Recollections Part 8 - "Bermuda Harbor Radio - This is Crab Imperial - Over!"
As we prepare for a November 2018 passage to Bermuda and the Virgin Islands, we look back at some lessons learned from our 2005 passage. The Pirates of the Caribbean 1500.
The country of Bermuda has some very strict rules affecting visiting yachts. Mainly because of its remote location well offshore between the US and the Caribbean, the world-renowned RCC Bermuda, formerly known as Bermuda Harbor Radio, is one of the busiest marine surveillance and rescues in the world. All yachts visiting the island must hail RCC Bermuda when they are 30 miles offshore and the captain is required to answer a litany of questions before gaining permission to enter Bermudian waters. The radio operator wants to know all about the vessel, the safety equipment, the passengers aboard, the itinerary, etc. They want to know where you are going, where you are staying, and when you are leaving. Then, they continue to track the incoming vessel on radar until it has reached the Customs dock for inspection.
When Dennis, Meck and I left the Chesapeake Bay for the Virgin Islands in November 2005, we had hoped to sail straight to St. Thomas, plotting a course for a point 300 miles south of Bermuda and then turning south along longitude 65. However, a developing gale off the Carolinas was barreling out to sea behind us and a late tropical storm, Gamma, was churning up some high seas between Bermuda and the Caribbean. By our fourth day out, it was obvious that we should not sail the non-stop southeasterly course, but instead, we should divert to Bermuda. I was pushing for a stop in Bermuda anyway so we could motorsail as much as we wanted to stay ahead of the gale and refuel when we got there. However, I was getting nervous that Meck and Dennis might not have the time to finish the trip if the weather kept us for any length of time, leaving me stranded in Bermuda on my Watkins-36, Crab Imperial, without a crew.
The waters around Bermuda are strewn with dangerous rocks and reefs and precise navigation is critical. Our principal concern was that we didn’t have actual charts of the island, only a series of Mapquest printouts that would have worked fine had they not been soaking wet and all messed up from the horrible weather we had experienced over the past six days. We would be entering St. Georges in the dark by the time we sailed nearly all the way around the island to Town Cut, the narrow channel leading into St. Georges Harbor. The wind and waves were quite high offshore but settled nicely as we worked our way into the lee. Once in radio range, we were able to hear the forecast for the next few days. It wasn’t good. We were moving along nicely, optimistic that we would make it ashore in time for a well-deserved dinner at a restaurant. The approach to the island was beautiful, although the shoreline seemed to go on forever.
According to our calculations, the entrance to St. Georges Harbor was just ahead so we all treated ourselves to a shower and got dressed for dinner. Meck had been up all night so he stayed below to get some sleep. At around 7:00PM, we anxiously contacted BHR to verify that the next flashing red light was our signal to turn into the Town Cut. Dennis had made the best use of our printouts as he could, although; I think he might have been looking at them sideways. We were all exhausted. The conversation between our Chief Navigation Officer and the radio operator is a memory that, in hindsight, was well worth the price of the whole adventure.
CNO – “Bermuda Harbor Radio, Bermuda Harbor Radio, this is sailing vessel Crab Imperial, over”
BHR – “Go ahead Crab Imperial”
CNO - “We are presently heading around the east side of the island and are looking at a red flashing buoy. Is this our entrance to Town Cut”?
BHR – “We have you on our radar and I’m afraid you are on the south side of the island. You have approximately 15 more miles to go before you can make your turn. Then you will have another several miles through the channel into the Cut”.
CNO – “That’s impossible! I’m looking at the chart! And our GPS! I can see where we are and we are on the east side of the island.
BHR – “Sir, I have lived here all my life and you are a visiting yachtsman…I am quite certain you are on the south side and you still have a long way to go”.
This was not an argument I wished to pursue. By the time Dennis was convinced of our position, we were out of the lee and back into the seas. We were in for at least three more hours of slugging into 30 knot headwinds and 8 - 12’ ocean waves. By the time we reached the entrance to the Cut, the windshields were completely coated with salt and the boat was pitching up and over the steep chop sending torrents of white foam across our foredeck. Our 50HP Perkins did all it could to make the slightest headway. Obscured by darkness, the salt-encrusted windshield and the Walker Bay dinghy strapped to the deck, I was nearly blind as Dennis pointed toward the tiny buoy lights that occasionally presented themselves in the distance between the waves.
This was dangerous sailing, indeed. One wrong turn and we would have surely been shipwrecked. Heading straight into the wind with the Perkins running at around 3000 RPM, the Crab was giving us all she had.
Just as the tension was peaking, I noticed our oil pressure had suddenly dropped to zero! “Oh my God, Dennis! Wake up Meck and tell him to start filling the oil…we’re going to lose the engine!” If I’d slowed the engine down too much, we’d have blown out of the channel onto the reef, so I kept her at around 2000 RPM while Meck struggled to fill the engine with oil. The pressure came back as I increased the speed to 2500. Meanwhile, Dennis, now tethered to the mast, pointed toward the buoys as they appeared and disappeared into the waves. I could only turn the wheel to the right or left as he instructed me. More white water across the bow and the oil pressure was heading back down. We had problems! As it turned out, the oil filter had blown a hole in its side and the oil was leaking out as fast as Meck could pour it in. But, this was no time for engine repairs. “Fill it up again!” I ordered. There was no choice, we had to keep running. (Have you ever tried duct taping a blown out oil filter in a pitching boat?) Within an hour, we had reached the final set of buoys leading into St. Georges Harbor, engine still chugging, we were finally safe. We pulled up to the Customs dock at Ordinance Island just before they closed. Although much too late for dinner, even for last call at the White Horse Saloon, Dennis, Meck and I, the “Pirates of the Caribbean 1500”, had made it to Bermuda – the first leg of an “adventure of a lifetime.” We were alive and the Crab Imperial was still in one piece.
We all slept well that night tied securely to the concrete seawall in St. Georges Harbor. And the next morning, we had a chance to gaze around the harbor entrance to closely observe the narrow channel we had traversed the night before. It is a miracle that we made it through the Cut without slicing the Crab to shreds.