Our eighth morning at sea announced itself with a noisy rumble. We rushed towards invisible land from which hot air hurtled towards us, sailing so close to the wind that Gwen leapt in the short swell. Senegal was a hairdryer and every splash that sprayed over me on our wet course evaporated within a minute. A sweet, warm scent like red wine was carried towards us from behind the Harmattan, the haze of Saharan dust that obscured the African mainland from sight.
Our patience with each other became strained, and we argued over nothing on a couple of occasions as the day drew on and the sea calmed. The Harmattan painted the edges of our sphere a grubby grey while the deck, the push pit and our eyes became gritty with salt and dirt. Insects drifted over to us, followed by a robin-like bird who pecked them away as she hopped around our deck, sheltered under the dinghy and visited us in the cockpit. Our first sight of Africa was not of its coast but a fisherman in a brightly painted pirogue with an outboard engine. He took Rich’s wave as an invitation, pottered over and asked for some food, so we offered him a pack of biscuits while I admired his boat with my best bad French.
The bird, who we named Oise (pronounced Waz, short for Oiseau as she must speak French this close to Senegal) grew in confidence and flitted comfortably around Gwen’s interior as well as the deck. Finally, as we ate dinner, she hopped into the tow staysail that we had scrunched into the locker at the head of our bed and stayed there for the night. The sun faded high above the Harmattan to a white disc that disappeared long before its light. I finally felt some sense of location, caught in a West African smell and warmth that I hadn’t wanted to leave when I visited Ghana nine years ago. I called Rich up to sniff it and went to take his place, snuggled up near Oise.
In the morning Rich opened his eyes and was amazed to find Oise perched on his shoulder. He let her out of the hatch and came to join me before going back down to make coffee and breakfast. The short swell was bashing in to us again, and as a huge wave smashed over I heard a cry from below “Bear away! Bear away!” – a tonne of water had breached the closed forehatch and drenched our bed. While the Chard tried to fix it I took us further and further off course, trying but failing to keep water from the deck. Through all of this Oise hopped about, sliding in soggy surges and hiding under the dinghies when the big waves came, keeping my spirits up with her comical bounce though I worried for her safety with every smash.
As we approached the river Gambia Rich showed me how he’d tacked the boat on his own while I was away earlier this year, using Geordi to handle the turn while he dealt with the runners, jib and staysail. On the next tack I tried it out for myself and was pleased with the ease and simplicity, but not with our tacking angle. We headed straight back where we’d come from, pushed by the current coming out of the river and let down by the wind that dwindled from something slight to nothing. It didn’t return all day.
Oise retreated to the saloon after her busy morning on deck and looked tired, squeezing her eyes as she returned to the comfort of her sail bed. I followed her up there, but then worried I was bothering her and retreated to the nav table. When Rich next came down he found her splashing in our sink, unable to get out. He scooped her out and put her on the table with me and we tried to feed her water, seeds and soggy biscuits. She would have none of it until we left her alone, and then only pecked at the water before hopping off to the back of the aft cabin, still straining to stay conscious. We were hopeful when she made it back on deck on her own, but she didn’t seem interested in eating insects any more and was moving slowly, without the curiosity she’d shown before. Whether it was the efforts of staying on deck in the morning’s violence, the stress of being around people or an exhaustion that had come with her and brought her to our boat, it seemed to be getting the best of her. She wouldn’t accept flies that Rich swatted dead and left for her, so he started injuring them instead and placing them in her path. This way he managed to get her to eat five or six before sunset without either of us going near her.
We were still drifting, directed by Rich’s optimistic steering, only a few miles from a Senegalese nature reserve that we couldn’t see by light or the speedily approaching darkness. Fish leapt with noisy splashes and insects invaded every inch of the deck as we decided to drop anchor for the night, with a plan to enter the Gambia by first light. Though I’d suggested it I admired Rich’s conviction not to start the engine – we’d sailed a thousand miles and were damn well going to sail the last few. Gwen took her first rest for ten days and we slept for the first time in the same bed, hot and frazzled, protected from a buzzing world of earwigs, flies, malarial mosquitoes and who knows what else by a thin net. Fortunately the mattress and sheets had dried out over the afternoon. Oise was nowhere to be seen.
The next morning we sailed in to The Gambia with paradiddling hearts and undisguisable grins. At last Banjul’s mosques and port buildings, working fishing canoes and busy beach markets, huge palms and stretching trees emerged from the Harmattan, fulfilling so many fantasies, inspirations and memories that had combined in our hopes for the place. We could finally see where we were going, and we were going there. A man on a harbour wall called out to us, directing us where to drop, and once we’d sailed on to the anchor Rich changed clothes immediately for something smart to go ashore in to sort out our visas, entry permit, customs and river permit. I had never seen him so nervous about meeting anyone (this was our first time entering a non-EU country on Gwen), and made sure he had everything he might need, including too much money. As I went to prepare the dinghy for the water I found tiny, cold Oise, with a look of sweet sleep on her face, curled inside the net that lives under it. I pretended not to cry as Rich took her body away, and saw him off with a kiss.
We’d heard this area of Banjul wasn’t too secure so I stayed aboard, cleaning up for customs men who would never bother to visit while Rich got royally ripped off by everyone he met ashore. He got the paperwork we needed, but when he returned neither of us was feeling particularly cheerful and we bickered as we hoisted anchor, softening only as we motored up to the entrance of the mangrove streams that would take us to our first anchorage. Tourist boats carrying a few fishermen and their wives were paused by the entrance, waiting for the tide to give them the depth and current that would carry them through. Knowing our draft was deeper than theirs we followed suit and dropped the hook, waving and calling greetings to their drivers and staff. When they started moving so did we, and drove Gwen straight in to a sand bank, leaving us stuck still as they passed by us, calling promises that they’d see us soon.
The entrance to the mangroves sat lush and inviting, right ahead of us. First we tried to free Gwen with the engine, and failed. Then we hoisted the main to tip her over and reduce her draft, and tried the engine again, and failed. We didn’t even really know what direction we were supposed to be freeing ourselves in: the pilot guide said to stick to the very right hand side of the entrance, but the chart said that the deepest part was to our left. As we’d been towing Fanny from Rich’s trip ashore I took a quickly assembled lead line (a diving weight on a bit of spare rope) for a row around the area and found the deep bit right where the pilot guide said it’d be. I got back on board and Rich started to reverse Gwen but had forgotten he’d put the anchor down while I was paddling around. Chain started flying out, and I called to him to stop the engine, winching it back in with all my might until he came to finish it off. I took over on the tiller, reversed Gwen as hard as I could, then turned her hard towards the entrance with some forward thrust, and we were free.
But we were not cheerful. It had been quite a day, and we were hot and kind of sick of each other. We started to fight, then started to yell at each other about how we didn’t want to be fighting, then started to yell at each other about how we completely understood why each other was frustrated, which would have been very nice had we not been spitting it in growls. Meanwhile some of the most relaxing and peaceful scenery we’ve ever seen passed serenely by. Eventually we had to stop arguing to point out crabs that scuttled around the mud at the mangrove base and pigeons, curlews, eagles and pelicans. We swapped places so that each could sit on the foredeck and take it all in. We arrived at Oyster Creek and dropped the anchor and started a process of unwinding that is still underway.
We’ve spent two nights here at the mangrove lined creek, and its magic is working. Ashore up a mud beach there is a small community based around the Harbour Bar, a converted shipping container that was once busy with the cruising sailors it greeted for decades, though right now we’re the only ones. Lots of people have introduced themselves to us, some of whom remembered us from our time stuck in the mud, and all have been helpful and friendly, eager to spend time chatting with relaxed amusement. Today we hung out at the fishing base for lunch before joining Ebu, the tour boat operator we’d failed to follow in to the mangroves on our entrance, to look through the guest books of the bar. We wondered if we would see anyone we knew in their pages and sure enough, there was Nick Skeates, our friend and inspiration back home, writing on his visit 17 years ago with a photo of him playing his ukulele. Later as we walked back to a dinghy a man called Abraham told us some of the history of the place, including some of the visitors who have come through in his time. We told him we’d seen our friend Nick in the guest book. “Nick Skeates?” he grinned widely, and did a little dance. “You know Nick Skeates?” We laughed and chatted about what they’d both been up to since they met, and he reminisced with more smiles than a person really should be allowed.
From the low noisy bridge at the end of the creek you can get a shared taxi bus in to Banjul or nearby Serekunda, which is where we went yesterday to vittle and buy sim cards. We strolled around the busy town with purpose and curious glee. I got to treat Rich to some street food treats I remembered from Ghana – giant, thick ball-shaped doughnuts that keep you nicely filled and shaved oranges that you squeeze and stuck for refreshment. We haggled with fabric salesmen, laughed with fruit sellers and learned “thank you” in Mandinka before grabbing another taxi bus home, missing our bridge by not calling “stop” with enough force and having to walk a way back.
Gwen is hot. At night we have the bedroom hatch netted and ajar, and we’ve hung a mosquito net over the whole cockpit so that we can leave the main hatch open too, but even then it’s a sweaty job being inside until well after dark. Gwen is peaceful again after a strange trip that was so relaxed for over a week and so tense for a couple of days. And Gwen is amazing. What other form of transport keeps going unmotored for ten days straight? Our love and admiration for this boat is unending. It’s about time I went and got another good night’s sleep in the breezier end of her boiling body.
A few photos from this afternoon’s dinghy exploration of the nearby mangroves …