Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print

Bermuda by sea

Jan 1, 2003

imension to Bermuda sailing that yachtsmen should take very seriously. Sailing to Bermuda in winter months, of course, is only for daredevils. The North Atlantic in winter is suitable only for the largest yachts and ships.

The simplest source of information about general wind conditions en route to Bermuda is the book of North Atlantic Pilot Charts published by the government in booklet form. This contains 12 charts, one for each month. These provide incredible depth of accumulated data based on previously encountered conditions. Information on wind direction and speed, surface temperature, set and drift of currents, generic Gulf Stream location, magnetic variation, and other useful data is recorded on each chart. Pilot charts cannot, of course, provide specific weather forecasts for the time of particular trips, nor can they provide specific Gulf Stream information. For all-around weather understanding, however, including month-to-month comparisons, pilot charts make an excellent starting resource.

Generally speaking, the route between Bermuda and the U.S. points north of Cape Hatteras, and falls into the zone of prevailing southwesterlies. St. David's Head, which marks the entrance point for all arriving yachts, lies at a latitude of 32° 22' N. Because of this latitude, winds tend to be more variable than predictably southwest, but the islands most definitely do not fall within the trade wind zone, which typically begins several hundred miles farther to the south.

The route is one of offshore sailing off the U.S. continental shelf, usually with some sort of crossing of the Gulf Stream. North of the Gulf Stream the weather is predictably similar to what one would find off any section of New England or mid-Atlantic coast, including possibilities of fog with plenty of cold water. South of the Gulf Stream, temperatures are dramatically warmer, and the weather is considerably more tropical in nature with sometimes dangerous squalls always a distinct possibility.

The entire region between the U.S. and Bermuda is subject to the effects of various fronts and low pressure systems moving off the U.S. coast from west to east, just as it would be while sailing from, say, Norfolk to Montauk, N.Y. For summer sailing, however, low pressure systems tend to be relatively mild, and cold fronts have nothing like the intensity of their off-season relatives. Every Bermuda sailor has his heavy-weather stories, of course, but in general summer sailing to Bermuda is not a survival experience.

Bermuda itself lies within the band of high pressure that exists between the zone of prevailing southwesterlies to the north and the zone of northeast trades farther to the south. These are traditionally known as the horse latitudes, most famous because of lack of wind. Because of this geographic location, Bermuda residents, as well as uncountable numbers of tourists, all benefit from a year-round dry and temperate climate. In broad terms, warm air that constantly rises into the atmosphere over the equator tends to descend back down to the Earth in the form of warm, reasonably dry air, at about 30° north and south latitudesabsolutely perfect for Bermudians at 32° north!

A huge controlling factor over weather in the Atlantic region north of the latitude of Bermuda is the so-called Bermuda-Azores High. This stable mid-Atlantic high pressure system tends to be especially influential in summer months with average barometric readings of about 1030 mb. It is best known for creating light winds or calms, although in proximity to other passing weather systems it can help produce areas of strong winds, particularly dry northeasters, as air flows off its eastern and southern slopes into areas of lower pressure to the south.

Many of those heavy-weather stories of Bermuda sailors come from a narrow zone about halfway between Bermuda and New England. This is where one finds the Gulf Stream, one of the great natural wonders of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Gulf Stream represents a 40- to-60-mile-wide obstacle or potential obstacle for most sailors en route to or from Bermuda. In the area north of Cape Hatteras it generally runs east with a speed of two to three knots. It meanders to the north and south of its average path and it forms warm-core eddies to its north and cold-core eddies to its south. By itself, although it represents an incredibly powerful force of nature, it is not a problem for sailors. Many a voyager has motored across a flat-calm Gulf Stream while racers have often had to drift helplessly to the east while becalmed in the life-rich Gulf Stream waters.

The Gulf Stream can certainly be a problem, however, when the weather turns rough, particularly when a strong wind from the northeast blows for a period against the Gulf Stream's current. In that situation, wind opposing the current will soon build up steep, uncomfortable seas that will be sure to make sailors in small boats feel uncomfortable, if not threatened.

It must always be remembered, however, that the Gulf Stream is rarely more than 40 to 60 miles wide. Most modest sailboats can make the crossing of a 50-mile-wide Gulf Stream in eight to 10 hoursmuch less in the right wind conditions.

In normal weather, however, the stream is little more than a slight navigational challenge. No one should hold back on sailing to or from Bermuda because of concern about the Gulf Stream. In the event of a strong northeast wind, a vessel should be able to heave-to and wait before crossing the stream or, if the breeze is favorable, simply to batten down and go for it!

Something else about the Gulf Stream: It can make life uncomfortably steamy on a yacht. Coming down from New England, sailors typically enjoy two or three days of pleasant summer temperatures before reaching the Gulf Stream. After that it can be like a steambath belowdecks, especially if a vessel is somewhat battened down while working upwind against a southwesterly. With the Gulf Stream under the keel, crewmembers quickly start thinking about swim call! (Swim ladders are essential items of equipment for larger yachts cruising to Bermuda.)

The Gulf Stream is more than just a wide river across the route to Bermuda, however. For nine out of 10 crossings, navigators will encounter powerful circular eddies north or south of the stream. These can hinder or enhance a vessel's progress depending upon how they are played. Cold-core eddies located south of the stream rotate counterclockwise at speeds of one to three knots, while warm-core eddies to the north rotate clockwise at somewhat lesser speeds. The only way to play these eddies, or to avoid them if that is desired, is to have advance knowledge of them. Information about the Gulf Stream and its features is available from a number of private and public sources. (For more detailed information and perspective on the Gulf Stream, see the Gulf Stream Companion, published by this magazine.)Not too many years ago, sailing to Bermuda was a navigational challenge as well as a test of seamanship. This lasted until the advent of GPS, which, it must be assumed, is standard equipment on almost every boat headed for Bermuda. Before the age of GPS, navigators used dead reckoning, celestial techniques, radio direction finders, radar, and, most recently, loran receivers, which were of minimal accuracy a few hundred miles offshore. Today GPS does it all, although radar can still be quite useful upon final approach. Although getting to Bermuda with GPS is elementary, one must still exercise vigilance when it comes time for landfall and approach. The land mass of Bermuda, being a 21-square-mile coral atoll atop a well-submerged volcano, is surrounded by coral reefs. The most notorious of these are to the west, north, and northeast. Those to the north extend seven or eight miles offshore and rise up precipitously from the bottom, thus devaluing the use of a depth sounder as a navigation tool when coming down hard toward Bermuda from the north. Reefs to the west extend more than five miles offshore. Those approaching from the north typically pick up the North Rock beacon and then work their way east and south, rounding North East Breakers, Kitchen Shoals, Mills Breakers and other marks, leaving them all to starboard, until reaching the main navigational channel toward St. George's, which is the mandatory entry port for foreign yachts.

Long before sighting the North Rock beacon, however, someone is sure to sight first the powerful light at Gibb's Hill (white flash every 10 seconds, 350 feet high, located at southwest corner of main island) or the sectored light of St. David's Head (fixed red or green, 212 feet high, located at eastern end of island). The Gibb's Hill light can be seen about 26 miles out to sea in perfect weather, and thus it makes an excellent target for that first landfall visual bearing. The St. David's light has maximum visibility of 15 miles for its white light, more for its red/green sectors. As one approaches the island, the bearings of Gibbs Hill and St. David's lights can be crossed for a rather shallow but still worthwhile navigational fix. Equally useful, during the approach, are visual bearings on the various fixed lighted aids marking the outlying reefs to the north and northeast.

It is said that the safest approaches to Bermuda are from the east or southeast. But nowadays, with navigation gear being as advanced as it is, many skippers tend to make their approach from whatever direction is most convenient. Traditional sailing directions used to advise that an approach should be made from east of the meridian of St. David's Head, which is 64° 38.7' W, and on a true course towards St. David's of no greater than 226°.

Night approaches and entries are not overly difficult in mild weather with a well-manned boat, and a skipper who has been there before. However, because the final approach toward Town Cut and St. George's can be initially confusing for first-time skippers, these are not recommended except in benign conditions. Vessels arriving at night might take a more cautious approach and heave-to just east of the entry until dawn (depending on wind and sea conditions) or anchor in about 40 feet of water in Five Fathom Hole just outside of Town Cut (32° 23' N, 64° 37' W).

In heavy weather, unfortunately, the entrance to Bermuda's harbor is not quite as inviting as the island itself. With winds from any sort of easterly quadrant, the reefs between St. David's Head and Northeast Breakers can represent a dangerous lee-shore hazard for any vessel. In building storm conditions, approaching vessels may find breaking surf in the St. David's area excessively hazardous and be forced to return to sea to await milder weather, although such situations are rare during non-hurricane times.

No matter what the approach, however, everything takes place under the watchful eyes, far-reaching radio, and powerful radar antenna of Bermuda Harbour Radio, located high atop Fort George Hill in St. George's.

Bermuda Harbour Radio handles entry communications for all visiting vessels. This round-the-clock government service can be immensely helpful to visiting yacht skippers who might need a nudge in the right direction, or a warning about nearby reefs, or simply an introduction to the harbor master or customs officials. Additionally, when vessels run into trouble offshore the watchstanders at Bermuda Harbour Radio play the dominant role in coordinating rescue, towing service or other assistance. Vessels approaching Bermuda are advised to contact Bermuda Harbour Radio by VHF as soon as they are within calling distance. Those that don't will quite possibly find themselves being hailed rather formally by a British-sounding voice on Channel 16.

In addition to maintaining radio watches on both VHF and single-sideband, Bermuda Harbour Radio broadcasts navigational warnings and weather forecasts at scheduled times. Because of its power and high site, the VHF broadcasts can typically be heard far out to sea, well beyond normal VHF range. For vessels making the approach to Bermuda it is always fun to hear these broadcasts even though landfall may be over the horizon.

Another sure sign that Bermuda is not too far away is the inevitable first sighting of a so-called Bermuda longtail. These legendary birds, more properly known as white-tailed tropicbirds, are renowned for their long tails up to 40 centimeters in length and wingspans of up to three feet, as well as for their graceful appearance in flight. Mature adults are also made distinctive by their orange beaks, black tipping on upper wingtips and inner wing backs and a dark stripe or swatch which passes through the eye, giving the bird a streamlined look in flight. As many as 3,000 such longtails are known to visit Bermuda each year, and an equal number are likely sold in the form of jewelry in the boutiques of Hamilton and St. George's. They can be observed as far as a hundred miles from the island and they are a favorite of Bermuda-bound sailors, especially since they are fond of attaching themselves to ships and yachts.

Coming in from the open ocean, a yacht passes close by what must be the most infamous shoal area in Bermuda waters. This is the treacherous Sea Venture Shoals, just a half mile from Town Cut entrance to St. George's and adjacent to The Narrows passage which leads to Hamilton. Here, in July, 1609, English expedition leader Sir George Somers unexpectedly ran his ship, Sea Venture, up onto the reef while trying to make Bermuda after surviving a storm that had scattered his fleet of nine ships headed for the troubled colony of Jamestown, Va. Although ships had been wrecked on Bermuda's reefs previously, and hundreds have been lost in centuries since, the wreck of the Sea Venture may be the most famous because it was Somers and his followersall brought ashore to nearby St. Catherine's Bay in the ship's two boatswho are credited with bringing about eventual settlement of Bermuda.

Although entry to St. George's through Town Cut is fun and easy today, it was not always so. Prior to this century most shipping headed into St. George's used the more challenging St. George's Channel, which cuts across shoals south of Paget Island. This channel has many areas of depths of about two fathoms. The modern Town Cut channel, running directly east-west, was opened in 1917 and has since been improved to handle the largest cruise ships.

The technique for passing through Town Cut is to drive straight down the middle of the channel and wave to natives on the rock cliffs to either side. (Later, your crewmembers can come back in a dinghy to land on the back side of Horseshoe Island for rock diving straight into the cut.) Before and after the rock cliffs of Town Cut, the channel is well buoyed.

All vessels arriving in Bermuda are required to clear customs at St.George's, and the majority of yachts (with drafts of 12 feet or less) tie up in front of the customs office on the north side of Ordinance Islandin front of the big gray building. Vessels arriving at night can tie up there to await clearance in the morning, but crewmembers should remember to stay on or next to their vessel until clearance is granted. In special circumstances customs officials may agree to visit yachts tied up elsewhere, but by policy they do not visit anchored yachts. Crews of yachts too large to tie up at the customs dock should anticipate a request that all crewmembers come ashore in a group.

The usual problems involving pets and weapons pertain to Bermuda arrivals (paperwork and proper declarations required) and a head tax of $15 will most likely be charged for each crewmember. Bermuda customs officials are uniformed, polite, and friendly, which adds a nice touch to the checking-in process.

Equally friendly are the St. George's harbor masters, Peter Madeiros and Bernard Oatley. Once a vessel is through clearing in, the harbor masters are sometimes of great assistance with local advice for dockage, anchorage, repairs, provisions, or, if a crew is really disoriented, directions to the famed White Horse Tavern. Welcome to Bermuda!