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Exploring the wonderful world of Bermuda

Hidden beneath the polite, well-mannered and wonderfully manicured world of Bermuda is a coral buttress that has been relentlessly sinking ships for 400 years.
The scattered remains of the 385-foot Pelinaion, which was sunk January 16, 1939.
The scattered remains of the 385-foot Pelinaion, which was sunk January 16, 1939. Ty Sawyer
/ Source: Sport Diver Magazine

Hidden beneath the polite, well-mannered and wonderfully manicured world of Bermuda is a coral buttress that has been relentlessly sinking ships for 400 years.

Bermuda. This precious stone set in a silver sea, this island of flowers, genteel civility, high tea and delicate pink beaches has a dark side. While Bermuda has been a landfall of quiet, unmoving repose for sailors since the 16th century, the island sits protected by an unwelcoming wreath; a garland of treachery and deceit. And for more than 400 years, ships have emerged from the horizon of the wide Atlantic, the coral gauntlet that surrounds this "azured vault" — as Shakespeare called it — of Bermuda has been as close as they've come to safe harbor. For divers, this is a ring of wonder that fills the sea with stories. It's a chance to explore moments stilled in time.

I first approached Bermuda by sea in 1983. I sailed from the Chesapeake Bay, and 50 miles off the U.S. coast, we tacked straight into the teeth of an unexpected storm. But, like the seafarers, sailors, pirates and fishermen who came before us, we forged on. Our boat, a 48-foot flush-deck racing sloop, was leading a race. For seven straight days, the wind shrieked and the droplets that were ripped off the tops of the waves, off the edges of the sails, off the deck and halyards and sheets, slammed into us like tiny stones. The cold and wet seeped through our foul-weather gear, our wool sweaters, our skin — right into our bones. We rode up the faces of and down into the sky-darkening troughs of 30-foot swells. At times, surreal moments passed as dolphins would leap the gap between waves, launching out from the back of one wave right next to the boat and into the face of the other, as if to mock us. We manned the ship, four hours on, four hours off. The idea of finding an island amidst all this turmoil seemed a fairy tale. The minutes of each shift passed as if lead weights were attached to them.

I'd signed on with the dream of diving the North Carolina and the Lartington, seeing the paddle wheels of the Mary Celestia, the big boilers of the Pelinaion and dozens of others. I'd memorized their profiles from books and magazines; I knew their tales, along with the thing I liked the best — their secret histories. Heck, I wasn't even really a sailor. I was the "duty diver" for a flotilla of seven racing sailboats. I'd filled my mind with pink beaches, a summer tan, girls from foreign lands and wreck diving. If I learned to sail along the way, then great, another reason to get out on the water. After seven wind-tossed days — my head and body reeling in the fog of fatigue — the island appeared on the horizon: It looked like heaven. All the stories I'd read of sailors finding this landmark came flooding through my mind — that rush of gratitude, the relief of seeing the green hills and tranquil bays, and a reprieve from the constant needs of a ship at sea.

The island meant liberation.

But first came the reef.

Since the 16th century, the fangs of Bermuda's reefs have ripped open the bowels of hundreds of ships. Ships with competent, seasoned captains, ships filled with contraband, accoutrements of war, trade and even Spanish gold. Some have been sunk by treachery, some for insurance, but most have just been sunk by a subtle shift of luck. The relief of sighting landfall was short-lived for sailors entering Bermuda's waters. And when I arrived by sea in 1983, upon sighting Bermuda, the storm was forgotten. The waves, our cold and fatigue, all of it dissipated as the captain focused on the real nemesis. Every moment during the storm I felt would be my last, but now, for the first time, a real sense of danger bubbled up from the sea. Just beneath the surface was the reef, a natural defensive perimeter seemingly designed to deny sailors their dreams of — Shakespeare's words again — "a dry death." Sailing into Bermuda, you respected the reef or you sank. It was as simple as that.

We respected it. And when we safely navigated the reef and were stilled in the harbor, only then did we relax.

As if to counteract the menace of ship-eating reefs, the island has honed a culture of refined and well-mannered civility that exists only here. When you step foot on Bermuda, you pass through an enchanted and unseen hedge that delineates the two worlds that define this island. And something of you gets transformed in the magical realm in between the two worlds. It's hard to explain. It's as if the island has found a way to help you feel its soul instantly, to understand the contradictory worlds that define Bermuda.

Memory lane
Every time I return to Bermuda, I find a way to dive the Pelinaion. This is my reunion with the island. The first time I peered into this world, it was the Pelinaion that captured my imagination. Today, 25 years later, I'm on the boat with Graham Maddocks, owner of PADI Gold Palm Five-Star Resort Triangle Diving. We're anchored just off St. David's Head at the easternmost point of Bermuda, and he's just finished the brief on this unlucky ship.

I like hearing the familiar story. It calms me, Stories about an old friend. The old Greek steamer once plied the seas with 385 feet of keel and a 50-foot beam. But upon its arrival in Bermuda on Jan. 16, 1939, its captain miscalculated its position because the St. David's Lighthouse had been extinguished due to the war. A few hundred feet from shore, it struck the reef. And now we're here.

As soon as my bubbles clear from the giant stride, we descend upon the remains — a trip down memory lane for me. I retrace steps burned into memory as we cruise around the intact, giant triple-expansion boilers and bump noses with a grouper that sits under the keel, which stretches like a bridge between two coral heads, and we end up at the engine, which is covered in orange and yellow encrusting sponges, in 10 feet of water. I revel in its familiarity. Everywhere I turn — like on most dives, no matter how familiar — I see a new crevice, a piece of the ship that has been transformed by the whim of the sea, and by the end of the dive, the wreck has become new to me. I've shined the penny of my remembrance. By the time I'm on the dive ladder, I've added a new layer of story to my awareness of this great wreck.

But Graham has a surprise for me on this trip: a wreck I've never experienced, and one that he tells me only Triangle Diving visits — the King George, a 171-foot ex-dredger. He's been telling me stories about this wreck for so long, I feel like I've already dived it, that I know it. And, man, am I wrong. This old dredger, like many a ship before it, got usurped by a younger, stronger, faster and deeper-digging model — the Lord Cochrane. So, long before the days when you needed permission to do such a thing, the ship was towed into a position out of the way of shipping (about 5 miles inside North Rock) and simply scuttled. It sunk in about 80 feet of water on an even keel and remains wonderfully intact. When we dived, the viz didn't set any records, but then there's so much to explore and so much growth that it didn't matter. I spent some time at the davits, which are crowded with colonies of delicate tunicates. Soft corals cover the vessel, and I explored among the old catwalks, in the superstructure and around the bow. The structure aft was elbow-to-fin with snapper. Big groupers have settled in, too, and though I didn't dive it at night, I'd expect the King George would be one of the island's premier night dives.

The Tempest and high tea
The wind kicked up on our way back to Grotto Bay and the Triangle Diving shop. When we arrived back at the dock, a mild touch of a tempest had once again awakened from a long slumber. The winds blew seemingly from every direction. Whitecaps rose and fell on the reef. The harbors were closed. Boats of all sizes rocked and swayed on their moorings. Diving anywhere, it seemed, became impossible.

So I did what every good, solid, manly diver does when grounded on Bermuda: I headed out for a proper Afternoon Tea. The tea, I knew, would temper the wind with its tradition of order and calm, right?

I immediately felt underdressed as I passed from the tempest-whipped gardens at Horizons and Cottages into the sitting room for tea. A fire crackled and issued a warm glow and a woodsy aroma to the timbered room. Teacakes, teapots (with floral warmers) and cucumber sandwiches had been laid out in an orderly way. Conversation rose to a low hush at times, but remained socially courteous. I sipped the hot tea (with two lumps and a dollop of Devonshire cream) from bone china teacups. I suddenly and desperately wanted a cardigan and a well-pressed shirt and trousers. I didn't want to spoil such an experience with the presence of saltwater-stained cargo shorts. But, alas, as the palm trees bent with the wind and the bougainvillea pitched and tossed, I sipped tea and thoroughly enjoyed an afternoon of unhurried pleasures and easy conversation.

I left Horizons feeling nicely expansive and at peace, deciding to go to the tavern to put a respectable balance on the day. By the time we got to the Somerset Country Squire in Somerset Village, the day had dimmed to twilight. Although the tavern has plenty of outside seating overlooking Mangrove Bay, everyone was gathered around the bar downstairs. Continuing my traditional beverage journey, I ordered a Dark 'n' Stormy, made from Barritt's Bermuda Stone ginger beer and Gosling's Black Seal rum.

There are many famous taverns in Bermuda, vestiges of Britain's colonial touch. But, the Somerset Country Squire still feels like a place where seafaring men of all ilk gather to end the day. Even the food remains staunchly local. Lingering long enough for dinner and faithful to the local vibe, I order Bermuda fish chowder. It's spoon-standing thick here, and the piquant aroma of onions, garlic and Worcestershire sauce rises up from the steaming bowl, followed by subtle hints of thyme and ground cloves. I add a few dashes of Sherry Peppers sauce and dark rum that complete the recipe and dig in. After the quiet tea, eating fish chowder and sipping rum in the dark tavern feels decadent.

I'm still feeling the glow of the meal as I get back to my sea-view bungalow at the lovely 9 Beaches Resort. Instead of falling asleep, I step out on the balcony and watch the silvery light of the moon dance in the reflections on the water's surface. From my bungalow, I can see something just barely protruding from the surface, the wreck of HMS Vixen. Every view harbors a secret, and I sit at the edge of Bermuda's two worlds. The seas are quieting, and the clouds rush across the face of the moon as if they're in a hurry to pass by morning.

The life afloat
The wind and seas had calmed by the time the sun rose, which is a relief since I'm meeting up with Mike Davis aboard the ultraluxury live-aboard, the M.Y. Bermuda IV. I'm anxious to get a taste of life aboard this world-class yacht. We're off to dive something a little different, too. We're skipping the wrecks for one of Mike's favorite reef systems: South West Breaker. On the way out from Hamilton Harbour, I get a little taste of the service aboard this world-class yacht. The steward brings me a cup of tea, pastries and fresh fruit. I relax in the salon like a man of leisure, and soon we're at anchor. On the dive deck, everything's pretty casual. The onboard diving officer, PADI professional Christine East, leads the dive.

South West Breaker is a series of small walls and swim-throughs. Hard and soft corals, sea rods, gorgonians and sea fans fill every available foothold on the reef. As we make our way along the walls, schools of blue parrotfish parade through the sea fans, and in the swim-throughs and under ledges we find big groupers hanging out in the shadows. I can't help thinking, as I explore the folds and crannies of this pristine and healthy site, what it would be like to be underwater when an unlucky ship rams into this peaceful world. And what must the groupers, parrotfish and other critters think? The noise. The explosive panic. The moment when the world above gets lost in the world below. A ship hitting this reef would surely transform this pastoral place. But then, every shipwreck I've ever explored on Bermuda has settled over such a place. The villain and hero still exist here, though, in a precarious balance of delicate beauty and savage possibility. Only in Bermuda could such a thought come so easily while admiring a Zen-like coral garden.

For lunch we motor back into the Great Sound, past the Royal Naval Dockyard and into a quiet harbor at Pembroke Parish. Here, we're surrounded by the safe haven of Bermuda — the beauty of houses with tidy English gardens teeming with colorful flowers and iconic white roofs meant to collect rainwater. Everything seems orderly and neat. You can feel the seafaring history, too. Everything, it seems, faces the ocean. The island is a place of quiet, polite refuge because it's surrounded by an untamed blue expanse. We've passed through the hedge again, and on this side Bermuda remains heroic.

Deco stops
At the crossroads of the Atlantic, this strategic island is rich in history. Go crazy for old forts here — there are 90. Check out the garden moat, dungeons and views at Fort Hamilton, the impressive ramparts of Bermuda's largest fort, Fort St. Catherine, the fortifications of the Royal Naval Dockyard and King's Castle, which is accessible only by boat. Get a taste of the authentic seafaring world on St. David's Island. Take a step back in history with a walking tour of UNESCO World Heritage-listed St. George (with such quaint street names as Old Maid's Lane). Experience the island's civility with a proper Afternoon Tea at Horizons and Cottages, the Veranda Lounge at Elbow Beach or the Fairmont Hamilton Heritage Court. Then feel the influence of the baser sort with a visit to the famous Swizzle Inn for a rum punch or three. Or better yet, stop by the Rum Bar at Elbow Beach Resort to sample rums from around the world.

Bermuda's "newest" wrecks
Bermuda's dive community is working together to expand upon its already large collection of divable shipwrecks. The Sea Venture was placed on the bottom just this past year by the Bermuda Intact Wreck Initiative. This former ferryboat offers divers four levels to explore — and has been added to Bermuda's Shipwreck Certificate Programme, bringing the certificate total to 22. The tugboat Forceful will soon join the collection.

The guide to Bermuda
Average water temperature: 69 – 80°F winter to summer

What to wear: 7 mm fullsuit with hood in winter, 3 mm in summer

Average visability: 100-plus feet September to December and April to June. The viz drops to about 50 feet during summer. 

When to go: fall and spring

Must do
It used to be a disco, but now the Crystal Caves inspire a different kind of awe. Head to Grotto Bay and take a tour of this dramatic underworld.

Must dive
Cathedral: This 30- to 40-foot dive takes you into an underwater dome with "windows" where shafts of light pierce through the darkness helping illuminate the abundant marine life.

Iristo (Aristo): The 250-foot-long, nearly fully intact Norwegian freighter lies in 50 feet of water — with its bow rising within 18 feet of the surface — and is an excellent spot to see a large portion of Bermuda's some 10,000 species of marine life.

L'Herminie: The cannons (25 of them) of this 60-gun French warship, which was sunk in 1838, are the highlight of this wreck.

North Carolina: An English barque sunk in 1880, the bowsprit, stern, mast and deadeyes make fantastic photo ops.

Hermes: Sunk on purpose as an artificial reef off the south coast, the fully intact wreck is covered in marine life.

Travel tips
Fall and early spring are the best times for underwater viz. Be prepared to rent a scooter (and drive on the left side of the road) or take taxis everywhere — there are no rental cars. People generally wear trousers for dinner here. There's a lot to do, so do your homework before you arrive.

The all-inclusive M.Y. Bermuda IV runs April through November.

Must have
Fish-Chowder Kit: It's the national dish of Bermuda. Every restaurant claims to have the best. We loved the chowder at Somerset Country Squire Pub and Restaurant. When you make it at home, don't forget the rum and the peppers sauce.