There’s nothing quite like a landfall.
I’m writing this in a deserted upstairs bar at the Shelburne Harbour Yacht Club in a small town in Nova Scotia, just up the coast from Cape Sable and a four-day sail from Newport, Rhode Island. Technically this was the second leg of a trans-Atlantic cruise in our yawl Arcturus — the first being the short hop up from Cape May to Newport — though given the mild downwind conditions, that one hardly counts.
Ultimately, we hope to make our final landfall in Sweden, though at this point, that’s almost too far distant to even think about. Leg two to Canada was supposed to have seen us arriving in Lunenburg, the historic town just south of Halifax, where the famous schooner and Canada’s pride and joy Bluenose was built. Conditions were not favorable, and we got turned around with only 70 miles to go when an unexpected nor’easter blew up and we turned tail for the closest downwind harbor. Soaked and exhausted, we made port early in the morning after a sleepless night at sea. The lot of us crashed out for a full 16 hour sleep once secured to the dock.
Shelburne has surprised and satisfied us. The folks at the yacht club couldn’t be friendlier, and the experience we had with the customs officers when they came calling was the single most pleasant interaction I’d ever had with any sort of officialdom. They made themselves quite comfortable in Arcturus’ tiny cabin, chatting about the local fishing and regretting that they hadn’t brought my new bride Mia and I a wedding present.
My mom and dad joined Mia and I on this first leg. During the worst of the weather offshore, when my dad was huddled in the companionway giving me pilotage directions from the chart while I was getting a thorough soaking at the tiller, we reflected on making offshore passages and wondered again whether it’s the passage itself that we enjoy so much or the landfall at the other end, when one can sit and reflect on it with the comfort of a cold beer. That particular debate was an easy one to settle.
Which brings me full circle to the actual subject of this article: Bermuda, the “onion patch” in the middle of the North Atlantic, quite possibly sees more landfalls than any other place in the Atlantic and arguably caters to a more diverse group of yachts than anywhere in the world. The island is unique in that it’s usually not a destination — for yachties, anyway — but rather a place to regroup and rest before heading off across the pond or down island. In the Atlantic, Bermuda is on the way to almost everywhere.
I was most recently on the island for the ARC Europe cruising rally, which sees between 20 and 30 boats call on their way home to Europe. Spring and fall on the island see the most action from the yachting community, as boats of all shapes and sizes stop over along their routes further afield. In St. Georges, what I like to think of as the more “authentic” side of the island, pastel-colored houses nestle in the hillsides and quaint restaurants and pubs line the waterfront, while on the town dock the variety of yachts is incredible. Bermuda Yacht Services manages the megayacht dock, where about a half-dozen big boats were berthed while I was there. Next door at the town dock, a tiny 20-foot homebuilt sloop with an intrepid single-hander was moored alongside a gorgeous Alden yawl. As opposed to the many “destination” islands in the Caribbean, Bermuda (and St. Georges in particular) is unique — though it’s set up to cater for tourists, it really is a “real” sailors haven, a waypoint for yachts traveling the North Atlantic. You won’t see many charter guests around, and the wharfs near the town dock are filled not with beer-drinking revelry, but with skippers and crew mending sails and making boats ready for sea.
The island seems to recognize its unique position in mid-ocean and makes for an exceptionally friendly landfall. The ARC Europe participants were treated to a private visit with Bermuda Radio, the boys atop Fort George Hill, who are the first point of contact to all traffic around the island, calling sometimes as far as 50 miles out and assisting vessels unfamiliar with the island in making their entrance. Gosling’s Rum sent out a representative to the St. Georges Dinghy & Sports Club to share their unique story (and their world-famous rum). The Gosling’s family made their own landfall in the 18th century, intending on relocating from the UK to the fledgling USA, but instead being unceremoniously dropped at the customs quay when their charter ran out. The Dark ‘N Stormy quickly became the sailor’s beverage of choice when racing yachts would export the unique Black Seal Rum to their home clubs by the barrel.
It’s about 600 miles to Bermuda from nearly everywhere on the North American coast and often a rough passage across the Gulf Stream. Perhaps this is why the island sees such a unique group of visitors. On a Caribbean passage, or even a trans-Atlantic, you don’t have to stop there — but given the friendly welcome and the unique atmosphere, it’d be foolish not to.
Andy Schell is a professional yacht captain and freelance writer. He and his wife, Mia, are sailing across the Atlantic in their 35-foot yawl Arcturus, and will return to the Caribbean next winter to continue working on yachts. Visit his website at www.fathersonsailing.com.
There’s nothing quite like a landfall.