To the editor: The narrow two-lane road from Southampton on the southwestern end of Bermuda looks ordinary enough, but it leads to a marine oddity that most visitors never see unless they slow down and pay close attention to a curious little bridge.
The road goes to the little island of Somerset, named for Admiral George Somers who is credited with discovering Bermuda in 1609. The island and town of Somerset is separated from the main island of Bermuda by a slim waterway, through which the turquoise tidal waters whoosh throughout the day. Over this channel stands a sturdy stone and wooden bridge upon which all vehicular traffic must pass, including trucks, buses, cars and the ubiquitous scooters.
Halfway across, noticeable only to ambling pedestrians and history buffs, is a discreet perpendicular hinge that can swing upward at the center of the bridge to create an opening for vessel traffic beneath. When opened, the span measures less than three feet, forming what is regarded locally as the “world’s smallest drawbridge.” An adjacent sign declares that this is Somerset Bridge, first built in 1620. Whether gimmick or of practical necessity, its opening allows the mast of a sailboat to pass through, provided the shrouds are removed and lashed to the mast, thereby saving many dozens of sea miles from the transit around Somerset and the Dockyards for vessels entering or exiting Great Sound.
On a recent afternoon, a visitor witnessed the nascent stages of the 2017 America’s Cup battle for wind-powered supremacy. To the north of Somerset Bridge, these six carbon-black catamarans could be seen streaking across Great Sound at speeds in excess of 40 knots, their helmeted, goggled and harnessed crews of six competing with one another for a competitive edge that can be measured in fractions of seconds and grams of weight. The vessels are so fast that the waters of Great Sound, which measure two to three miles across at the widest, restrict the time of any one reach to mere moments. No sooner would a vessel approach the boundary on one side, quickly tack and then shoot off in the opposite direction, than it would be forced to tack and fly back again, the sailing equivalent of lighting off bottle rockets inside a gymnasium.
The diminutive lift section.
That evening at the Country Squire bar in Somerset, where a small but rowdy scrum of former Olympic and accomplished ocean sailors were holding forth on the week’s events, the talk was about the technical restrictions of the vessels — tweaks to the rudders and other hardware that might provide a modest but meaningful impact upon the eventual outcome of the race.
One of the sailors, fueled more by Gosling’s Black Seal Rum these days than the balmy island winds, described in detail a circumnavigation he had done in his youth, beginning in Maine and ending at his home in Bermuda. Another native Bermudian, who first described a 20-year career as a competitive sailor with several Bermuda Olympic teams, patted his ample middle and declared that his sailing days now involved serving one of the America’s Cup teams as an island “gofer” — gathering hard-to-come-by necessities from his many island contacts.
Back at the bridge, a bus stop built from blocks of the pitted volcanic stone that is Bermuda’s bedrock provided shelter from the warm rain that had begun to fall. The America’s Cup boats had long before been put to bed for the night at their comfortable moorings in Hamilton. Minutes later, the bus heaved into view, its headlights briefly flashing the polished hinges of the world’s smallest drawbridge.
—Contributing editor Twain Braden is the author of three books on maritime subjects: In Peril (with Skip Strong); The Handbook of Sailing Techniques; and The Complete Book of Sailing & Seamanship. He practices admiralty law in Portland, Maine, with the firm Thompson & Bowie LLP. and also sails as relief captain of the Portland schooners Wendameen and Bagheera.