When I was in Bermuda in May, I watched cruise vessels come and go. There was nothing particularly curious about that- until I learned how they actually get to port. They are not brought into port by Captains of cruise lines; they are brought into port by Bermudians.
I was delighted to learn that the Pilot Warden in Bermuda would welcome a story about pilotage. He graciously told me that nothing I wanted to see was off limits- with regard to his authority, although he did need to run it through Customs and the Marine Authorities. I had to scan him my Passport in advance.
He explained clearly that he would need to receive the 'stamp of approval' from the 'agents' onboard the cruise ships, if I were to follow him onboard, for the sake of my story.
At the outset, I was told that permission to board a cruise vessel was a remote likelihood, but the Pilot Warden persevered on my behalf. The day prior to our outing, it looked positive.
At that point, I was told, "no high heels or skirts", and to please be "presentable," since my presence would reflect on Bermuda. I was amused by this, and wondered if he might have read my blog. Did he know of my love for feminine, frilly clothes?
While waiting to hear the final plan, I headed to town for a delicious lunch at Huckleberry at the Rosedon Hotel, along with entertaining conversation amongst old and new acquaintances. Some shopping in Hamilton followed, including quality time at A.S. Coopers and a ferry ride "home".
As the sun went down at Salt Kettle, I received a call. The Pilot Warden's dedicated efforts to get me onboard a cruise ship had been met with prohibitive scrutiny, due to security concerns.
I fully understood, in my ethical core, that this was the right thing. After all, a cruise line can carry upwards of 6,000 people (with crew) at a time. Nobody knew my back story.
I was informed that the bridge on a passenger ship is "sacred." No photography is allowed. No unnecessary personnel are permitted. Not only that, it is the week before 9-11. I had not even considered that fact.
My desire to randomly board a moving cruise vessel at sea was construed as justifiably curious. In fact, a cab driver that drove me after the ride said, "They didn't ask for a doctor's letter, to make sure that you were right in the head?!"
Thankfully, I came down to Bermuda during a time of plentiful passage. There was a silver lining to behold. A container ship would be arriving concurrently with the two cruise ships on Wednesday. They welcomed an American writer onboard!
Graciously, the Pilot warden sent a taxi for me at Salt Kettle House, with a pick-up time of 4:45 am. To appease my worries that I would not wake up, the Pilot Warden called me himself, and sent a text that read, "Good Morning! Time to rise and shine!" How very Bermudian.
With a mere three sips of coffee in me, I waited in the driveway, next to the red hibiscus; they were still sound asleep. Unbeknownst to me, Hibiscus flowers close up into buds at night! Another wonder of nature.
The tree frogs peeped, as I looked for headlights. It was dark as night.
When the taxi drove up, I felt comfortable in my casual nautical look from Talbots. Two uniformed men (a First Class pilot and trainee) were already inside the taxi, that had originated in Somerset; they were dressed in beige dress. As we made our way to St. George, we picked up additional Pilots (including the Pilot Warden)- dapper in their uniform whites, complete with hats.
It is a funny cultural commentary that the vision of military-style dress whites sparked memories. The theme to "An Officer and a Gentleman" inevitably played in my head. All of a sudden, I recalled a date that I had been on in New York City- back in the day- with a young man in the Navy, who showed up at my office in full uniform. The ladies in the department, where I worked, naturally expected that he would "pick me up"- like Debra Winger. Anyway, that is neither here, nor there!
As I rode along the windy Bermudian streets with the Pilots in tow (ha ha), our cab driver (who is their official driver) commented that Bermuda sorely needed rain. "Not TODAY!", I exclaimed- a comment met with laughter.
Naturally, I asked if anyone had ever fallen into the sea, while climbing up onto a vessel. If falling into the North Atlantic was my biggest worry, that would not be so bad. I would be in a life vest, surely. Although, it was pitch black outside...
Knowing that sharks do not venture too close to Bermuda (due to the reefs), I instead chose to worry about being sucked under the ship, and ground up by the propeller. This is a nod to my family at home, who has nicknamed me 'the safety police'. A former caregiver for my beloved and frail mom, my mind tends to wander to every possible hazard. I like to think that I am just 'extra nurturing.'
Our ride was educational, with discussion of the roles that pilots play- in addition to steering passenger and cargo ships. Among them, is the vital task of search and rescue. Often, they are called to retrieve sick passengers off of passenger ships (of any size) and even individuals who are deceased. How heart-wrenching, and traumatic that must be- for families to experience a loss of that kind.
I asked whether a woman had ever given birth on a cruise vessel; they were not entirely certain. Interestingly, I learned that- should a woman give birth at sea, the baby would be given the nationality of the country to which the vessel was registered. That could be anywhere in the world!
I was particularly struck by the responsibilities at hand for these gentlemen, who number less than ten. Their territory encompasses the waters surrounding Bermuda. They are on call 24/7.
We arrived in St. George in pitch black darkness. Everything proceeded like clockwork. Sitting in the harbor, awaiting our arrival was the pilot boat, St. David- a vessel typically manned by three men. To my surprise, it is a flat boat- appearing somewhat like a tug, but with a deck that has no barriers around the perimeter, whatsoever- it is just flush flat. It is designed this way for the purpose of search and rescue, yet is very dangerous to walk on, out on the open ocean. One must hold onto a railing.
As the Pilot boat left the dock, with me onboard, I was informed of the rationale for our departing Bermuda at its East End, even though the cruise ships would ultimately dock in the West End. Answer: this is the ONLY entrance to Bermuda, for ocean-going vessels!
"What do you mean, it is the 'only entrance'?", I asked.The pilot seated next to me made me laugh out loud. He said, "Do you know how many shipwrecks there are- around the island of Bermuda?! It took 365 tries for them to figure out the proper entrance!" Point taken. Reefs, reefs, reefs!
I was fascinated to cruise out to the ocean in darkness. As a non-mariner, I did not know that boats do not use headlights; they create a reflection. We were guided by dinky little green dots on shore (or rocks as it may be), as we exited the waters around St. George's.
He replied, "This is nothing!" To him, they were calm waters. These gentleman go out in all kinds of weather, risking their very welfare.
The first stop was the Norwegian Escape, where our Pilot Warden bid us farewell. We cruised up to the side of the ocean liner. A rope ladder was dropped off of the NCL vessel. He climbed on, and up he went- to the bridge of the massive ship to become its interim Captain.
Next stop, Celebrity Summit. We pulled up alongside it. One of our Senior Pilots got out on deck, waiting for proximity to board the moving ship through a small door, located just above sea level. The water made the pilot boat rock. Timing must be optimal to safely board a moving ship!
Okay...two down. Now, we were off to the container ship- number three in line to enter Bermudian channels.
As we neared "our" vessel, I recall blurting out an 'unladylike' term, as I realized that I would soon be climbing onboard a freighter! Yet, there was no time for heart palpitations (maybe a few) or second guessing, at this point.
We pulled up to the Somers Isles. The climb up would be higher than the climb onto the cruise ships! My companion pilots said, matter of factly, "OK! Let's do this!" Thank God, human beings are endowed with adrenaline.
One of my comrades went ahead of me- demonstrating the timing of the climb. Similar to when you are jump roping, and there is a time to 'jump in', there is an optimal time to put your foot on the rope ladder- when the pilot boat heaves high.
This was business, and I was coached "Grab on now! Climb up!" The rest is a blur. It wasn't extraordinarily high, but it was indeed a moving vessel in the dark ocean. Thankfully, the second pilot came onboard behind me, making sure that I did not become the first 'dumb' writer to cause very bad PR for Bermuda.
Once onboard, I felt euphoria. I was damn ready for a cup of coffee! But, we had not yet arrived on the bridge. We would climb up many flights of wet salty stairs in the open air, to reach our destination. The railings were so moist and gritty from salt, I am certain that I exfoliated my palms. As we stepped inside the bridge cabin, from which the ship is steered, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The vantage point of being on that ship is something that will be permanently etched in my mind- not to mention the camaraderie and professionalism of those who were my hosts- including the Captain of the ship, here from Holland (who was sporting pink Bermuda shorts!) and his First Officer.
I sipped hot coffee from a thin aluminum mug, and drank in the vistas- popping outside occasionally onto the narrow deck that surrounds the bridge, to catch the breeze and try to absorb what my eyes were seeing.
My mind considered the life of a ship's Captain, living out in the vastness of the ocean. This huge vessel had merely a crew of eight. Unbelievable!
As the Bermudian pilots guided the vessel along, a high pitched beeping sound emanated from a printer, that reminded me of morse code messages from yesteryear.
Sure enough, it was a warning- an update on Hurricane Florence. The ship's First Officer showed me the weather radar screen, with Florence appearing in red. The Captain read the digital printout, relieved to know that Florence should not be a threat while his vessel was in Bermuda.
As the sun rose, three ships were in (or near) their destined Bermuda's ports. The Norwegian Escape was safely parked at Dockyard. As we passed, I waved to the Pilot Warden, knowing that he might still be on the bridge. He texted me to ask how things were going. I replied, "I am waving at you right now!" A bridge to bridge hello.
Having witnessed Fort St. Catherine in miniature from the sea, and now the Clocktower Mall, it was time to navigate between rocks, into the channel to Hamilton. Onboard, we were carrying eagerly anticipated cargo from Florida- everything from toilet paper to tropical fruit to a full-sized swimming pool.
As we entered the channel toward Bermuda's capital, one could see the treacherous rocks on either side of the ship. We had an advantage, because the bow of our ship was a flat bed for cargo.
My pilots explained that other taller vessels- cruise liners and oil tankers- are much more difficult to bring in, because the bow of the ship is higher than all of the rocks on the periphery, making it very difficult to see; precision is needed.
As we glided along in the Great Sound, entering Hamilton Harbor, I waved to my Bermuda family at Salt Kettle Guest House, and to individuals on smaller boats.
Upon arrival in Hamilton, I had the feeling that a child gets- when a carnival ride is over and you have no more tickets left. I wanted to go on the ride again.
Now at Port, the ship's native Captain was responsible for docking, and making sure that necessary paperwork gets completed. Thus, another hand-off takes place.
Initially, only two ropes were thrown out, to pull us toward the dock- wild for such a massive ship. I soon learned that they were just the first two.
It was time for us to walk back down the salty wet flights of steps onto the deck for exit.
Walking down the plank, off of the ship, I thought about our discrete arrival- so different from flying in. We walked across the tarmac, entering a small Customs office to show identification.
I remarked that it might be best NOT to stamp my passport; otherwise the folks at the airport might become terribly confused!
Prior to 9:00 am, my sea adventure (I should say 'sea venture') was over. Initial research for my article was a "mission accomplished".
As I parted ways with the very special pilots who made my morning a lifelong memory, I headed into town to celebrate.
Who is open for breakfast, I thought...?
*Art credit (map of Bermuda) to the wonderfully talented Barbara Finsness
History note for non-Bermudians: The Sea Venture is a ship that attempted to sail from Plymouth, England to Jamestown, Virginia in 1609. Due to a severe storm, it landed in Bermuda, bringing the first colonists to the island.