Like many people, I puzzled over Bermuda as a site for the 2017 America’s Cup. Aside from the novelty of a United States team defending the Cup on foreign soil, Bermuda is way the heck in the middle of nowhere. What were they thinking?
This slender, 22-mile-long fishhook-shaped cluster of reef, rock and volcanic remains lies roughly 600 nautical miles east of North Carolina, its closest neighbor. That’s about all I knew of this mysterious island, other than my parents honeymooned there in 1956. Because that’s where people went in the 1950s and ’60s. But soon after, other more-exotic jet-setting destinations came into vogue—the Caribbean, South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Mexico—and Bermuda became that place you stopped along the way to somewhere else, or perhaps raced to from an East Coast port.
Even the first inhabitants of Bermuda treated the island merely as an extended layover (albeit unplanned) when their ship, Sea Venture, wrecked on Bermuda’s reefs in 1609. Within the year they built a new ship, Deliverance, and got the heck out of Dodge, and on their way to Jamestown Colony.
However, the die was cast. The maze of snaring reefs gave Bermuda the reputation: Devil’s Isle. But finally, thanks in part to the 35th America’s Cup, Bermuda is getting its due as a destination is its own right.
My friends Annie Gardner and her husband, Eric Witte, had flown in for the Cup, and stayed on a friend’s boat but were absorbed in the racing. “We loved Bermuda but didn’t have as much time as we wanted to explore the island, its history, and the beautiful islanders who live here,” Annie admitted. Reminiscing about clear tepid water vibrant with fish, balmy weather, charming towns and graceful seabirds, she added, “We knew we wanted to return.”
Eric and Annie had purchased the Catana 472 El Gato in France three years earlier. After a season in the Mediterranean, they crossed the Atlantic and spent two winters in the Caribbean, where they ran charters aboard El Gato, and sailed north for summers. In spring 2018, they set their sights on Bermuda, “an uneventful 850-mile ride from the Virgin Islands,” Annie said, “in easy weather.”
Shortly after they arrived on El Gato, Eric flew out to compete in the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. And we—three longtime girlfriends of Annie—flew in.
Flying over an endless cobalt sea, Bermuda appeared out of nowhere: a fantasyland of sandy beaches, rustic fortresses, gin-colored water—and gin. (It does, after all, remain a bastion of the British Empire.)
Christy, Diane and I taxied to Town Hall in St. George, where Annie was waiting. The history is palpable in this 17th-century parish, but we weary travelers were hungry. After an extraordinary dinner at Wahoo’s Bistro, we thumped our bags down the cobbled streets to the nearby dinghy dock and zoomed across the harbor to the Powder Hole, where El Gato was anchored. Lulled by the sea, and perhaps a touch of wine, we fell asleep to a chorus of tree frogs, locally called “the lullaby of Bermuda.”
Taking the splashy ride to and from the dinghy dock near Ordnance Island would become our routine, as we ventured to town for food, shopping or sightseeing. St. Peter’s Church, established in 1612, is a World Heritage Site; scores of other historic buildings had me overdosing on the descriptive “charming.”
One morning, having sunken into the pace of cruising life, we lazily enjoyed coffee and Banannie bread, Annie’s own banana-loaf concoction. After three years as a chef on her well-appointed catamaran, she was a culinary queen, regaling us with her fare. In response, we waged our own version of “Carbon-Fiber Chef” and contested over delicious dinners—such is the availability of great produce and ingredients on the island.
Finally we mustered, threw our snorkeling gear in the dinghy, and headed west across St. George’s Harbour. Zooming gleefully past the airport, beneath the causeway and into the expansive Castle Harbour, we were greeted by choppy, turquoise seas. Annie professed a cruiser must have a sturdy dinghy with a robust outboard, and El Raton, Eric and Annie’s 11-foot Caribe RIB, served us well.
Hugging the shore, past gleaming estates, we circled around to Nonsuch Island, where we anchored and jumped in beside some noisy children clambering over a semisubmerged shipwreck. It had been relocated there in the 1930s to create a habitat for fish, which paid off. We swam around the thriving site till we were puckered like prunes, then continued eastward, where we picnicked on Clearwater Beach, and hiked to the squat lookout tower on Cooper’s Island.
Another adventure took us shoreside. Catching a bus in St. George, bound for the Crystal Caves, we detoured across the street to the Swizzle Inn for Rum Swizzles before our subterranean trek (see bottom of this article for the recipe). Eight stories deep, the otherworldly cavern is hung with stalactites of calcite and pillars reaching up from luminous pools. Dramatically lit, the caves were breathtaking—and cool. A must for a warm day.
Another must: the sea glass beach outside the channel entrance. Just around Alexandra Battery Park is a tiny cove with a snippet of sand. It’s nothing to look at, until you don your mask and stick your face in the water. The shallow seafloor is a thick confetti of sea glass, in a mélange of shapes and colors. Sated with the east end, we eventually left St. George, and entered the north channel and the northwesterly freshening breeze. How wonderful it felt to be sailing as we followed the gentle slope of the island toward Hamilton. We had plenty of room to play in this arena, which was well-charted to avoid reefs and shoals.
We’d all been aboard El Gato before: Christy in the Med and Caribbean, Diane in the Caribbean and Florida, and me from Gibraltar to Cabo Verde. We quickly got into the rhythm of the boat and enjoyed taking turns on the helm until entering the craw of the Great Sound. We anchored off Beacon Hill in a quiet, dark location that showcased the starry sky and provided a calm setting for early-morning paddling.
Then we were off again, traversing the America’s Cup course and venturing past the Royal Naval Dockyard, which dates back to the 1860s. It was the site of the AC Race Village but now housed galleries and retail shops (which we later ravaged).
Once around Commissioner’s Point, we picked our way west using the simple red and green arrow markers on posts. The bright sun also made it easy to pick out foul areas.
Reams of tourists clustered on the small isles at King’s Point, so we bypassed that anchorage and continued west. Approaching the turtle sanctuary off Daniel’s Island, we took our cues from the glass-bottom boat and poked in. Soon we were chatting with the skipper, who showed us the wreck of the HMS Vixen nearby.
Wherever we went, we found Bermudians to be helpful and warm. Later that week, when we couldn’t find a taxi from the beach, a lovely banker stopped and squeezed us into her teeny car for a ride home.
Backtracking from Daniel’s Island, we arrived in Mangrove Bay, where the Bermuda Fitted Dinghies were competing in a regatta. These wooden craft haven’t changed much since the 1880s—roughly 12 feet long and low to the water, with massive rigs and sail area, and round shallow keels to skirt the reefs—and they provided quite the show, as teams of five or six struggled to stay upright and afloat in the gusty breeze. We anchored nearby and enjoyed the energy and antics of the racers as we swam and paddled.
It would be our last open-water anchorage; that evening we dropped our hook in Hamilton Harbour across from the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. With Newport Bermuda racers arriving soon, we wanted a good spot. As the first boats finished, we joined in the revelry, and had a chance to speak with the club’s general manager, David Furtado.
“The America’s Cup showed Bermuda in a spectacular light. A lot of the visitors have been to sailing events around the world but didn’t realize how beautiful and sophisticated the island is. And in terms of our infrastructure, all the services that yachtsmen need are right here. We hope that instead of just passing by, from place to place, sailors will look at Bermuda as a perfect destination in itself.”
Indeed, the island has a robust marine industry, with many upgraded facilities since the Cup. Plus, parts and equipment can be flown in from the States on several daily flights.
“Bermuda is second to none in its beauty, climate and safe atmosphere,” he beamed.
And I couldn’t agree more. We never locked up the boat in the anchorage. The residents speak English and use U.S. currency. The island is beautiful, clean and safe, with the perfect blend of modern amenities and ageless charm.
You just have to get used to the funny shorts and knee socks.
Betsy Senescu (formerly Crowfoot) is a freelance author in Southern California.
Arriving in Bermuda
Bermuda has strict protocol for entry and departure. St. George’s is the only port of entry. All boats must hail Bermuda Harbour Radio (VHF 16) on approach, then stand by for instructions on clearing customs at Ordnance Island. Visit gotobermuda.com for details.
Chartering El Gato
El Gato, a Catana 472 catamaran, is available for crewed charters in the Pacific beginning in March 2020. Capt. Eric Witte and mate/chef Annie Gardner specialize in helping new cruisers learn the ins and outs of life aboard, from boat maintenance and navigation to provisioning and setting the spinnaker. Learn more at El Gato Adventures’ website, elgatoadventures.com, or email [email protected]
Rum Swizzle recipe
- 4 oz. Gosling’s Black Seal Rum
- 4 oz. Barbados rum (or any amber rum)
- 2 oz. triple sec
- 5 oz. pineapple juice
- 5 oz. orange juice
- 2 oz. Bermuda falernum (or simple syrup or grenadine)
- 4 dashes of Angostura bitters
- Juice of two lemons
Mix all ingredients in a pitcher with crushed ice, and shake vigorously until froth appears. Strain into cocktail glasses over ice, and garnish with a cherry and an orange slice. Enjoy!