St. George’s, Bermuda, is one of those harbors that just pulls it out of youa collective sigh of relief from the entire newly arrived crew: "Whew! We made it!"Even veterans of many Bermuda sails can’t help but give a silent whisper of thanks as they step onto the quay for the first time after crossing 600 or 700 miles of fairly unpredictable ocean. Quite aside from the fact that Bermuda is truly "out there," the town of St. George’s is so quaint and inviting that at first glance, with one foot still on the boat, it definitely appears to have been worth the effort. Even better, this town of several thousand inhabitants, which was Bermuda’soriginal settlement, will not disappoint.
St. George’s is small enoughwhich is goodso that there’s not much of anything to do there. Tourist flow is fairly light compared to Hamilton, the capital city, except when cruise ships tie up at St. George’s and disgorge a couple of thousand peoplebut they’re usually gone in 12 hours or so anyway. There are plenty of restaurants and no lack of bars, particularly two on the waterfront frequented by swaggering sailors just in from the U.S. There are numerous walking opportunities, beaches nearby and a lovely town center right on the water.
Best of all, it’s free. Most skippers who are so inclined can find a spot on the public quay, even if it means rafting up during a busy week. The harbor itself, which measures a half mile in length and more in width, has plenty of open anchoring space (avoid the center, which is transited by cruise ships), and there are a number of easy landing spots for small boats. For a safe place to hang one’s hat for a week or two it’s hard to beat St. George’s.
That must have been roughly the thinking of early settlers on Bermuda as they also set to work hacking out new lives right on the harbor, protected by solid land yet still within an easy sail or row out to the open sea.
Folks from Europe and (later) North America have been sailing to Bermuda for close to 400 years. The first ones arrived unexpectedlyoften crawling ashore from shipwrecks. Although there are brief mentions of Bermuda in the pages of history from the 1500s, particularly by Spanish explorers (including a report from Capt. Juan Bermudeznote that name!) it was not until the wreck of the Sea Venture in July, 1609, that things really began to happen.
As many as 150 very grateful survivors were ferried ashore onto the beach at St. Catherine’s Bay from Sea Venture Shoals just off St. George’s, all under the command of Sir George Somers. Although the survivor’s thrived, in a survival kind of way, they devoted themselves to building a new vessel that would carry them to their destinationthe struggling Jamestown colony in Virginia. It wasn’t long after that, however, before a growing colony of Englishmen was established at St. George’s, and the rest is modern history.
Bermuda, of course, is much older than its human historymuch older than the ice ages. Millions of years ago, actually, the volcanoes that gave us Bermuda were growing cold beneath the sea. Over the ages layers of mollusks, shells, sediments and corals built up the tops of those volcanic ranges, eventually causing Bermuda’s 180 named islands, islets, and rocks to rise up from the surface and begin collecting earthly soil. Uncountable centuries went by before human sailors ever laid eyes on the place. By thena mere four centuries agothe tallest peak on Bermuda’s main island was 259 feet above sea level.
It’s hard to imagine an island destination more suitably located for American yachtsmen. Bermuda is ideally placed to accommodate those one-week or 10-day sailing trips, including a day or two spent unwinding on the island. It’s close enough so that people can sail there in practically all manner of craft (presumably seaworthy) without excessive supplies of fuel, water, food or crew. It’s far enough east to put it in a different time zone and to be unquestionably foreigni.e., not American. It’s far enough south to give it a perpetually warm and hospitable climate (average temp in the low 70s), yet it’s far enough north to be out of the blazing tropics and trade winds.
Bermuda is a former British colony that seems happy to maintain its mother-country link. A referendum among its 60,000 inhabitants in 1995 rejected the notion of independence from the United Kingdom. Today Bermuda’s populaceabout 75 percent native born and 60 percent blackis governed by a British-appointed governor, a gubernatorially appointed premier, and a two-body legislative structure that is said to be the third-oldest parliament in the world. Local citizens also elect leaders of each municipality, of which Hamilton and St. George’s are the largest. More than 90 governors have been appointed by the king or queen of England since the first arrived in 1684. All Bermuda coins carry a profile of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, and the Bermuda flag is a derivation of the British, similar to that of Grand Cayman Islands, BVIs, and other dependencies.
Once through with customs, arriving yachts in Bermuda usually head for an open spot near the customs dock at Market Wharf or, farther into the harbor a bit, at either Somers’ Wharf or Hunter’s Wharf or at the far eastern end of Pennos Wharf. The latter three sites are preferable, and they are near the local fuel and water station, Dowlings Marine, which makes for a most hospitable point of arrival. The harbor masters are amazingly helpful in getting newcomers settled, but rafting alongside the wharves is often necessary during the busy seasons. Another location where dockage or a mooring might be available (for a fee) is the St. George’s Dinghy Club, just to the right after passing through Town Cut. The club has limited but good facilities (including showers) and is only a short walk from the town center.
Some crews prefer the privacy and independence of anchoring. For them, the recommended spots are Convict Baykind of a gathering place for yachts just east of Ordinance Islandor anywhere near the so-called Powder Hole, which is a quarter mile directly out into the harbor from Ordinance Island. It’s hard to say which part of the anchorage is the most sheltered since strong winds could conceivably come from any direction. Officially, Bermuda lies within the zone of prevailing southwesterlies, but cold fronts could bring howling northerlies or northwesterlies, and low pressure systems passing nearby could set up winds from the southeast to northeast. To avoid facing waves built up by a half-mile of fetch in a big blow, anchored yachts should be prepared to relocate with weather forecast in hand, or perhaps following the advice of Bermuda Harbour Radio. St. George’s wharves and anchorages may be tranquil and beautiful, but sooner or later everyone finds his or her way ashore. Here are the essentials: fuel, water, showers, laundry, food, and a watering hole. Fuel and water are available from the always-accommodating George Dowling at Dowling’s Shell station at 12 Water Street near Hunter’s Wharf or from St. George’s Boatyard farther up the bay. Also, Esso Bermuda will deliver less expensive fuel by truck in quantities of several hundred gallons or more at a price of about $1.25 per gallon duty free (as of May, 1998). Their drivers are willing to pump fuel into several yachts if they purchase a sufficient amount (phone: 297-1477). Same for water: call for the 900-gallon water truck at 297-1914.
The best showers (coin operated) are to be found at St. George’s Dinghy Club, a reasonable walk up the Cut Road leading out of town. These showers are open from 4 p.m. to midnight (longer on weekends). The desperately unwashed, with towels in their backpacks or under their arms, must first apply at the club bar for about $2 worth of chits that will buy them seven or eight minutes of warm water.
Laundry services in St. George’s are found on Shinbone Alley next to Malcolm’s Barbershop. It’s a short walk from the center of town. For large quantities of dirty stuff an arriving crew more eager to spend their time in other ways should bring their laundry bags to Tic-O-Mat, which charges, or used to charge, something like $1 per pound.
The rest is easy. There’s a nice grocery story right in the middle of town sparse by U.S. standards, but perfectly adequateand there are restaurants and watering holes in abundance.
About 1,000 yachts arrive at Bermuda each year, according to Bermuda Harbour Radio, with an average stay of three to five days. The majority never leave St. George’s, although there is always a steady trickle that make their way over the three-hour transit to Hamilton. In 1997 about 60% of arriving yachts were American. Another 20 percent were registered in England, Canada, or France, and the remainder originated from a list of 30 different nations. If each yacht were to carry three to four people, that represents a total of visiting yachtsmen of fewer than 5,000.
By comparison, close to 600,000 cruise ship passengers arrive at Bermuda each year, with roughly 80% of them being American. Indeed, nine out of every 10 arriving tourists are Americans.
Touristsall of ’em, including Bermuda’s legendary honeymoonersbring in about $475 million to the local economy each year. Tourism is second only to international business (banks and insurance) in importance to the Bermudian economy. So the visiting yachting community in St. George’s may let out a collective groan at the arrival of each cruise ship, but the locals quite understandably love it!
A number of truly gigantic cruise ships call at St. George’s. For the most part they dock at either Pennos Wharf or on the south side of Ordinance Island, which explains why yachts are often shooed away from the east end of Pennos Wharf, and why yacht dockage is prohibited altogether on Ordinance Island.
While St. George’s remains the mandatory port of entry (and departure) for visiting yachts and is an incredibly convenient port, there are many who clear in at St. George’s and then keep going toward Hamilton, the capital city. It’s a long haul around the north end of the island (inside the reefs, thankfully) following a well-marked channel, but many say it’s worth it. Hamilton, being a substantially sized city, is a bigger, more active, and more interesting port visit, and the same goes for its yachting facilities.
Two principle destinations in Hamilton might be the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club right downtown next to Point Pleasant Park, or the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club, a bit farther away but still within reasonable walking distance of downtown. Both of these venerable establishments have limited dock space available for transient yachts at prices ranging from $1.50 to $2.00 per foot per day. In each case, however, it’s best to call ahead, and remember that these are private clubs. Yacht Club: (441) 295-2214; Dinghy Club: (441) 236-2250.
Also in Hamilton, the Princess Hotel has limited dock space along its concrete quay, and, right close by, PW’s Marine Centre has various forms of dockage and services. There are also substantial anchorage areas in Hamilton, roughly across from the Princessa bit removed but in lovely surroundings.
For sailors who can afford it, the advantage to staying in Hamilton is the chance to escape from the boat and get ashore into more elegant surroundings. Two favorite resting spots for water-oriented visitors are the famous Princess Hotel (pink hotel with several hundred rooms, two pools, etc.) and the much more tranquil but more expensive Waterloo House. Both are located on Pitts Bay Road near the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Hamilton is an attractive and interesting mid-ocean city, but it is best enjoyed in between visits by cruise ships if that’s possible. If there’s a cruise ship at the dock, it’s best to do your exploring other than downtown.
Yachts that make the trek to Hamilton might also enjoy spending a day or two at the Dockyard area at the northwestern tip of the island. This is the former Royal Navy Dockyard fort, which has been preserved and converted to museum status, including the Bermuda Maritime Museum. The entire facility, built in the early 1800s, is easily worth a day’s visit and deserves more than just the one-hour walk-through typically afforded by hard-pressed tourists. From a mariner’s perspective, it must be considered the most worthwhile visit on Bermuda.
Fortunately, yachtsmen can usually take advantage of the Dockyard Marina to establish a base for shoreside explorations in that area. (Those staying in Hamilton can take public ferries out to the Dockyard). Dockyard Marina has slips for 72 boats, although many are rented permanently for local boats. Transient slips are available for just under $1 per foot per day. Since these are in limited supply, it’s always best to call ahead: (441) 234-0300.
Although no anchoring is allowed in the Dockyard complex, an alternative is to anchor in nearby Mangrove Bay, on the north shore near Somerset Village, and to take one’s small boat around through the Cut Bridge to Dockyard.
Just as the Dockyard museum deserves much more than a one-hour walk-through, Bermuda itself deserves more than the typical two- or three-day stay it receives from most visiting yachts. The ideal cruise to Bermuda might take up a full month or more, allowing the better part of a week for sailing each way to and from the island, and then several weeks spent casually exploring the various ports and anchorages, with plenty of time relaxing in tranquil covesall to take place in June and early July, hopefully well before the onset of hurricane season.
Bermuda is a readily achievable destination for most U.S. East Coast yachtsmen. It’s a rite of passage for developing ocean sailors, and it offers an ideal cruising ground upon arrival. For those who can live aboard their yacht for a month or so, it’s also a very affordable destination. No crime, no hassle, perfect climate, plenty of history, a maritime heritage, an inviting and colorful citizenry, and it’s not that far awaywhat more could a cruising sailor desire?