Returning to Bermuda on a Friday while disappointing and disruptive to our non-boating lives provided an opportunity to experience Bermuda through a different lens. Everything they say about Bermuda is true. The people were universally friendly, polite and went out of their way to help. The place is clean, and the public transit system puts most transit systems in the US to shame. This cuteness comes at a price. The economy is highly regulated and there is a political undercurrent that drives many aspects of day to day life. Being an island these undercurrents have a force of their own within the social fabric of the island. During our weekend moored on the St George’s wharf, we interacted with the locals at a level not possible as tourists with families in tow.
David and I cleared customs at 4:30 and by 5:30 the boat was moored, and we were ready to visit the White Horse for a beer – remember the boat had not had ice for about four days – we were ready! While clearing customs, we were told that we needed to get a few things in order to leave the boat in Bermuda: a sponsor to handle issues with the boat if we had to leave it in Bermuda; the boat had to be on a registered mooring; and letters were required indicating proof of flights home (recall we had no flights as this was not part of the plan). This was rather worrying as it sounded like it all may take time, and we were anxious to get home. Our concern was driven by the fact that if the boat did not make it back to the States before hurricane season truly set in, it may well need to remain in Bermuda for a year!
Moored across from us was a pretty sloop about 33 feet long, and in the same style as an Alberg. The teak was well attended to, and the owner was planted in the stern with a drink watching the Friday night foot traffic in St George. I figured anyone that had a pretty boat like this could not be a bad person to get advice from, and walked around to introduce myself.
On introducing myself I learned something that I was not aware of – everyone in Bermuda has a nickname. If they do not have a nickname their name is shortened. This is fairly amusing. For the most part the name is something that the person is aware of and will often introduce themselves with their nickname. However, sometimes the name is more descriptive and not used by the person to whom the name refers but rather by everyone else. These names can be more descriptive and amusing.
It turns out that the owner of the boat across from us was “Uptown”, and was amongst other things the local swizzle guy – swizzle is the local punch. If you wanted someone to make swizzle for your wedding party, you called Uptown. I was immediately invited aboard, and after being given a cool glass of swizzle, and explaining our predicament, Uptown informed me that he had the solution. His friend Eddie had a brand new mooring (registered and tagged with official looking stickers), and he was working at the St George’s boatyard. If a storm came up Craig at the Boatyard could pull the boat out. Calm down have another swizzle! By this time David had joined us, and we were getting Uptown’s life history.
Shortly after that, Eddie joined us from the St George’s Boatyard. Eddie was a character on a number of levels. From what we could tell, he had once owned a boatyard on the southern end of the island where he produced fiberglass boats, and was one of the top fiberglass people on the island. At some point a few years ago, he had built himself a gorgeous looking 50+ foot motorsailer, and sold the yard – presumably with enough left over to set himself up nicely for retirement. He was spending his retirement cruising between Bermuda and Venezuela; often by himself. He had recently been written up in the local Caribbean newspapers for fending off pirates with his 12 gauge on his way back from Venezuela.
Now while Uptown was arguably a bit too focused on chatting up the young ladies – actually any lady – on the wharf; Eddie was clearly a big fan of the professional ladies – rumor was the younger the better. Now before you think that Eddie was some young man with money burning a hole in his pocket; not so. He was well into his seventies. His stories were decidedly off color, but one had to question his ability to actually perform at the level he talked. Regardless, it was amusing talk, and we had a mooring, and a boatyard lined up, so we were ready for dinner.
Over the next few days we got to know the local scene from the perspective of the city wharf. Did you know that you can walk the length of the St George town, and stay connected to the internet by connecting to the free wifi at the restaurants? I still have them on my phone. While the White horse is good for a pint of Boddingtons looking out over the water, the fish tacos are much much better at Wahoos a few houses into the harbor. During the day, we checked out one of the marinas that David had stayed at on his last trip to Bermuda while on the way to Europe. It was deserted. In fact, the whole town was pretty devoid of tourists and yachts. It turns out that the island had created a cruise ship terminal at the Dockyards on the south end of the island, and this had the effect of making St George a place for locals and a place where yachts stopped for a quiet anchorage. If you wanted a more cosmopolitan scene, you took the boat through the sound to Hamilton harbor. During the day a Dutch built 40 metre warship on a delivery trip for the Bahamian Defense Force came in on her way to the Bahamas from Holland. The Dutch crew jumped ashore for a beer at the White Horse while the World Cup - Holland versus Costa Rico came on – It was a close match with Holland winning making the White Horse full of very happy and boisterous Dutchmen.
Our evening on Saturday, included a beer with Uptown, and some good conversations with Phoopah and his friends. I had met Phoopah on the first day in Bermuda when we were trying to find the rental house. He runs the tourist office on the wharf, and could not have been more helpful helping the taxi driver find the house. We hung out by the boat and talked with Phoopah and some of the local bums – a pretty presentable lot as far as bums go. The following morning, we squared away the boat storage plans with Eddie and made plans to organize things with Craig at the St George boatyard on Monday morning. It sounded all very manageable; $100 per month for the mooring and whatever the yard needed to charge if she was hauled out for a storm (She would have been next to Brian Walters old Alberg). Lynne had sent the email to the Customs House with my Monday travel tickets, so we had all we needed. We made plans to travel with Uptown to his mooring, and drop him off at his dock, before driving the graciously loaned dinghy to the wharf and picking up Cookin for a trip to the mooring. We had worked on getting the boat ready to leave, and by the time we showed up at the mooring, we had a dinner of whatever was left over, and were ready to hit the sack. We felt pretty good and organized going into Monday morning.
I had mentioned that everyone in Bermuda has a nickname. Over the weekend a number of people had asked whether or not we had met “Dingbat”, the senior officer at Customs House who had left when we arrived on Friday afternoon. We had not met him, but we had heard of him. Other cruising boats on the dock had mentioned that there was a rude and cranky customs man that would come out and publicly shout at cruisers and let them know that they could be arrested as they had not followed the rules – in this case anchoring and coming in to clear rather than docking at the wharf and clearing. Well it turns out the Dingbat was the man we had to visit on Monday morning!
We were up early, and ran the dinghy ashore. We had all our bags packed, the trash ready to come off, and whatever we could offload to Uptown we did. We arrived at opening time, but had to wait an hour as although the rest of the customs crew was at work on time, island time was in effect for Dingbat. We spent this time in what in the UK would have been a greasy spoon joint with bacon, eggs and the classic English breakfast. It is up by the laundrymat for those that have been there. The only problem was that there were huge cockroaches flying around – I was so glad Lynne was not there. We rushed through breakfast before something flew into it and headed down to see Dingbat.
We were ushered in, and provided seats. Immediately I knew we were in trouble. The chairs were situated in such a way that one knew Dingbat was in charge. He had read the book on how to set up your desk to intimidate. We let him know our situation and that we had complied with the request to find a mooring and a sponsor; additionally he let us know that he had received Lynne’s email with my flight plans. On hearing that Edie was our sponsor, Dingbat let us know that he knew Eddie and had problems with him; he would need to open up an investigation and that could take a couple of weeks during which David would need to stay on Bermuda (oh oh). When we asked what would be acceptable, Dingbat rattled off three names; one of which was Craig at the St Georges Boatyard. Maybe this could be saved – if St Georges Boatyard was an approved sponsor, then we just transfer the sponsorship from Eddie to Craig – no problem. Well, not so simple it seems. Dingbat let us know that now he knew Craig was talking with Eddie, he would still need to open an investigation, and that would take a couple of weeks, with an unknown outcome. It was out of his hands as his bosses in Hamilton would then have to make a decision. Really – could this get any more like a bad movie script for an officious bureaucrat? Ok Dingbat, who do you suggest? He mentioned two other operations. One was the Bermuda Yacht Service who ran the marina at the city wharf – incidentally the same operation that had just installed the Eddie’s mooring . Fair enough – off we went to check on the “approved vendors”.
Bermuda Yacht Services was closest, and in we went to visit “Momma”. Well I have to say Momma was remarkably efficient. She had a letter typed up in no time, and indicated that she could get us both out on the 3:00pm flight. She called around a few other mooring holders – notably not on Dingbat’s list, to see if she could find a cheaper spot than the $500 / month she was offering. However to no avail; no problem. If it turned out that the boat needed to be there long term, she could shift it to another cheaper mooring. As she and David came out of the Dock Office, she turns to David and let him know that she was the one that would be doing the talking. Off she stormed with David in tow. If she had been a sailing ship, she would have been a three decker with full sails set ploughing her way to the customs office. Well it took what seemed like a few minutes – certainly less than five minutes. We were approved. As David reported, when Momma walked in with David, Dingbat laughed and perfunctorily provided the approval. Momma provided us with instructions for getting the boat to a new mooring, and off we went. We only had a few hours before the plane left, and it was all rather rushed.
The whole experience left me with the distinct impression that we had just been rolled by Dingbat. To what end I do not know. Was Momma getting a payoff? It seems unlikely. David worked with Momma and her son Mark, in getting the boat ready for the second sail back and they were the epitome of professionalism. Was there a race thing going on? Eddie and the crowd on the pier were Africans, but so was Dingbat! Maybe Dingbat just did not like Eddie. It did not make much sense. Looking back on the experience, the locals were all entirely genuine. Yes we were tourists, and yes we were out a few beers from the whole experience, but I can be out a few beers sitting on a dock in the Chesapeake. Dingbat is a poor reflection on the Bermuda authorities, and it galled me a bit to see the HM Customs insignia attached to such an officious and sanctimonious little man – he was a two striper and they use the same shoulder boards as the Royal Navy for which I have great respect. The others we met Uptown, Eddie, and Phoopah– the true locals – helped us out for no obvious benefit. When Uptown lent us his dinghy, there was no request to top up the fuel tank – even though gas is horribly expensive on the island – it was provided no strings attached; (we did of course top it off). As winter sets in here on the East Coast, I think back to the time we spent on the island, and am reminded that it does not cost anything to say “Good Morning”, smile and be friendly.
It was only a weekend, but it felt as if we had been there weeks. By Sunday night, they knew what we drank at the White Horse; Tony the local cowboy delivered breakfast from the café to my table by the window overlooking the boat, and we had made friends with the other cruisers that were waiting to make the leap across the Atlantic. It was a good thing we left when we did – going local was a distinct possibility.
Endnote. Bermuda has recently won the America’s Cup venue. I hope that they can pull this off. They need to diversify their tourism based activity, and must compete with other parts of the Caribbean as a destination. To do this though, they need to remember that most Americans do not deal with over regulation and bureaucracies well. Cruising sailors certainly do not. If you are on a boat, it is much less stress to sail to the Bahamas and south than it is to sail to Bermuda. Sailing to the Caribbean is almost coastal cruising with a few long hops; while getting stuck halfway between Bermuda and the United States puts you out of range of the US Coast Guard helicopters and in the middle of nowhere. Hosting the America’s Cup puts Bermuda in a position to capitalize on becoming a sailing destination for regattas. However, staffing the welcome committee with Dingbats will not allow that to happen.
Jonathan Adams and Dave Cooper