The St. Maarten-to-Bermuda Run 2013

The crew [from left]: David, me, Boogie, Jill, and Marlies with Kelly in front

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Bermuda. After overnight showers and a cloudy, drizzly morning, the sun has broken through and it’s simply gorgeous out. We’re tied up at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in Hamilton, where we arrived yesterday around lunchtime. And I’m sitting in the cabin of Pure, the 70-foot yacht on which I crewed to arrive on this beautiful island, about to do a recap of the journey north from St. Maarten.

And a wonderful journey it was, in a lot of ways. We left Simpson Bay around 10:30am on Sunday. Aboard Pure were my Dutch friends, Boogie and Marlies, skipper and co-skipper of the yacht, along with three other crew and me. The other members of the crew were a Brit named David and two Yanks: Kelly, from Florida, and Jill, a racer from Chicago. We were paired up into three watches: Boogie and David, Marlies and Kelly, and Jill and me. Pretty much everyone was on deck all day long on Sunday, with Jill and I taking the dinner watch at 6pm: we’d cook the evening meal for everyone and then do a three-hour watch from 6-9pm.

As is par for the course for me, spending time in the galley after having not been to sea for a long time, I wound up puking over the rail. And that second 12-hour period, from evening until the next morning, was not especially pleasant, including our second watch from 3-6am on Tuesday. But by lunch on that second day, I was back and settling into the rhythm of being at sea that I so love.

And despite feeling queasy, those overnight watches were sublime and set the tone for the trip. A waxing gibbous moon set right before our morning watch, giving us a dark sky for a bit before the sun appeared. Several shooting stars appeared, and Sagittarius, the Southern Cross and Scorpio made a magnificent march above the southern horizon. But what really stood out was the Milky Way, which arched across the sky in a shimmering ribbon of soft white glow. Being so far from the artificial glow of modern society, we were able to experience the night sky as our ancestors did, and it’s no wonder why they were able to conjure up such magnificent tales to explain what they were seeing. It’s a truly humbling experience to see a night sky like that.

What also made the first couple of days so nice was the actual sailing we were doing. Seas were a wee bit lumpy but we had winds in the high teens from the starboard beam, so we cruised right along at eight, nine and sometimes 10 knots. It was a joyful ride with a reef in the main and the headsail rolled away about halfway. Such a treat.

During the day the bright, hot sun baked skin and deck alike, but it cooled noticeably with each passing 24-hour period. By the time Wednesday rolled around, the air temperature was perfect 70s with a cooling breeze and the deck was cool on unshod feet.

A breeze it was, however, not a wind, and starting Tuesday we ran the engine to keep up the apparent wind and our speed en route. We could have sailed more but this was a delivery so concessions were made. It was a bit of a drag to motor, and also to have the generator running 24/7, but the resulting air conditioning, flush toilets and hot showers were a nice perk. Still, it’s not what I consider sailing and not what I seek when I go to sea.

But those night watches made up for it. Monday-Tuesday night, Jill and I were on the 12midnight-3am watch and the ever-waxing moon obscured many of the fainter stars and the Milky Way, but once the moon set that river of light reappeared quickly.

The sunset watch on Wednesday, after we’d cooked and served chili con carne, Jill and I were treated to an amazing show in the western sky. Just after sunset, amid a stunning gradiant of red to orange to yellow to blue to purple to black, three bright pinpricks of light appeared just above the sea’s surface. Jupiter, up highest, shone brightly while below and to its right Venus was as bright as Hollywood klieg light. And just below Venus and a bit more to the right, tiny Mercury emerged from the nuclear-red sky, an apparition that not many humans ever really see. The show wasn’t limited to the west, however. High in the east, the nearly-full moon smiled on the ocean alongside Saturn.

All of which made for a smorgasbord of celestial objects for this would-be astronavigator to measure with his sextant. That’s right: I pulled out an ancient instrument with which to measure the height of sky objects in order to determine my position on the Earth. I “shot” the sun each day, both at noon and at other times, and also took a shot of the Moon and Saturday and nearby star Arcturus on Wednesday. I’ll run the math when I get home and I don’t expect to be all that accurate, but to have the actual act of shooting the stars finally fall into place mentally and physically for me, well, that was a treat.

So the star geek in me was thrilled with the passage. And the pure sailing (no pun intended) portion of the trip was wonderful too. But it’s a long journey (888 miles) and I knew Boogie would run the motor rather than slow down too much. So I settled into the watches looking for what excited me — in this case, the night sky.

Jill, on the other hand, combined new-to-this-crew inexperience with her racer’s tendency to continually trim the sails and further refine the settings on the boat. The problem on Pure is that almost all the winches were hydraulic, meaning they were quite loud when operated. So during one daytime watch she started trimming the mainsail a bit, hoping to glean one more fraction of a knot of speed out of the boat, only to have a groggy-eyed Boogie emerge from the cabin asking what was going on and remarking about how he’d been in a “deep, deep sleep.” Chastened, Jill’s tinkering eased after that.

Fortunately, the good times didn’t end with our Thursday midday arrival in Bermuda. After a sporty tying-up effort — stern-to in a fierce headwind and choppy seas — we cleared customs, did a quick clean-up on board, and took in the small town of St. George’s. And after a more extensive cleaning on Friday, we walked about a half-mile north of the harbor to a small beach at Tobacco Bay. What made the little indent in the coast so fun, in addition to the on-beach food stand/bar, was that it was Bermuda Day, a national holiday, so everyone on the beach was a local out celebrating the start of the summer season. Little kids stumbled around covered in sand, teens climbed up the rock at the head of the bay and jumped into the clear water, and two people who’d never met before started chatting and soon realized that they shared a great-grandmother.

Everyone was having a great time on a great day, and it culminated for me in a bit of snorkeling, something I haven’t done in eons. The afternoon water was a bit murky but the parrot fish were as colorful as I remembered from my teen years, and the sea cucumbers were like funky blobs of goo on the ocean floor. An irridescently colored angel fish hid out beneath a waving sea fan and an assortment of colorful fish provided ever-changing eye candy. Another simple treat to be cherished on this adventure.

But our final destination was the city of Hamilton so we left St. George’s Saturday morning and motored here in a couple of hours. Yesterday’s focus for me was the Champions League football (soccer) match from Wembley, which we found in a sports bar on the waterfront. The place was packed for the match and true to form, I provided a lot of the off-screen excitement. As the action heated up in the second half, this Bayern Munchen fan got edgier and edgier, until the Bavarians broke through in the 60th minute. I exploded out of my chair in a shout (along with a lot of other fans, to be sure), but as I sat back down I missed my chair and went ass-over-teakettle, hitting the table, breaking my glass and spilling my Guinness all over the place. The booth behind me broke into uproarious laughter (after making sure I was OK) and I began cleaning up. As my buddy Dave McCusker says after every inevitable Luke-spilling incident: “It’s a party.” I’m sorry he wasn’t there to see it; it was THAT catastrophic a mess.

Bayern won so I was happy and our crew (sans Kelly who flew back to Florida Saturday afternoon) went out for a bit of dinner. We enjoyed some really good pizza, only to relearn one lesson about Bermuda: it’s REALLY expensive. After that, it was back to the boat and call it a night.

This morning was a laid-back affair. David and I wanted to stretch our legs a bit so we wandered around town, exploring Fort Hamilton which overlooks the harbor on one side with the Atlantic in view on the other. Boogie, Marlies and Jill took a bus to some naval shipyard park/museum. And then I settled in here to write this gibberish.

But now it’s a stunning, sunny afternoon. Where things were sleepy this morning — everyone was in church apparently — the harbor and docks and streets are now bustling. And I’d like to do something bustling as well so I’m off to see what I can find. More on Bermuda to comeā€¦

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