John Lennon sailed to Bermuda through a storm, "screaming sea shanties and shouting at the gods"

When a sea voyage to Bermuda turned treacherous, Lennon "went through a full-on catharsis" piloting the boat

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published July 11, 2020 10:59AM (EDT)

Former Beatle John Lennon arrives at the Times Square recording studio 'The Hit Factory' before a recording session of his final album 'Double Fanasy' in August 1980 in New York City, New York. (Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Former Beatle John Lennon arrives at the Times Square recording studio 'The Hit Factory' before a recording session of his final album 'Double Fanasy' in August 1980 in New York City, New York. (Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

There is perhaps no greater, more inspirational moment in the story of John Lennon's final year than his summer sojourn to Bermuda. Once ensconced on the island, Lennon would refine many of the tunes that would comprise his "Double Fantasy" album with wife Yoko Ono. But as with so many instances in his remarkable life, it was the journey that mattered. And Lennon's voyage to the island was the trip of a lifetime.

Lennon's route had been devised by his sailing instructor, Long Island native Tyler Coneys, who mapped out a five-day, 635-mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda. For the trip, Coneys chartered the Megan Jaye, a 43-foot aft-cockpit, Hinckley centerboard sloop. Coneys hired Hank Halsted, a burly, shaggy-bearded old salt, as captain (see Chip Madinger and Scott Raile, "Lennonology: Strange Days Indeed—A Scrapbook of Madness" for more details).

Known as Cap'n Hank among the yachting community, Halsted set Lennon and the crew's departure for Wednesday, June 4, 1980. For their part, Cap'n Hank and Coneys knew that Lennon's ocean trek would be no easy voyage, with the schooner making its way across the Atlantic, passing through storm-ridden Cape Hatteras and into the notorious Bermuda Triangle, with its warm tropical waters acting as the setting for some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

At 8 p.m., slightly before sunset, Cap'n Hank steered the schooner away from Murphy's Dock and the Rhode Island shore, setting a southeasterly course for Bermuda. As they pulled away, Lennon looked up at the open sky, remarking, "This is cool. I'm moving out of the clouds, moving forward into a clear horizon." As events would show, the calm weather wouldn't last for long (Madinger and Raile, "Lennonology"; Scott Neil, "Lennon Bermuda").

Cap'n Hank was especially concerned about the Megan Jaye's passage through the Gulf Stream, the 62-mile-wide warm-water ocean current in the western region of the North Atlantic. The abrupt temperature contrasts associated with the Gulf Stream would often result in rapid shifts in weather conditions. "It's a weather-maker," said Cap'n Hank. "The Gulf Stream just always puts a big spin on things," adding that "in truth, everything that I was scared might happen did happen twice over" (Madinger and Raile, "Lennonology").

After some 30 hours of smooth sailing, the Megan Jaye began to encounter cloudy skies on Friday, June 6th. As the storm clouds grew darker and the ocean turbulence increased, all of the crew—save for Lennon and Cap'n Hank—fell victim to seasickness (Madinger and Raile, "Lennonology").

By the morning of Saturday, June 7, the storm had begun to make its presence known. As Coneys recalled, "It started to get grey and everything busted loose from there. The storm knocked us all apart. It was brutal. The waves were huge. If you could have called a cab, you would have. The sea is so big and the boat is so small. We were on 20 degrees of keel. The massive waves were coming up behind like buildings. We'd be surfing down these liquid mountains. I was like, 'Oh, my God. I hope we live'" (Neil, "Lennon Bermuda").

As the day progressed, conditions continued to deteriorate, forcing Cap'n Hank to pilot the boat with the storm jib, which limited the Megan Jaye's progress to just five miles per hour. To make matters worse, the storm had jarred the protective dodger above the hatch, allowing water to cascade through the companionway and into the cabin below, where the crew was hunkering down, lost in their seasickness. But there was an even greater challenge in the offing. After spending more than 30 hours at the wheel, Cap'n Hank realized that he was teetering on exhaustion. "I got to the point where I knew that I was going to be dangerous—and that's when I looked at John and I said, 'Hey! Come on up here, big boy. You've got to drive this little puppy 'cause I gotta go to sleep'" (Neil, "Lennon Bermuda").

At first, Lennon recoiled at the idea of steering the ship—and particularly during such a perilous storm. "Jeez, Hank," said John, "all I've got are these skinny little guitar-playing muscles." For his part, Hank wasn't worried. Tethered to the Megan Jaye by a safety harness, Lennon took over the helm at 3 p.m. that Saturday afternoon. "Focus on the horizon, not the compass," Cap'n Hank instructed him (Madinger and Raile, "Lennonology").

And with that, Lennon suddenly found himself treated to the experience of a lifetime in which he was tested in ways that he could never possibly have imagined. As the storm raged on and Cap'n Hank made his way to his bunk below decks, Lennon took the wheel of the Megan Jaye, steering the boat to safer seas during a solo shift in which he was forced to brave the elements alone.

For Lennon, it was a revelation. As he later recalled, "I was in a major storm for six hours, driving that boat, you know, and keeping it on the course. And I was buried under water. I was smashed in the face by waves for six solid hours. It's an incredible experience 'cause it won't go away, you know. You can't change your mind. It's like being on stage; once you're on, there's no getting off. And a couple of the waves had me on my knees. I was just hanging on with me hands on the wheel, but I did have the rope around me to the side, but it was very powerful weather. And I was having the time of my life. I was screaming sea shanties and shouting at the gods. I felt like a Viking, you know. Jason and the Golden Fleece" ("All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono").

When Cap'n Hank roused himself from his bunk to relieve Lennon, he was stunned by the change in his shipmate. "I met a different guy. He was totally washed, exuberant, ecstatic." To the captain's mind, John had "went through a full-on catharsis" and "was happy there." As far as Coneys was concerned, the former Beatle had saved the Megan Jaye from untold damage at the mercy of the sea. "He was up there at the helm like a madman on an adventure," said Coneys. "What was the choice? If no one was steering, then the boat would have been in worse shape than it was" (Neil, "Lennon Bermuda").

All told, the storm had raged for more than 40 hours, battering the Megan Jaye with gale-force winds and 20-foot waves (Madinger and Raile, "Lennonology").

On Wednesday, June 11, the Megan Jaye safely arrived in St. George's Harbor in Hamilton, Bermuda. As the schooner made its easterly approach to the island, Lennon was anxious, no doubt, to begin his sojourn in the sun and to refine many of his most personal and heartfelt compositions. But he would never forget the seafaring adventure that brought him there.

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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