it’s one of the world’s more poisonous flowers.
After we cleared customs in St. George’s, we tied up to the quay (dock) at the St. George’s Dinghy Club. A quick word about the name of the club: there aren’t many dinghies there. The club is named because it is the organization that sponsors one of the Bermuda Fitted Dinghies, a sailboat class that’s unique to Bermuda, 155 years old, and one of the most extreme classes of sailboat in the world. The boats are 14’1” long, 12’ deep, have 40’ masts, no deck, a 14’ bowsprit, and carry over 1000 square feet of sail – way more than any other boat of similar length. They carry six crew, and there are no rules about having to finish with the same number of people you started with, so they don’t – they often finish downwind, and it’s common to see people jumping off the stern of a dinghy to make the boat lighter and faster on its way to the finish line. It’s also not unusual to see masts and booms break, boats sink, and other carnage on the racecourse – fitted dinghy racing is not for the faint of heart (a modern boat costs a fortune), but it’s quite a spectacle – anyone who says watching sailboat racing is boring has never seen a fitted dinghy race, that’s for sure! Races are on alternate Sundays starting on Bermuda Day in the end of May and going through September – if you’re going to Bermuda during that time, you should try to go when there’s a race, and go see it. We didn’t see one on this trip (it was too late in the year), but we did have an evening listening to the bartender at the Dinghy Club lamenting the poor performance of the club’s dinghy, Victory (sailed by, among others, his father-in-law), after asking why there was an empty trophy case above the bar.
Anyway, after we tied up, we spent the rest of the morning cleaning up the boat from its four days at sea, arranging to do laundry at the club’s facilities, and getting Turner, one of our first leg crew, to the airport for his flight home and greeting Mike, a replacement who met us in Bermuda for the second leg of the trip. Throughout, we were joined by a series of arrivals of boats participating in a transatlantic cruising rally, who tied up at the dock with varying degrees of competence (we took a lot of dock lines, and put out more fenders). By the end of the day, the quay was pretty crowded.
We also unpacked a good deal of the boat while trying to chase the source of a failure that had left us without an autopilot for the first leg – hardly a serious problem, but annoying nonetheless, and likely to become more so on the next, longer leg to Antigua. We also spent some time trying to track down somebody to come and have a look at the problem and see about fixing it, a task we hoped would be made easier by our troubleshooting. The captain did find a gentleman from Marine Communications. Ltd. in Hamilton, who agreed to come out the next morning and see what he could do, but he wasn’t sanguine about being able to get parts in anything like the time we needed, since it would be Friday and the customs office would close for the weekend. We asked him to come anyway, and did what we could to take the boat apart enough to be ready for his work (the weather was iffy for departure the next day anyway, and possibly for a couple more days after that, so we might have had to stay long enough to await a new part anyway).
Toward the end of the day, I got the chance to get away for a couple of hours, and rented a scooter to do a couple of errands and prepare for a day of sightseeing the following day. After returning from that mission and taking a nice long shower with no concerns about saving water, I went ashore again to collect some laundry and take a few sunset photos of St George’s harbor (excuse me, “harbour”). On the way back, I tripped over a black dock line someone had rigged along his boarding plank at a perfect height for tripping the unwary, stumbled to the quay, dropped the laundry, and bounced my new point and shoot digital camera off the dock surface and into the water. $#!+!!!! Apart from the pain of losing a camera I had just spent $200 on, I also lost a dozen or so photos of storm clouds at sea and pretty shots of Bermuda that I was very sorry not to have. Also, I was now carrying a waterproof housing for a camera I didn’t own, and therefore couldn’t use to shoot underwater pictures in Antigua when I went diving there. In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “Whatta Maroon!”
After spending the requisite few minutes stomping around muttering foul language under my breath, I calmed down and we went off to the famous White Horse Tavern for a shoreside dinner. I had been pretty good about keeping to my diet, but I pole-vaulted off the wagon that night, to the tune of a full and delicious meal at the White Horse, accompanied by a number of cocktails to celebrate a safe passage to Bermuda. The dinner also gave me a chance to get acquainted with our new shipmate Mike, a very nice guy from New York who is a professional photographer and a longtime shipmate of Frank’s, having done a number of long passages with him over the years. It was a very pleasant evening, and we retired to a rest that didn’t involve either staying in bed with the use of lee cloths or having to get up after four hours – not bad!
The next morning, we spent a couple of hours chasing the autopilot problem with the help of the local electronics wizard, chasing wires around the boat and generally making a mess. It worked, though – we found another compass we didn’t realize we had under the floor of a hanging locker, and the wizard figured out how to make it talk to the autopilot again. It turned out that in order for that conversation to proceed, the foghorn switch needed to be in the “on” position, something we certainly never would have figured out on our own. The guy did a great job, and after an hour or so motoring around St George’s harbor in the early afternoon to calibrate the compass and make sure everything worked, we began the process of repacking the boat for the next leg. Fortunately, Mike had spent enough time on board to know well the most efficient way to repack the boat, so after providing what little help I could, I saw Biff, the other departing crewman, off to his taxicab to the airport and took care of a couple more small tasks, including shipping some cold weather clothes home, and arranging for delivery of 20 five gallon diesel jugs to be carried on deck for the next leg of our voyage (if we didn’t have enough wind, we certainly would be able to motor for several extra days!) I also arranged for us to fuel up the next morning with duty-free fuel, the cost savings of which just about paid for the jugs. Then I got to go have my favorite lunch in Bermuda (fish chowder and a rum swizzle at the Swizzle Inn), do a little sightseeing in Hamilton, and engage in what turned out to be a vain attempt to replace the camera I had drowned with another just like it (since that was the only model that would fit in my housing). That night, we had dinner aboard, augmented with some heavy hors d’oevres and a few more cocktails at the club’s regular Friday night bar party (the highlight of which was the aforementioned lament about the dinghy races (he sounded like a pre-2004 Boston Red Sox fan, but that isn’t really fair, since Victory had won far more recently than that).
Saturday morning, our chef Zoe went off to get provisions and we moved the boat to the dock where we awaited the fuel truck that would deliver us our fuel. It was a long wait, but in time, we got fueled up, brought the provisions aboard and stowed them, and returned the motorbikes. At about 1:30 in the afternoon, with full fuel and water tanks, another hundred gallons of diesel fuel lashed around on the deck in the jugs, and a fresh northerly breeze blowing, we departed from St Georges and headed south to Antigua.