As I sit in the waters of the Caribbean on the eve of our penultimate day in this ocean, I think back to the moment I stepped onto J. Henry and off of Charleston soil for the last time before our homecoming. Since that day I’ve stepped on and off of J. Henry thousands of times, on to the soil of ten different countries, on to dozens of islands, into crystal clear cyan waters. Each time I bring something new with me back to J. Henry and each step brings us one step closer to this wild ride’s end. But that first step was the most revolutionary by far. It was a step into the unknown, a step inside the blind creation we’d been building for over a year, maybe our whole lives. It was blind because while we did everything within our power to prepare ourselves and our vessel for the possibilities that were ahead, there was always a keen understanding that some challenges could not be anticipated, laying unseen until you’re well within in their midst. That’s half the thrill of discovery and adventure, the unforeseen. Here at the mouth of the Panama Canal the next chapter of discovery and adventure lies ahead – a new ocean, our longest passage, the southern hemisphere, the splendor of the South Pacific islands. All of these dreams will soon be rooted in lived experience. Until then this thin stretch of Central America that keeps those dreams at bay provides the perfect point of reflection. I will post these reflections in series, to be read chronologically, a la carte, backwards. However you please. First up – Bermuda.
Our journey began with a wet and sloppy upwind shakedown to Bermuda that presented a menagerie of repairs and tweaks, some serious, that needed our attention. Busted exhaust pipes, missing spreader lights, damaged bright work, leaks. The rock in the middle of the ocean that we now found ourselves on had limited supplies but there were than enough resourceful people to help put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. The process took 11 days, the longest time we’ve spent in any one place before Cartagena, and gave us a bit of time to explore the enigma that is Bermuda. The island nation is a hilly and green series of islands atop a steep underwater plateau, surrounded by reef on all sides. The native vegetation used to be limited to a handful of scrubby bushes, the celebrated Bermuda Cedar, one species of palm, and not much more — until humans encountered it. Since the first of us started landing our boats there we’ve introduced a whole host of non-native, mostly tropical species of plants and animals. Now the landscape is a strange blend of northern Atlantic greenery and exotic, flamboyant species from islands and jungles far to the south. Oh, and there are chickens everywhere. The strange transitional feel all of this imparts is rippling through every aspect of Bermuda – their food, architecture, customs, people. They have one foot in North America, one foot in England, another foot still in the Caribbean. And yet, they are none of these things. It’s the result of being an outpost in the middle of a rough ocean, a respite for weary sailors. Centuries of people have arrived bringing bits and pieces of their homes with them. The few survivors from that lot, those that could make it on the wayward rock, have stuck around. Bermuda, stoic and passive, allows only those that are strong enough to stay and the cocktail that is left ends up tasting almost neutral. The most noteworthy and unifying theme that ties all of the ingredients together is resiliency, a pre-requisite for life in Bermuda. It’s reflected in their homes, built from thick stone, each with a stepped roof specifically for gathering rain water. It’s reflected in their food with simple, hardy staples likes onions and potatoes dominating the cuisine. It’s reflected in the people who hunker down for hurricanes and who’ve managed to forge a life in Bermuda at all. The island became a gentle introduction to the influx of new culture and the associated shock that waited for us in the West Indies and beyond. Foreign enough to know we’d left home but familiar still. It was just the landing spot needed for two young men finally at the mercy of this giant, blindly created, mystery box they constructed. Flung from home by choice but flung nonetheless.
The weather that tossed us in to Bermuda broken and battered ultimately kept us trapped in Bermuda even after all of our repairs were completed. Tripp and I sat eagerly awaiting a solid weather window for days. When that window did finally arrive it carried all sorts of import with it. We’d finally meet the trades and the tropics that will be the hallmark of our journey. It was our first passage without other crew, just the two of us for seven days in the middle of the Atlantic. There was also something ineffable about moving from our first destination to a next that felt monumental. When you vacation you visit a spot for a time and return home. Having spent what would be a typical vacation’s amount of time in Bermuda there was a muscle memory of sorts that expected us to return to Charleston. Instead we were heading even deeper into the unknown and it felt special; the first indication that we really were on our way around the world; the first inkling of the immensity of this journey. All of the foul weather and slow sailing of our first passage was nowhere to be found as we swiftly made our way south to Antigua. At the point of this writing that sail was the finest sail to date – steady winds, good speeds, clear skies, stars like you wouldn’t believe — it was the sailing I’d been daydreaming about as we prepared for our voyage. Long sunny days of reading and velvety dark nights of stargazing. We started the trip wearing sweaters and foul weather gear for warmth and ended the cruise in bathing suits as Antigua appeared on the horizon, flanked by rainbows. The only stain on an otherwise perfect trip was the oil stain underneath our diesel and the minor leak that had become less minor.