Bermuda or Bust

Copyright 1990, Jack G. Ganssle


This is Jack Ganssle's story of sailing to Bermuda and back during the summer of 1990 on his 35 foot sailboat. Gales and calms, moped accidents and seasickness all contributed to a wonderful time. Sound strange? Read the tale!

The story is broken into two parts to keep download times reasonable.

Written in August of 1990. You can contact the author at

The Story

We were finally off! After 8 months of planning and untold dollars the long-awaited Bermuda trip commenced. Just before 6:00 PM on May 31, 1990, Scott Rosenthal, Ed Criscuolo, Bill Gaal, and I backed Amber II, my 35 foot double headsail sloop, out of her slip on Maryland's South River. We hoisted a "Bermuda or Bust" flag and turned down river towards the Chesapeake Bay.

Amber at anchor in Maryland

Amber was ready for sea. Planning the trip occupied much of our free time during the bleak winter months. Our rough idea of the adventure evolved into a detailed computerized 15 page to-do list. Slowly, painfully, we refined the details and resolved each item. In some ways the planning was a triumph of technology, taking advantage of computer networks, cellular phones, fax machines, and the like. Scott and I maintained regular electronic communication, and Ed and Bill were linked in by the good old postal service.

Scott, Bill, Jack and Ed (left to right)

What food should we bring? We left with $600 of provisions, enough food for 72 man-days. Room was at a premium - what sails could we leave behind? How many jugs of diesel should we carry on deck? We had a fuel consumption plan, with checkpoints, to insure an adequate safety margin for arrival in Bermuda. How much cooking fuel was needed? We started with 6 gallons of kerosene for the stove, heater, and lamps, 8 cans of butane, two cans of propane, 61 gallons of diesel, and 2 gallons of alcohol. What will our water budget be? Suppose a tank springs a leak - how many containers should we divide the water into? How should we respond to various kinds of emergencies? This culminated in an "Abandon Ship" placard mounted, with the fuel consumption placard, over the chart table. We studied and discussed dozens of contingencies, and prepared plans for them all. Amber left with enough spare parts and tools to build her replacement!

Amber has sailed down the Bay to Norfolk untold times over the years, so this starting section of the voyage was a sort of non sequitur; a quick diversion before the real trip.

The crew were all experienced in the ways of a sailing vessel. After a discussion of safety procedures, strategies, and ground rules, the off watch crew went to bed. When morning rolled around I woke to find Ed cooking pancakes, Bill on deck tending the yacht, and Scott navigating. A good crew is a blessing, running the boat like a well oiled machine without panics or problems. Even better, everyone is sure to enjoy themselves no matter how difficult the trip turns out to be.

We had a schedule to keep, and so motored into the light headwind for 23 hours.

The southern Bay is always a busy place; an inbound Nuclear sub passed close astern as we turned towards Little Creek at the junction of the Bay and the ocean for our last night ashore.

Sailors love starting and ending voyages. Every passage, even this short one of 130 miles, ends with some sort of blowout. We had dinner at an outdoor bistro on the waterfront, but despite the drinks we were a subdued group, somewhat awed by the 650 nautical miles looming before us. After topping off the tanks and one last shower we retired for a final night's undisturbed sleep before heading offshore.

At the marina in Little Creek we ran through the final items on the pre-offshore checklist to guarantee Amber was ready for the rigors of ocean sailing. The list was so comprehensive that practically every contingency is covered, to insure we didn't neglect details like filling the water tanks in the excitement of leaving - or, loading the flare pistol. Newcomers are sometimes surprised that while offshore we always keep a white flare loaded and the pistol instantly accessible to the cockpit. This is just part of Amber's strategic defense initiative: trying to avoid collisions with undermanned tankers without lookouts.

Headed to Sea

We cast off at 0600 and headed for the open sea. By 0700 we passed through the 18 mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the official end of sheltered Bay waters and the start of the open Atlantic.

In this age of fast jet travel, a little jaunt of 650 miles is scarcely an adventure. Many times I've flown further than this in the morning, returning home the same evening. The perspective is a bit different when facing 650 miles of ocean from the vantage of a 35 foot sailboat. This trip would take about a week, running the vessel 24 hours a day. The ship's business never stops at sea; we crew are her servants, tending her sails, mechanical equipment, and navigation day and night. Setting out on a voyage of this length one never knows if the weather will be fair or foul, if the boat will suffer serious failures, or if we'll simply get lost. This element of the unknown is a big part of the adventure.

Several mechanical failures immediately cropped up. The depth sounder died. Corrosion in the log's reset switch started occasionally setting our distance run measurement unexpectedly to zero.

Galley slaves Ed and Scott at work

North America faded away astern. A pod of 5 dolphins swam by, welcoming us to their element. Later a huge sea turtle lumbered westward 20 feet from our starboard side.

Ed and Bill were the official entertainment committee, and had been tasked with coming up with clever ideas to keep us from getting bored. It was clear something strange was afoot when Bill instructed everyone to bring a woman's bathing suit. After assuring us that, no, nothing really weird was involved, everyone agreed to go along. Now, after breakfast on this first day offshore, he went below and inflated his surprise - a quite naked, quite obscene portable girlfriend. The gag was to dress this character in the bathing suits. Scott was nominated to go first and gracefully accepted his assignment, after which the rest of us backed out. We did prop her up at the tiller to take pictures of our new crewmember at the helm. We then stuffed her up forward in the V berth, where her legs bobbed in the air with each passing swell for a week.

The wind stayed southwest at about force 4 most of the day, giving us great sailing in cold, dry air.

Nice sailing hundreds of miles from land
The Gulf Stream

At 0250 on Scott's watch we suddenly hit the west wall of the Gulf Stream. Scott reported that the air temperature jumped noticeably.

Proper Gulf Stream management was critical to our navigational strategy. This warm current is the largest river in the world, yet it is entirely located in midocean. Hundreds of miles across, it roars north at speeds ranging from half a knot to about 2.5 knots not far from its west wall. Off Florida speeds of 5 knots are not uncommon.

Our course was southeast, at an average 5 knots. The Stream's 2.5 knot sideways push was guaranteed to throw us a long way off course. While we planned for this, the Stream's exact size and position varies hourly. Sometimes the Stream spins off whirlpools of counter rotating vortexes 50 or 100 miles in diameter that will push the boat south, opposite the Stream's normal direction. Without a weatherfax, we could only rely on historical records of its average position and currents. We expected to hit the Gulf Stream about 100 miles offshore, and to stay in it for most of the way to Bermuda.

The Gulf Stream is composed of warm water brought north from its birth in the Gulf of Mexico. We planned to log the seawater temperature every two hours. Before leaving, I thermally bonded a remote reading digital thermometer to a bronze seacock, so we could easily take the sea's temperature. We found Scott's perception to be right - in only four hours the ocean jumped from 64.4 to 78.3 degrees.

After dawn we observed one of the Stream's other characteristics - the ocean's color was a brilliant cobalt blue, almost electric in its intensity. In these days of medical waste spills and offshore dumping, it's hard to believe just how clean the water is. I've been in the Stream a lot of times, but this was a first for the other crew members. They were amazed by the water's clarity and color.

Later a big pod of northbound dolphins passed astern on some mysterious mission. Usually dolphins come over to play in the bow wave. It was a bit odd to seem them go by and completely ignore us.

A mile to starboard, heading on a reciprocal course back to Norfolk, a large white power yacht appeared. The hired captain responded immediately to our call on the VHF. He was inbound from Bermuda, and filled us in on all of the local taverns. He especially recommended the White Horse, which we duly noted in the log. His weather fax predicted a bit of a blow, news we really didn't want to hear.

The sea was filled with Sargasso Weed, which at first glance looks like ugly brown floating debris. With one difference - it's so clean! Centuries ago sailors feared these waters, convinced that the weed would trap their ships in a perpetual mid-ocean grasp. Just by putting out a hand for a few seconds we scooped up a chunk for closer study.

Sargossum is a uniform pale brown color. It looks like randomly connected branches, with hundreds of BB-sized air sacs dotting the branches. Somehow over the millennia the sacs evolved simply to keep the weed floating on the sea's surface. Nature is truly amazing. Communities of tiny crabs inhabit the Sargossum, living entire lives not quite in the sea, yet not quite ashore.

Someone had the brilliant idea of conducting a science experiment for the kids back home. Scott aligned his video camera with the boat's angle of heel (perhaps 20 degrees) and aimed it into the main cabin, to show the cabin on an even keel. Ed poured water into a container. We hoped it would appear the water was shooting off wildly to the left. In fact, the effect was scarcely noticeable on playback.

By mid afternoon our nice sailing breeze turned into a southerly force 7 blow. Sailing into the wind on 140 magnetic we took a fair amount of heavy water on board. Everything was soaked, both above and below deck. The happiness level was starting to slide...

At dusk we were beating into a force 8 gale with 10 foot seas. Amber handled them well as we motorsailed under a heavily reefed main. Throughout the night we slogged into a steady force 7 to 8 gale. Amber sometimes fell off a wave with a giant crash, which was unnerving until we got used to it.

Heavy seas rushing by
The Gale Ends

The wind continued strong until dawn, when it dropped to force 6. Everyone except iron-gut Ed felt queasy. Ed bravely slaved over the galley, feeding us soup and crackers.

Eventually the wind subsided to a more reasonable force 4 and our stomachs started enjoying life again. The seas remained rather rough, but Amber sailed swiftly along.

That afternoon we spotted a whale about 100 yards to port. Ed tentatively identified it as a Minkie, a species I'd never heard of. I've always wanted to see a whale offshore, and was quite excited by this sighting. The cetacean was less impressed - it appeared to be sleeping.

Portuguese men of war started to dot the ocean's surface. They looked like small oblong balloons with bright blue and green colorings. These creatures use the balloon as a fairly effective sail; reputedly, they can even tack to windward. What makes them decide to go upwind? How do they know when to tack? If they are related to the common jellyfish, they have practically no central nervous system, so I'm a bit baffled about how these decisions are reached and the commands transmitted.

With the gale over our appetites returned. We fired up the barbecue and grilled steaks. Slightly damp charcoal is hard to ignite in heavy seas, so I added a liberal dose of gasoline to the usual kerosene lighter fluid. After 24 hours of soup and crackers the meal was a grand success.

Scott and I have spent several years studying and experimenting with seasickness, and we've finally found a successful remedy. Bill was not so lucky, and came down with a bad case of mal-de-mer. In the early morning hours he went on deck to make an offering to Neptune in the bucket, only to find a flying fish already at lying in it.

We finally lost the Loran signal. After years of navigating solely by sextant, I'm constantly amazed that a little $200 box reliably gives positions updated every few seconds. Some 300 miles out, we were too far from the transmitting stations so switched back to the traditional sextant and dead reckoning. This came as a bit of a relief; navigating by Loran presented no challenges. I looked forward to finding Bermuda entirely by celestial.

The evening started with a magnificent view of the milky way stretching in a band across 3/4 of the sky. Star gazing offshore is an experience unequaled on land. The air is clean and the closest source of light is hundreds of miles away.

The night's starry show gave way to a series of line squalls which started pounding us with thunderstorms around 0100. At least we had plenty of wind. Between squalls the sailing was fast and exciting. The log shows a litany of sail changes through the night and day to adapt to winds ranging from 15 knots to 50. The pre-dawn electrical activity was fantastic.

About 0400 one particularly violent blow hit us in fog with visibility under 100 feet. For 15 minutes we ran downwind in the dark and fog at 2.5 knots under bare poles in a great gush of wind. Scott and I had a blast while on deck. Then the wind died altogether.

All day we fought with variable weather: blow, calm, rain, then another blow. The sail changing got tiring, but those of us not comatose (i.e., everyone but Bill) had fun watching the squalls.

In the mid afternoon we spotted a northbound freighter a few miles off. The German watch officer answered our VHF call, kindly giving us a position (to the nearest hundredth of a mile!) and the weather outlook from Halifax Radio. His accent was thick; our understanding thin. We learned of huge storms in the northern North Atlantic (far from us), but little of use in these latitudes.

We were all reading C.S. Lewis's "Out of the Silent Planet" trilogy (or, in Ed's and my case, rereading it after 15 years). The entertainment committee came up with the clever idea of obtaining four copies of the series so we could pass the time by discussing the story. Ed selected Lewis, an ideal choice considering the many long watches and the depth of the story. Floating Sargossum weed reminded me of the floating vegetation islands in the second book, Perelandra.

Intermittent fog rolled in during the night, lasting until almost dawn. We sighted two ships, neither of which answered our calls. They slipped off into the murk.

We motored, motored, and motored in dead calm conditions. No wind means no sea. Bill recovered, Scott tried baking bread (a flop), and I shot a number of sun sights. As we got closer I wanted to be sure of our position.

In the late afternoon Scott picked up Bermuda's St. David's RDF station at a range of about 150 miles. There was no sign of Gibb's Hill RDF. These two signals are broadcast from opposite ends of the Island, so we had hoped to get a rough triangulation on them to confirm the celestial position. Or, if it was cloudy the next day, we could use the RDF and dead reckoning, gingerly, in place of celestial.

Our DR was perhaps a little suspect, since the log continued to reset at times. We isolated the problem to a failed switch and devised a jury rig using the top of the syrup container, but it was not totally effective.

Before dinner a huge school of dolphins came by, blanketing the sea all around us, frolicking in the sun.

This was the last day with ice. We started with a 20 pound block and 30 pounds of cubes. I didn't expect the ice to last for these five days, especially considering the number of engine hours we put on.


Scott called me around 0300 to try for a moon sight, but the horizon was just too hard to see. With Bermuda only about 50 miles out, we were anxious to garner every conceivable bit of navigational information to accurately fix our position. The island is ringed with reefs - coming upon them unexpectedly could be a disaster.

Through the pre-dawn hours we tried without luck to acquire the Gibb's Hill RDF beacon. (Much later Harbour Radio informed us it would be down for some weeks.) We did pick up another faint signal ("DDK") in a crazy location. Harbour Radio later indicated that the Navy had temporary beacons set up in deep water north of the island for some sort of exercise, no doubt one designed to confuse tired sailors.

At dawn a sight of Venus gave us a good line of position which I crossed with a number of sun lines taken throughout the morning. We wanted to make landfall on Gibb's Hill Lighthouse on Bermuda's southwest corner. With a little luck, we might see the lighthouse 20 miles out. We sailed to the computed 20 mile position - no land. 15 miles out - no land. 10 miles, and still no land. Could our navigation have been that far off? Finally, 5 miles out, Gibb's Hill appeared just where it should, obscured in a thick haze that covered the entire island. Landfall! After a week it was a thrill to find this little speck in the middle of the vast Atlantic.

While working below I heard shouts on deck, and came up to find the boom drooping into the cockpit. The topping lift failed from endless chafe at the block at the top of the mast. After 7 years of service, the 3/8 prestretched dacron's life was over. The guys tied the boom off and we carried on.

Approaching Bermuda

We motored 4 miles off Bermuda's southern coast towards St. George's Harbour, our final destination. Before leaving I used my position as a contributing editor of Ocean Navigator Magazine to persuade KVH into loaning me a Datascope, their new digital hand-bearing compass. What a fantastic instrument! It's a monocular with a digital range finder and hand bearing compass. Knowing the height of the Island's prominent features, we had no trouble maintaining the 4 mile offing.

Bermuda's rules about radio contact are very strict, so we properly called Bermuda Harbour Radio long before arriving near Town Cut, the entrance to the harbour. They advised us that a large cruise ship was scheduled to depart about the same time we were to arrive, and told us to stand by in Five Fathom Hole off the Cut.

Staying 4 miles offshore proved to be a mistake. We never saw the Town Cut entrance buoy, and so wandered into the reefs on the southeastern side of the Island. After a half hour of nerve racking reef dodging we were back into clear water. "Rescue 1" came by to save us, but by then we didn't need their help.

We motored into St. George's Harbour, an easy entrance (once you locate the first marker!) leading through low cliffs. The customs dock is on Ordinance Island, which is part of the city's quite small downtown area. We rafted up to a Seawind from Annapolis which had suffered severe hatch and toe rail damage during the crossing. The owners seemed rather disheartened. Although they could not have been more than 20 miles away from us at any point during the trip, we never saw them. Strangely, their gale lasted 48 hours compared to 24 for us - I suppose that their 30 footer just couldn't handle the seas as well as Amber. Force 6 to us seemed a gale to them.

The Seawind was not the only storm-damaged craft. A Condor 40 trimaran out of North Carolina lost her rig on the way over.

A customs official in uniform short pants came aboard with a sheaf of paperwork. Some of the forms were oddly inappropriate for yachts. One had to be signed by the Ship's Surgeon. I instantly promoted Scott to this auspicious post, so he could affirm, in triplicate, that no more rats than usual died on this voyage. He further attested (after consulting the logbook) that no non-accidental deaths occurred. To our great surprise customs imposes a $30 per person entry fee from all incoming yachts. This is on top of the $10 exit charge paid at the airport. Finally, customs confiscated the flare pistol and all of the flares I cared to tell them about (I didn't want to break the waterproof seal on our abandon ship kit, which held a half dozen parachute flares).

After finishing with customs, we moved to the anchorage and dropped the hook in 18 feet of water. Probably a dozen other cruisers were already anchored, but there was no problem finding a spot. The holding ground was excellent in clean sand.

Bermuda is on Atlantic time, one hour closer to Europe than the East Coast. As captain, one of my duties was to set official ship's time. We could have changed to Atlantic time at 67.5 degrees west (the time zone border), started off on Atlantic, or used any other convenient time standard. Like one of George Carlin's famous stories I was tempted to set some oddball time; say, at 0800 EDT declare ship's time to be 1236. As it was we stayed on Eastern time and reset the clocks after arriving.

A columnist from Cruising World came by to take pictures and ask about our voyage over. If I ever get around to filling out the form he gave us, he'll run a blurb in the "Cruising Notes" pages.

It almost goes without saying that we immediately dinghied ashore for beer and food. St. George's has a reasonable dingy dock adjacent to Ordinance Island. All of the cruisers seem to congregate at the White Horse (the tavern whose virtues were described to us in mid ocean). Who were we to break this tradition?

Our first morning in Bermuda dawned bright and clear. After a week at sea we were desperate for fresh water showers, but as yet were unsure where these valued luxuries were located. The harbour water looked inviting, so we all jumped overboard for a swim.

I went to the top of the mast and replaced the topping lift with a temporary line. Later, when we returned to Bermuda, I replaced this temporary line with 7/16 prestretched dacron. Scott and I also remounted a stantion that had been lose for years.

We spent the day looking around and relaxing. I always forget how breathtakingly beautiful these Atlantic islands are. The clean, clear water, blue skies, and pretty houses are a sight for East Coast weary eyes.

Anne, a 46 year old grandmother, came by to chat. She singlehanded Peace, her Shannon 28, from the Bahamas. Interesting lady. Once, she was a young activist in the anti-Vietnam movement. Youth gave way to grandmotherhood, yet she remains faithful to her ideals.

We motored to a gas dock for fuel and water. Diesel runs about $4/gallon and water is .15/gallon, as all water is collected from the rain. This year there is a rain shortfall, so Bermuda imports shiploads of water from overseas. I instituted rather draconian water conservation measures when we left Norfolk, and was now embarrassed to find we used only 16 gallons of the 60 or so we started with.

Some notes on current trends in cruising boats and gear: Wind powered electrical generators seems to be the favorite method of making power at anchor. Only a few boats used solar cells. Most use all chain rodes. There was about a 50/50 split between users of autopilots and wind vanes. Most cruisers use inflatables with large outboards (bigger than 5 HP).

The cruisers in St. Georges run towards larger boats. Few are under 32 feet. Amber was one of the smaller vessels to make the passage. Even though Bermuda is much closer to the USA than to Europe, boats from the States were in the minority. The weak dollar is making its mark. Brad Miller, full time captain of a 46 footer, said he sees fewer and fewer US yachts.

The evening was fun. After dinner somewhere, drinks everywhere, and high speed moped-careening through the sleepy town, we gave up for the day. I brought a load back to Amber (since the dingy is so small transferring the crew always took two trips), then Scott and I had a brilliant idea: why not another drink? We teetered off to the White Horse once again.

We Return to America... Not Quite Intact

Scott and I set a second anchor as a form of cheap insurance. We donned the scuba gear and checked both the main CQR and the second danforth to be really sure they were set properly. Amber's 15,000 pounds were secured by a 25 pound CQR on 20 feet of 3/8 chain and 150 feet of 5/8 nylon, and a 22 pound danforth on 30 feet of 3/8 chain and another 150 feet of 1/2 inch nylon. The bottom was sand, providing ideal holding ground.

What could be more enticing than scuba diving in paradise? Bill, Ed, and Scott decided to explore underwater reefs with a group out of Grotto Bay. I had work to do on Amber, and stayed on board as they all headed off on the mopeds.

I was a bit surprised when Scott returned aboard the pilot boat an hour later. Bill had had an accident. While maneuvering through a turn, he lost control of the bike and crashed into an oncoming car. The force of the collision tossed him head over heels through the air. He executed several perfect somersaults before coming to rest in the middle of the road.

The moped was a twisted wreck; the car was even worse. Bill's injuries were extensive but not critical. An ambulance came, but while the attendants loaded him aboard he insisted that Ed take lots of photos. Now I have a collection of bloody, depressing pictures I'd like to trash, but feel I should keep.

Bloody, depressing picture of Bill at the scene of the crash

Over a hundred stitches later the doctors assigned Bill to a bed in the practically full "moped ward". Tourist moped accidents are common and sometimes fatal. Since Bill had survived the doctors were encouraging and even optimistic. They doped him up to control the pain, but Bill was still hurting. He spent the night on the ward.

Dock space in Bermuda is almost non existent. We did discuss the possibility of leaving Amber at a marina near Ferry Reach, but were quoted a price of $500 for a two week stay on a mooring. Needless to say, I decided to leave her at anchor in St. George.

A local warned us to remove all valuables from the deck, so we stowed the 8 jerry jugs and liferaft below. With the batteries topped off and both bilge pumps cleared for action, it was time to lock up and leave.

Scott went off to bail Bill out of the hospital. I rowed Ed ashore in St. Georges with the luggage. But, what should we do with the dingy? The dingy dock was crowded, exposed, and not a good place to leave one for more than a day. I decided to pull it ashore at the yacht club, so rowed all the way to that side of the harbor, hauled the dink out, and lashed the oars and seats inside.

A 20 minute walk with a spectacular view of the harbor brought me back to the White Horse, where Ed and I hailed a cab for the airport. Scott and Bill showed up shortly after we arrived. Bill was not a happy camper. The hospital didn't want to release him, for reasons that were obvious as soon as we saw him.

After checking our luggage the airline whisked Bill off into a back room. They processed him through customs and somehow loaded him into the plane, a non-trivial job since he was wheelchair bound. Bill was so uncomfortable in any normal sitting position that the airline assigned him three adjacent seats, probably wiping out their profit margin for the trip.

160 hours of sailing brought us to Bermuda; two hours of flying covered the same distance, proving once again the futility of travel in small sailing craft. Something is lost when travel is so fast and easy. It's odd that we work so hard to make quick travel available, yet fall back on sailing anachronisms for relaxation.

The international phone lines out of Bermuda are rather unreliable, and we were unable to reach the families to let them know about Bill's accident. They were totally unprepared for our arrival. The airline deplaned all of the passengers except the four of us. We waited for a wheelchair. Of course, 15 minutes elapsed between the time the last passenger left and when we were finally ready to cart Bill off, 15 minutes in which the families were starting to worry about our arrival. Sue finally asked a stewardess if a group of 4 men were still on the plane; she offhandedly replied "Oh, sure, we're just waiting for their wheelchair"!

Link to part II of the story

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