Bermuda and the Royal Navy Dockyard

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Wed 22 Dec 2010 22:12
Wednesday evening, St George, Bermuda

It's been very busy here as Andrea and I had a mini-city-break and then she's flown off to the UK.

We set off on Monday morning to visit Hamilton, the capital city of Bermuda and the nearby Royal Navy Dockyard. We'd toyed with taking a taxi but Shirley from the dockmaster's office told us to get some bus tokens from the Post Office and go that way instead - good advice. If you buy the tokens in advance, it's only 2 dollars for a journey of any length. All the buses from St George go to Hamilton so we just took the first one that came along.

Almost immediately, we were passing sheltered coves chock-full of boats and crossing long bridges between the islands. Bermuda is actually made up of over 100 different islands so the bus was mostly traveling along the coast or over a bridge. The roads are narrow with rocky walls to either side so a bus felt about the smallest thing I'd want to travel in. The locals on their mopeds looked very vulnerable, especially the ones carrying dogs on their laps. Apparently, there's a law that governs mopeds to 125cc so the few choppers we saw had tiny engines tucked into their oversized frames.

Everywhere, there are houses. The whole way to Hamilton was past people's front gates. Each house stands in its own plot, lush with tropical trees, ferns and foliage. Every house has a brilliant white limewashed roof but the walls are painted every colour you could imagine. Electric blue next to mint green and then pastel shades. Occasionally, there is a golf course and, even more rarely, a field. I don't think we passed more than 100 acres of farmland on the whole island and goodness knows where they'll fit any more people in. We found out that it's the most densely populated country on earth, with 66000 people crammed into an area of only 20 square miles - that's twice the area of Hayling Island. Aerial photographs show an island almost white with roofs.

Hamilton is a much more modern city with many shops and especially financial institutions. The island's main industry is off-shore re-insurance services and all the major banks have offices in Hamilton. The main docks are there, too, with a couple of ships unloading containers. Everything is imported and the main source of government revenue is import tax. There is no income tax or corporation tax, hence the large numbers of companies and ex-pats. We got off at the central bus station, next to the town hall. This imposing old building has a tower with "clock" which, on closer inspection, is a huge wind-dial. On top of the roof sits a galleon, its mizzen sail pointing it into the wind. That's connected to the dial so that everyone can see what's really important about island life.

We retraced the bus's steps to find a chandlery that I'd spotted and got the new brackets to fix the engineroom fire extinguisher then walked about 50 yards to our home for the night, a charming little B&B with fairy lights around the door and a huge Christmas tree inside. The lady owner was brusque but friendly - a real English "stuff and nonsense" type whose daughter has an Oyster yacht in Antigua. I thought she was hilarious with her opening greeting of "we don't usually let people stay only one night but we're really quiet so you're welcome."

From there, we walked down to the ferry dock and exchanged another token for the half-hour ferry ride to the Dockyard. From the boat we could see the marina in Hamilton where we'd been tempted to go and it wouldn't have been any better than where we already are so I was glad we stayed put. The Dockyard is a little piece of Portsmouth picked up and dropped into the middle of the ocean. All the buildings are made from local white limestone and they're the same shape and style as the ones in England. The scale of the place is stunning.

Once the USA became independent, the Admiralty realised they needed a base between Halifax and the Caribbean so Bermuda, until then a relative Imperial backwater, got the nod. Suddenly, every felon in England who would have been imprisoned or hung was transported to Bermuda, housed in a stinking prison hulk and set to work hewing stone. A quarter of them died. Over the years, they transformed a tree-clad peninsula into a fully functioning dockyard. The outer breakwater arms still shelter hundreds of boats and the ramp is used to work on sizeable vessels. The whole area is walled on the three sides away from the water with a Marines barracks at one end and the Keep at the other. Between are the huge buildings required for the upkeep of the ships and, most impressive of all, a self-contained victualling yard where all the food and drink was prepared and kept under strict control.

The Keep is a self-contained fortress on the seaward end of the peninsula. The design is very similar to the Portsdown Hill forts but made from stone instead of brick. It has the same powder magazines and gun emplacements. At the highest point, stands the Commanders house, the world's first cast-iron framed dwelling with broad balconies around it on all three levels. Below that are the bomb-proof buildings built to store the guns and ammunition from the ships being worked on. These could be brought into the Keep through a water-gate and into a protected mini-harbour inside. At the moment, this is used to house some very overcrowded dolphins for the delight of the tourists.

Once again, Andrea and I were amazed at the ambitions of the Nineteenth Century British. OK, they used convict labour for much of the grunt-work but the amount of money spent on it all is astonishing. Such a huge infrastructure project so far from home seems inconceivable now. The profits generated from the trade it was designed to protect must have been huge and the people making those profits must have been willing to funnel much of them back into taxes to support such state expenditure. It all seems a far cry from the limited ambitions of today's governments.

By the time we'd finished looking around, the day had gone from windy to downright stormy with the wind whistling through the palm trees. We caught another bus back to Hamilton and, after a brief pause, headed out to Bermuda's only veggie restaurant. There, in very basic conditions, we helped ourselves to delicious chick-pea curry and rice which turned out to be the most expensive meal we'd had for some time. Hey ho. At least we got some exercise dodging the squalls on the way back home.

After a good sleep back at our little home in Bermuda, we had breakfast and used their fast internet to Skype with Andrea's mum, John Ash and then my family. It was great to talk to everyone and fantastic to hear that my mum and dad have moved into their lovely new bungalow - so congratulations to them. Then we went off to explore Hamilton itself which didn't take long. It's like a tiny market town with rather too many banks but even has a Marks and Spencer so how more English could it get? Then back on the bus and up to St George where Andrea got to packing her stuff for the trip to Gatwick.

I went with her to the airport where we ate rice and peas and moped about trying not to be sad. The normal reluctance to part was exacerbated by the weather forecasts here which make it unlikely that we can leave for a week or so. That means I'm not even sure when I'll see her again as she'll probably have to alter her flight to the Caribbean. After we couldn't bear it any longer, she went through to the BA lounge to drink free G&T and I walked out into the darkness to wait for a bus back to Saxon Blue. As it turned out, the requirement for the Bermudan habit of building blast-proof bus shelters was demonstrated as the wind whipped the rain horizontally past me for half and hour until the bus turned up. By then, I'd had an invitation to join Kali and Bill on the Swan 60, Alerre, parked behind Saxon Blue so I went straight there.

She was pitching about just like Saxon Blue as the winds gusted around the dockside buildings and was making even more noise as the mainsail mandrel inside her mast clattered about. Bill, her skipper, and engineer Mike had prepared a lovely meal of meat loaf and potatoes so I got stuck into my second dinner. I soon got a text from Andrea telling me that her plane was delayed by two hours because they couldn't get the inbound luggage off - rumour has it that it's because the baggage handlers didn't want to get wet which seems pretty likely. She got away in the end by which time we were having a great evening of chat and stories in Alerre's cosy saloon. By the time I got back onboard Saxon Blue, it was about 11pm so far too late for blog-writing, hence the delay.

I intended to catch up with the writing this morning but, when Kali and I looked at the weather, we realised that the forecast had changed and there was an opportunity to leave on Thursday (tomorrow). We quickly worked out what tasks were essential before we could depart and set about doing them. Bill and I sorted out the lazarette bilge alarms (by surgically removing the automatic switches), fixed the engineroom fire extinguisher, stowed the spinnaker pole, washed the salt off the engine and generally prepared for sea. Kali was going to sort out our supplies but stopped to discuss the possible departure with Bill on the Swan. He used to work for Commander's Weather, a routing service used by many yachts so we valued his opinion. As it turned out, his opinion was that the window between this low departing and the next one arriving will be too short to get far enough South. He's anxious to depart, too, but had decided to stay put in St. George and that decided us, too. There's no point having a horrible crossing so we'll wait until next Tuesday, at the earliest, before departing.

It's a shame not to be spending Christmas at sea but at least we know we'll definitely be here now so we can start preparing. After chatting to Andrea at White Hill this morning (very surreal) on Skype, she went to get that set up for my mum and dad but, just for the purpose, Skype has had massive network failures all day so that scuppered that plan. Bill and I spent the afternoon finishing off some jobs so Saxon Blue is pretty ready for sea, even if the crew aren't. He and Kali worked out what was going on with the fresh water tanks and confirmed that we don't have a faulty tank so that's a huge relief to me. We have some non mission-critical jobs still to do but we have plenty of time to fiddle around now so that's OK.

We're having Bill (I can't call him Bill 2 as that would get really confusing with our Bill, Bill 1, being, if fact, Bill 3) and Mike over for curry later so that'll be good. We've got a right little society of stray sailors down here so Christmas will be very sociable, I think.


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