Endtigua

The trip from Guadeloupe to Antigua was wild and fun, but it didn’t start out that way. Beating lazily to windward and occasionally losing wind altogether under soggy clouds, Rich and I were happy enough just to be sailing. Then the gusts became so frustratingly northerly that we thought we might not make it to Antigua in daylight, and Rich reluctantly started the engine. The sky laughed, admitted it was just kidding, and blew us a steady sunny twenty knots from a sensible direction for the rest of the journey.

As we approached English harbour we went to turn the engine on again, but it wouldn’t start. In his grump at having turned the thing on in the first place Rich had forgotten to put it in neutral as he’d turned it off, and now some air had got in there. We tacked away from the harbour entrance and changed our plans, sailing instead into the wider entrance of Falmouth harbour and tacking gently to a fine anchoring spot in the middle. It was a far more pleasant way to end our last sail on Gwen than motoring into English harbour could have ever been, and we blessed the air pockets in the engine as soon as they’d been safely bled away.

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Our illustrious crossing neighbours

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It rains a hell of a lot here, but there are plus sides

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Our second Falmouth Harbour of the trip has more pelicans and conches than its namesake

We’ve been living between the two harbours ever since for three of the most stressful weeks of my life. We’ve been emailing, calling and walking around companies to try and ship our stuff to the UK, answering endless questions about the boat from prospective buyers, organising our flights and paperwork, packing or chucking everything we own and cleaning every bit of the boat so that people could look around without being confronted with the dust and dirt that wasn’t bothering Rich or me. Just as we thought we had one thing sorted another would fall through. No companies ship anything less than a container from Antigua to the UK, and almost nobody who says “I love your boat and I want to buy it” is actually prepared to do so.

Rich and I were handling all the stress so badly that we had to have a serious chat about strategies to stop us killing each other, and by the start of this week we had a method pretty much down. It’s quite ridiculous as we are in the most relaxing place on earth. Palm trees shake, turtles occasionally swim by, cocktails are less than two quid in happy hour, everyone is friendly and kind and nobody is in any hurry. Nobody, that is, but the two tanned souls on the blue boat with the “For Sale” sign.

The stress has probably paid off. We think. Our stuff has been picked up in two big blue barrels from Sammy’s shipyard (where I gave my banjo away to Al, the very lovely man in charge). We think they’re headed to our dads’ addresses by plane. And a man has paid a deposit for Gwen. We think he’s going to complete payment and take ownership next week. I’m not counting any chickens until they’ve started clucking. In a final surge of stress for us, the (probable) buyer decided that he should insist on another viewing of Gwen before he’ll complete. I will have to go through the sails and an itinerary I shouldn’t have sent him (he didn’t ask for one, I’m an idiot) before I can stop being terrified that I’ll be left in possession of a boat that I’m booked to fly away from, one that I’d have to get put away and protected for hurricane season on my own in the two days in between.

Between all this fear and frustration there have been some magical times in Antigua. We’ve snorkeled, explored the beaches, eaten delicious rotis and drunk local rum with home made ginger beer. We ran into Riley and Elayna who we met in Mallorca and shared tales of sailing successes and nightmares. We ran into Adrian and Sam and Lewis from our happy hour crew in Lanzarote, and have joined them for the (THREE HOUR) happy hour here with inebriating results. We went to the surprisingly plush cinema in St Johns for valentine’s day and watched the start of the Caribbean 600 race from a pretty hillside a couple of days later. We’ve held each other tight and said everything would be okay and not believed each other but been very grateful for the sentiment.

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Ant eager

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Rainy patch on the Caribbean 600 starting line

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The day Rich and I found our derelict dream home

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and its current inhabitant

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More neighbours

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I’m not feeling too upset about having to stick around here for a week

Rich left yesterday on his flight to Japan. Watching him leave Gwen, the boat he renovated, the boat we sailed for two years and lived on for three before that, crushed my heart a little. I’ve been welling up regularly and had a bawl when we got the deposit, but it was the first time I’d seen Rich cry for her. He hugged her mast and told her she’ll be okay because she’ll still be sailing, and that someone who probably cares more about maintenance than we do is going to look after her. I doubt I’ll see him until June and I miss him already, although having the sofa to myself for a couple of days is a bit of a treat.

The Caribbean, or the little that we’ve seen of it, is so much greener, prettier and friendlier than we could ever have imagined. Even Rich, whose heart was set on changing from a cruising life to concentrating on aquaponics and sustainable farming, is talking about us coming here for a sail in two years when the work in Japan is done.

But that won’t be on Gwen.

I’m getting ready to hand her over, and I can’t help but think of all the incredible things that this boat has been and done. I am a different person to the one I would have been without Gwen. I’m scared because I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life now, but because of her I know I’m capable of almost anything. I am going to miss her more than I can ever hope to tell you.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you think you might like to do something like what we’ve done, all I can tell you is do it. And if you see a concrete gaffer called Gwendolyn anchored anywhere along the way, pop over and give her a massive hug from me.

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The last hourra

I finished that last post all loved up and overjoyed, a tree hugger with a tree to hug and white sails blowing steadily from it. The next day, after a gybe to take us down towards the island of Marie-Galante, I could have bashed my head against that bloody tree. The wind disappeared, returning in gusts just hopeful enough to get us running around letting out sail and getting the runners on the correct side, just short enough to get us nowhere. Clouds clung to the sky above us, with rain offering its own regular middle finger salute so sporadically that it was easier to stay naked than keep putting on and taking off wet weather gear. We moped and swore as we tried to steer and control the sails, and we gave up a few times and just kept them tight in for a break from the bashing.

By nightfall we were moving again under a Cheshire Cat smile of a moon, and by morning there was land in sight. After 17 days, 2160 miles and the completion of an enthusiastically narrated Treasure Island we were preparing to re-enter the human world. We saw the bright verdant mountain of La Desirade, and then the pale cliffs and long green stripe of our destination. We sailed swiftly down Marie-Galante’s east coast, hoofed around the south and dropped anchor just outside the clearance port of Grand Bourg, where cows grazed on a lawn beside the anchorage.

“We’re in France! There’s going to be cheese!”

“We’re in the Caribbean! There’s going to be rum!”

Overjoyed, we leapt in for a celebratory swim, tidied away the sails and headed into the town. For the first time I felt that dizziness that comes with walking on solid land after a long time at sea. Surely only a beer would cure it. Market stalls were packing up, little bars and cafes had just stopped serving lunch and the Douane border police were not at home to sign us in, so we found a scrap to eat in a bakery and went to the first bar with Wifi we could find to steady our wobbly legs and let our families know we’d made it.

 

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I really was excited to see those cows

We intended to stay in Marie-Galante for three or four days before sailing to Antigua, a treat before the upheaval of selling Gwen and sorting out flights and shipping for us and our stuff. But everything was impossibly nice and we couldn’t haul ourselves away. After some time in the town we sailed down the coast and anchored off a long white palm-lined beach for a couple of nights, picnicking ashore, exploring a nearby village through a long forest walk, swimming and snorkelling whenever we felt like it, eating coconuts we found on the beach once Rich had sawed them open back on Gwen. The amount of vegetation everywhere we looked was stunning, so starkly different to the barren Canaries and dusty Cape Verdes. We sailed back up to Grand Bourg for their carnival that weekend and danced to drum music and ate all the street food we could find.

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When we left we only got as far as the south of Guadeloupe. We had to sign out of France somewhere so why not have a night on another island? That turned in to two nights when we found a gorgeous anchorage half way up the coast, replete with pelicans who dove into the water like the gannets back home before popping up to float as the water drained from their huge beak sacs. Two more nights got added when we arrived here in Deshaines on the north westerly tip of the island, from which we signed out this morning. The wind wasn’t right to leave today. Honest.

Our sailing in the Caribbean has been thrilling. We are pushing Gwen, and there have been frequent squeals of excitement both in the huge winds and waves of the ocean between the islands and the gusts that have screamed in from one direction and then another between calm patches on the way up here. Ashore there are lots of smiles, loads of delicious fresh vegetables and bread and lots of expense – we’re back to European prices for eating and drinking out, so we’re back to eating on board most of the time. I do all of our talking as Rich doesn’t speak any French, and am still surprised when people understand what I’m saying and respond to me in the same language. People used to reply to my crappy Spanish in English with a look of pity or annoyance.

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Deshaies is particularly charming, and we’ve even broken our usual antisocial tendancies to go drinking on a neighbouring Cornishman’s yacht. There are quite a few boats anchored around us, between which it’s quite common to see a swimming turtle, a harbour jack or garfish jumping out of the water or a whole shoal of fry leaping out of the way of some unseen predator. The town is like a hot, rickety, colourful version of a French tourist trap, all waterside bars and boulangeries. We’d stay longer, but we’re really cutting it fine now. Rich booked his flight for Japan this morning and we have only three weeks to sell the boat and get all our stuff somewhere in the UK.

Shit.

So we’ll leave early tomorrow morning, sail 45 miles upwind to Antigua, find a broker and a shipping company, meet a couple of interested parties, look into what we’ll do with her if she doesn’t sell now and start the hard stuff. There’s a lot to clean up on Gwen, but hopefully there will still be time for the odd snorkel and wander. There’s a lot to be excited about, probably, but there’s a lot to wade through to get there.

Yesterday when we were sailing here Rich wanted to single hand for a while, so I sat on the foredeck and finished painting my For Sale sign. I thought about what this adventure has meant for me, and done to me. I’ve always been a passenger. I don’t drive a car, and the closest I usually have to autonomy in my travel is when on my bike. In the past I’ve been treated like I’m not to be trusted with things, by others and myself. On Gwen there has been no choice. Rich not only allows me to take my life into my own hands, he and the journey demand it, and I do it all the time. Now I’m wondering about maybe getting my own little boat back home. I’m wondering about a lot though, with my future about to become a big blank canvas, so who knows.

Here are some pictures from beneath

Crossing

Gwendolyn tips to a regular rock. Without shifting myself I rise to face sparkling waves then recline to squint straight at sunlight which bores wet brightness into my cooking flesh. The full main and staysail catch a gentle but steady wind, herding the boat and short surrounding waves towards the Caribbean. In the pale sky there are occasional fluffy clouds like the opening credits to The Simpsons. Apart from them and Gwen there is only sea stretching in every direction, hypnotic as ever, rippling in undulations of every tone from blinding sparkles to deep blue shadow.

I thought I’d write now, while we’re still out here and a couple of days from our destination. Out here is something I never want to forget, somewhere I will dream of being in years to come and not be able to reach.

We’ve been here for over a fortnight now. After new years celebrations with boat folk in Mindelo we only had to survive hangovers and stock up a little to be ready to depart. On some days there was only Harmattan mist opposite Sao Vincente, but on our last day there the island of Santo Antao appeared, looming in the stunning sunshine. We waved as Mattis and Mo sailed past to their own Atlantic adventure, picked up some water from the marina, hoisted our triple-reefed mainsail and left.

That evening cloud blew over Gwen and got stuck there for a week. Our first few days were windy and wet with the air whistling and squealing through our rigging like a deflating lilo. We progressed faster than we could have ever hoped, averaging 6 or 7 knots even with hardly any sail up, heeled over and bearing the bashes of the sea. Hatches were squeezed tightly shut but the odd wave still managed to catapult itself down the anchor chain pipe or breach a coach roof porthole.

We changed our night watch habits after only one night. As we were unlikely to run into much in the open expanse of the Atlantic we started sleeping on watch, waking to a regular alarm to look around the boat and check the AIS before returning back to an aft bunk bed. Within a week we were able to stay awake all day.

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For a few days the sea became more regular, its waves coming from dead behind, just as high but less aggressively positioned, racing past us so that it felt like our own world was in slow motion. I enjoyed Richard’s balletic movements as he washed up or made bread, hanging from a post, pausing in a wave-top pose, sliding to the other edge of the galley, up and down. The stories we told each other changed from tales of overnight injuries to interesting facts from podcasts we’d listened to – a report on organic farming from Rich, the life and inventions of Hedy Lamarr from me. By night gusts brought bursts of drizzle and acceleration as stars peered through a thin film of cloud like headlights in fog.

One evening a pod of pilot whales, the first cetaceans we’d seen for nearly a week, surfed the grey Artex textured waves around us. Later in our journey we’d be joined by dolphins in this sunset sea-life slot, the only time of day we see anything but ubiquitous flying fish, yellow seaweed and occasional petrels who glide and dart as close to the waves as the fish who spring from them.

We relaxed into our routine and chilled easily with each other, packing ourselves into comfy corners together to conspire about our lives beyond this and enjoy our perceptions within it. At the half way mark we celebrated. I coloured in Rich’s Gwen tattoo with acrylic paint and we treated ourselves to tinned fruit and biscuits, pouring some out in thanks to the sea gods and giggling at our good fortune.

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Over the week or so since then the wind, waves and weather have eased, more sail has gone up and more sunscreen has been slapped on. One day Rich brought the jib down as one of its seams was starting to come loose. Wedged in to each other between the cockpit seats to counteract the movement of the boat, we held it between us, stitching from either side in heavy white thread until it was thoroughly repaired. A few days later we made similar repairs to a couple of loose seams on the main, this time working on the side decking in the burning sunshine with the gaff lowered between us.

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The sewing room

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Finishing off inside

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Bread greenhouse/doughship in a bottle

Other than this there has been little work. We cook, wash up, empty the heads and take danger showers on the foredeck, scooping up buckets of seawater and throwing them over ourselves with elated shudders. We’ve eaten incredibly well, tearing through stocks built up on two continents. Rich has buried himself in research for future projects and then the Outlander novels. I have read him the rest of Treasure Island, learned to make bread and finished a novel and three series of Breaking Bad. We’ve played a Cape Verdian form of mankala whose name I forget and plenty of card games, chewing time through our holiday like the best tourists.

Most of my spare hours, however, have been spent up here in the cockpit, eyes caught in the glittering sea, body swaying like a drunken dancer, trying to capture all this bare beauty on some internal tape to play back when life is too dry or static or inside out. I can’t, I can only enjoy what I have now. After Gwen there will be new adventures but for today there is only her, Rich and a world of blue and my heart is swamped with the lot of it.

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Misty Eyed

We came to Cape Verde at a strange time of year. The rocky wastelands of the northern islands are peppered with the emergence of life. The weather is challenging but full of character –  in each anchorage the wind takes rolly rests between hammering in deafening gusts, and on each passage the harmattan haze obscures our view beyond the nearest rock or islet. The air feels warm but the light, noise and movement are comfortingly wintery. The indistinct contrasts of our surroundings echo the turmoil in our hearts.

We left Palmeira in Sal the morning after a night out on the town. We’d swayed to the music of the single net-barriered disco and scoffed street fare galore, from the kebabs on billowing barbecues to home-flavoured spirits sold from benches and tables. It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that within the short sail to the next bay down we both realised we had food poisoning. We spent a couple of days gurgling and moaning in the bouncing wash off a dull beach before getting fed up with waiting to be well and sailing away overnight. We drank a lot of water, then put chlorine tablets in the tanks in case it was Gambia’s water and not Sal’s hygiene standards that had got us.

The island of Sao Nicolau (so aptly named for our Christmas retreat) was another friendly sanctuary and soon became one of our favourite places of our whole adventure. In our first anchorage we swam ashore, taking advantage of a rare outbreak of clear sunshine to explore columns of basalt and an invitingly roll-downable dune. In our next, the town of Tarrafal, we jumped on the back of a 4×4 for a trip to the capital and a long, steep Christmas eve trek. On Christmas day we ate lunch ashore in the company of a street dog then watched bad movies on board while the wind funnelled down the valley and blew whistles through the rig.

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Not getting smashed into a rock was the fun challenge of landing…

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…after which we got a bit of a rest and some rocks to admire.

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Huffle Puffer

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Rich’s return to Gwen

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The open back of a 4×4, my new favourite form of transport

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Ribeira Brava

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Steep enough for you?

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This track might look pretty unoccupied, but one of the farms off it was blasting out Caribbean music that accompanied us for most of the way up.

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Where a motorbike overtook us going up

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Anchorage in Tarrafal

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The wall speaks the truth

The distracting excursions of Christmas were welcome. On board we had reality to face and we didn’t like it. A job offer for Rich in Japan had become more than speculative, and in Sal we had been forced to consider the future of our trip. If Rich took the job and flew to it when we got to the Caribbean, what was to become of Gwen for its two year duration? Realisation pierced us both like a skewer. If he goes we can’t afford a long stay in a marina or the repairs that will doubtless be needed after a long time without use. No matter how we try we can’t seem to come up with a plan that realistically involves us coming back to her and continuing on.

So (gulp) Gwendolyn is up for sale, and we’re heading to Antigua to say goodbye. I’ve put her about on social media, and I made an ad for this site today, so please share it if you know someone who might be interested in taking on our beautiful boat. I wasn’t sure what price to put – how do you value your favourite thing ever for someone else? How many dollars cover five years’ work and investment? How many cover five years’ love? She’s cost us plenty of money, but she’s given us a home, a purpose and an adventure – she owes us nothing.

A quick sale and a good owner for Gwen feel just as important as price. It’s daft to feel so attached to an object, but knowing that doesn’t stop it being so – somehow she deserves to be cherished and not abandoned and allowed to rot. Sitting here I am leaning on a table that Rich designed and made which is tied to the mast I’ve hugged for comfort in difficult times. I’m leaning on the first bit of tongue and groove I ever laid and sitting on a cushion Rich sewed when he was recovering from an operation. Nothing on her is without a memory, and everything about her seems even more wonderful than ever. She has always exceeded our hopes for her, and she has brought us so far.

It’s not easy knowing that our Atlantic crossing will probably be our last on board, and though we’re excited about what the future holds for us that joy struggles to break through the heartache of what we’re about to lose. Rich is burying himself in research about projects that might follow Japan and he is often distant, keeping his feelings in line by closing them off to himself and to me. Occasionally the stress becomes too much and he spills over. Me, I’m scared, particularly about the first few months after I leave Gwen when unlike Rich I will not have a job or a place to live to go to – I can’t join him in Japan until we know what his schedule will be and can sort out more than his work accommodation. I’m scared of what happens if Gwen doesn’t sell, and I’m scared of a world where I don’t leap from my door in the morning for a swim. Fortunately Rich and I are united in looking forward to the Atlantic crossing. There is something so present about sailing, when tiredness and practicality prevent you from doing anything but experiencing the moment you are in, that we are sure will be both healing for us and a fitting goodbye to our boat.

We had a good dose of this between Sao Nicolau and Sao Vincente, where we are now anchored. The journey took two day sails with a stop in another gusty island anchorage (Santa Luzia) in between. We sailed hard on the wind and, unlike on our turbulent journey from the Gambia which had similar conditions, we relished the tilt of the boat and the tug of the tiller. The dust that has darkened Gwen’s halliards and left an orange film on her deck got pasted up with the water of leaping waves, and we wore the filthy smudges of our journey on our clothes, hands and smiling faces.

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Upwind wonky

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Feeding frenzy between Santa Luzia and Sao Vincente

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Rich and I went on a 5 euro Christmas shopping spree for each other. Among other things he ended up with these dreadful gloves.

Now we’re in Mindelo, the largest city of Sao Vincente and by far the busiest and most cosmopolitan we’ve seen in Cape Verde. So far we’ve found a French outdoor theatre act, a well stocked fresh market and a bunch of great restaurants, and have gorged on home comforts like gin and tonic, pizza and chocolate biscuits. A big stage has been put up in the city centre and we’ve run in to Mattis and Mo and a couple of other folks from the Lanzarote gang so we’ll be in good company for the new year’s celebrations tonight. Project distraction is going well.

This year started in the Mediterranean and ends over 3,000 miles later in the Atlantic. There are only a couple more jobs to do and some water to replenish before we can make our way across the ocean, the journey we dreamed about when we first saw Gwen over five years ago. There might be tears right now, and there must be more to come, but there are no regrets. Happy 2018, and here’s to living dreams.

 

Worse Things Happen at Sea

This blog post is brought to you by the number 6, the letter F, the colour of fear and the state of mortality. This is my third try at writing it: I started involuntarily weeping on my first attempt. Ready? Ugh…

We (oh alright, I, I) went aground twice as we left Oyster Creek, caught out by shallow bits of channel we hadn’t passed over before. It was annoying but not disastrous and we freed ourselves from each muddy trap eventually with much grumbling and little dignity. As we passed Banjul we drained our remaining mobile data, stocking up on podcasts to accompany the journey ahead, the duration of which was unsure. If Gwen couldn’t keep a good angle to the wind ahead of us then we might have to beat towards the Cape Verdes back and forth for days on end, or go past them and return, or miss them out of the Atlantic crossing completely. As it turned out, that wasn’t something we had to worry about. As it turned out, our worry could have been reserved for other things.

The air puffed lazily and inconsistently around us. We put our sails up but kept the motor running, cutting it when we’d emerged from the grey and swirly river mouth to tack a slow, meandering path into the open sea. When the wind caught us it did so all at once, from a knot to twenty in the blink of an eye as the sun set. Gwen leaned over and pushed on with purpose. Twenty or so small whiteish butterflies pursued her, occasionally landing to grip on to the main sheet, and when darkness fell completely a hundred more could be seen fluttering in the light around the tricolour at the top of the mast.

We were doing a good course at six knots but I was nervous on the tiller. We hadn’t sailed to windward for a long time and had rarely done so on overnight passages. Around us fishing pirogues were represented only by the occasional burst of torchlight or a faint multiclolour strobe in the distance, and I steered as far between them as I could. We were heeled over enough that the port saloon bunk became the preferable sleeping space. It was while Rich was resting there and I was cursing him, wishing we had another reef in to slow us down, that I saw an unlit net hurtling towards Gwen.

It happened quickly, before I could even think, let alone turn the boat. We ploughed in to the wide line of the net, piercing its straight seam of white floats and pushing it into a curve. I yelled for Rich and in an instant he was up and with me as Gwen began to slow and stop. The net had passed under the bulk of the hull, as it should, but had been caught in the little space between stern post and rudder and was now one with Gwen, heaving her back. A fishing pirogue was approaching us with angry shouts and flashes of torchlight. We were trapped.

The shouting got nearer and could clearly be heard (though not understood) even over their outboard engine and the smashing of wave and wind on our two craft. We struggled back and forth on the deck, torches in hand, as the sails and spars bashed around, flailing angrily as we lowered them to a position where we could start the engine and turn about (which we didn’t do yet – we didn’t want the net in our prop as well). The pirogue was like all of the fishing craft we’d seen in Oyster Creek, about 20ft long with a nearly straight keel that extended forwards past the pram bow like a battering ram. This daunting protrusion and then the sides of the boat bounced wildly towards Gwen and away. We called out apologies in English and French as they circled us, but they replied in a language we could not understand and sometimes, in English, told us over and again what had happened.

“You are in our net, you will break our net”

“We know, we are sorry. If you take your end that way maybe we can make it free”

There was no sign of understanding until we offered them money. We pushed at the net with our boat hook but could do nothing to free it far down in the crevice in which it was lodged. Finally their pirogue came close to Gwen again, and, still yelling, they showed us the frayed end of a rope they had clearly cut: with their co-operation we would now be able to get away. I went down and looked to see how much money we had – a hundred euros in the emergency pot. When offered they yelled that it was not enough, but it was all we had and they took it. They motored noisily away and we sat shell shocked in the darkness.

Around us the distant flashes persisted in every direction. We freaked out and calmed ourselves, yelled and whispered, squeezed our fearful stomachs in and forced our headaches to the background. We got the sails back up. We had to get out of this area. On the way in to The Gambia it had been easy, we had just steered around groups of lights and kept our distance. I had assumed that nets would be attached to the boats, not floating free, invisible. I clambered up to the foredeck with our torch and shone it forwards, peering into the blackness, alert with heightened tension, while Rich steered us on. Fortunately the wind had died off enough to slow us down, but unfortunately the torch was struggling for battery. I saw the next net when it was already too late.

“Net! There’s a net ahead right now!”
“Where?”
“Everywhere”

Once again the width of the net stretched off to left and right, impossible to escape. Rich turned the tiller sharply but we went over it nonetheless, slower than the first time but with the same result. Again, a pirogue came towards us at speed. Again, our stomachs and hearts screamed inside our bodies as we moved swiftly, practically, and took actions that came to no use. Gwen stopped quickly this time, and we called out to them that the net could be freed if they could pull it back off the way it had come on – off the front of Gwen. This pirogue had seven or eight people in it, a couple of whom looked like kids and two or three who yelled to us all at once, ignoring our suggestion.

The sea was choppy enough to make any contact dangerous. They drove their huge battering ram bow against and alongside Gwen again and again, grabbing hold of bits of her as they did and then releasing, returning to bash into her from another direction. At our side, the boathook that Rich was holding as he fended them off got crushed between the boats, and he leapt daringly down to grab the broken pieces that had fallen in to their bilge before jumping back on Gwen. Then the boat peeled off and returned, tearing in to our stern, and our rear end soared and crashed down on to their bow in the waves, smashing Geordi’s wind vane. One of their crew became very communicative, and I passed him our staysail pole to help him push the net free where we could not.

With the net now in their hands they had to manoeuvre themselves away ahead of us, and they bashed their way down our topsides until they were at Gwen’s bow. I was standing over them on the foredeck, calling to them to go further, but they seemed to be incapable of steering away. My consciousness left my poised and helpless body and hovered numb, watching in disbelief, as Gwen’s bowsprit reared up and smashed back down again and again on to their open boat, their crew ducking and moving out of the way with each hammering blow. Someone was going to die. I had no capacity for any thought but that.

Somehow it ended. They moved further away, got free with their net and even returned at a better distance to pass me back the staysail pole. They diseappeared with an instruction to “Go to Gambia” that we could not obey. Everyone survived, and we were still able to sail, although we had to hand steer overnight now that Geordi was dead. We motored away and got the sails back up, realising that trapped in this fishing net hell our only choice was to carry on. We came up with a new plan, to sail towards the larger commercial fishing boats on the horizon as we figured the pirogues wouldn’t go near them. We were right.

Tension fizzled, swelled and crashed over us like the unpredictable waves. When I lost the plot, wailing and refusing to leave the cockpit, Rich pulled rank for the first time ever and ordered me to go to bed. The next day he lost it, bursting in to screaming tears when he got soaked by a wave in the cockpit followed by another one inside in the aft cabin. We both felt seasick, probably more to do with the stress of the night before than the bounce of sailing hard to windward, and though I recovered quickly with some Stugeron the nausea continued to pummel Rich for the rest of the journey and meant that I took over almost all the galley duties. In the mornings we’d throw suicidal flying fish back to the sea from our deck. In the evenings we’d cling to the last joyous moments of light before the night plotted its unseen soakings. For three days we kept Gwen pointing at Sal, the northernmost and most windward island in which we could sign in to the Cape Verdes, and though our course against the wind was impressive for Gwen it was wet and bouncy and uncomfortable for us.

Not everything was awful. We had a spare vane for Geordi, and it worked, so we didn’t have to spend every moment at the tiller. Rich put up the sprayhood he had made in the summer and that spared the cockpit many a drenching. Gwen did her job brilliantly, as always. But almost everything was really fucking awful. Water managed to get in in places it had never breached before and though hatches were hastily screwed shut we couldn’t stop it sloshing down the anchor chain pipe and wetting the floor. Bodies ached with the exertions of our night of hell and we sustained tiny but annoyingly frequent bruises and bumps as we tottered about in our hurdling boat. Neither of us could talk to each other for long without it turning in to a tense “okay, fine” or a drawn out “how dare you”. We arrived in Sal’s dry, blustery Palmeira harbour broken, battered and ready to leave each other stranded ashore.

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Casualty 1: Boat Hook

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Casualty 2: Geordi La Forge

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Casualty 3: Another bloody sail repair to do

It might be that all this trauma is why Sal seems like absolutely the best place ever. It’s so gorgeously West African with its flamboyance, so delightfully Portuguese with its cobbled streets, so unforced, so kind, so freeing. You don’t have to cover up your hot skin to be respectful like we did in The Gambia, but your skin is not even too hot because there’s a constant breeze. Nobody speaks much English, but they speak about the same amount of French and their Portugese sounds pretty Spanish so you can usually try out a bit of each and get what you need. The customs and port police are so friendly you want to ask them out for a drink. In among the grey skeletons of concrete buildings are finished ones painted with the most fantastic combinations of garish colours – Gwendolyns of the land.

With each day the realisation of the horror of our trip has sunk in a little further and its effect on us has lessened. We quickly went from “I don’t know if I can stand you” to “I’m so glad you’re alive”, clinging to each other, tending to Gwen, sleeping and eating and watching Star Trek TNG for hours on end. In the main town of Espargos we feasted on the local dish of cachupa, failed to find a cinema where I could watch the new Star Wars and stocked up on mobile data (hello there). In Palmeira we found plenty of veg and forgotten treats like chocolate and doughnuts. And yesterday, out in the even more barren east of the island, we floated on a salt lake inside a volcanic crater, giggling and doggy paddling like the daft loved-up twats we needed to get back to being. Tonight we’re even going out as apparently Sunday is fun day.

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Palmeira. Joy! Joy! (Okay, the good bits are in the town, not the beach)

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Sod Barcelona, Espargos has the best buildings in the world

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Cachupa: a fishy corny beany fried godsend

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Entrance to the salinas

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Fondling salt

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Doggy paddle, because you can’t do anything else

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I think this is my favourite ever picture of Richard

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East end of the island. Pretty empty. Got a lift here from some lovely builders.

We have a couple of weeks left in Cape Verde before we go for the big one: the Atlantic crossing. Neither of us has been put off by our recent trip – we know that the steady winds will be beside and behind us rather than ahead and the fishermen will be far away. We’ve looked forward to this for months, years actually, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen once we get to the Caribbean. We’re not that fussed about sailing Gwen back to the UK even if we go back there ourselves, and we’d like to go on to the Pacific but we’re about to run out of money. We have other work offers and other dreams swishing around our heads and we we’ll probably have to leave Gwen for a while to go and pursue them, but we don’t know where or for how long.

We might even put Gwen up for sale if it looks like we’ll be away from her for too long as her wooden spars won’t last forever if she’s stagnant in the warmth and humidity – she needs to be loved, lived in and sailed. But I don’t have to think about that now because it would hurt too much. I’m going to concentrate on tidying up, going ashore and getting a beer.

The Birds and the Breeze

We motored down the Gambia, pursued as always by hungry mosquitos and tsetse flies and not, as we’d hoped, by the wind. We had more confidence in the depths and got closer to the shores than we had on our ascent. Slim green bee-eaters with orange wings dripped from bare branches and swooped around the boat. Ospreys watched from others, or soared, occasionally dropping to run a single claw on the water’s surface before returning to the trees. On the grasslands between and beyond the mangrove trees egrets, herons and ibises congregated, and now and then we’d see a whole tree covered in black storks with white heads or tiny brown finches. There was plenty to see and nothing to do, and we happily took our turns on the tiller, enjoying the light and movement of the day before the evening’s oppressive heat and mosquito nets enclosed us.

One morning, in the narrow creek where we’d anchored behind an island, there was the faintest breath of wind. Though it wasn’t enough to get us anywhere in particular, Rich decided to sail the boat. Meanwhile I rowed ahead in little Fanny to look for breakfast, enjoying the rare coolness on the air. As Gwen dawdled at under a knot with her barely ruffled wings outstretched, I nipped ahead between the mangrove shores, chasing bird calls and investigating bouncing branches that might be monkeys. A couple of miles later I came to a junction in the river and couldn’t explore much further without potentially losing Gwen, so I turned back, and on the way met a couple of boys in a fishing canoe. They were wearing woolly hats. We exchanged greetings in Mandinka. They didn’t speak English. They passed me the catfish they’d caught. I held it and gave it back with an encouraging smile and “abaracka” thanks (I didn’t want to buy it, and I was a bit confused). I started rowing, and they started paddling beside me, so I raced them for a while, laughing and not embarrassing myself too much as I lost, and was rewarded by them with the consolation prize of the remainder of a packet of biscuits they’d been eating. As Gwen sailed slowly up to us I called to Rich to chuck them a pack from our own dry store, and thus our weird cultural exchange was complete. Rich chucked me a rope, I got back on board, and we started the engine, eating biscuits for breakfast as we went.

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Woolly hats. WOOLLY bloody HATS.

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For reference, this is how sweaty, dehydrated and tired either of us looked after spending more than half an hour inside.

We’d stocked up a little in Wassu but there’d been a limited choice and we were now short on fresh veg. When we got to the ferry crossing we’d passed on the way upriver we spied a few sellers with carts, and I decided to go for another dinghy adventure in search of food. This time we anchored Gwen first, and Rich stayed on board as I rowed away. As I approached the ferry stop a couple of men called out to me

“Move your boat, the ferry is coming”

“It’s okay, I am nearly there” I called back.

“No, your big boat” and they pointed to Gwen, who was at least 150m away from any logical line between the ferry terminals on either side of the river. I rowed back a little and called out to Rich to move, and he hoisted the anchor and started the engine while the ferry started its journey from the opposite shore. It was so poorly powered that a tug boat was pushing it upstream towards and in front of Gwen, after which the tug released the ferry, leaving it to drift downstream whilst battling forwards across the river as best it could. By the time it made it to my side I was ashore and buying soft bananas and cooked eggs, forcing myself not to look as it slid noisily sideways in to the slipway near where I had tied Fanny to a rock.

I rowed back to Gwen, hurrying to get her moved before the ferry could make a return journey. Rich threw me a rope and I pulled myself in, clinging to Gwen’s side as she motored forward, but it was painful and difficult to keep a grip whilst keeping balance and moving. “I should be able to tow you with the rope” he called, so I let go of Gwen and stayed holding the line he’d thrown me. The dinghy jerked then tipped, and water started to pour over one side as I struggled to right it while gripping the rope. Rich yelled that I should move my weight to the front, but the only way I could do that was to throw my body off the centre seat and stretch it over the front one. I was lying on my back, one outstretched arm holding on to a rope and the other grasping the boat, getting soaked, when Rich realised it wasn’t working and slowed down the engine so I could tie Fanny on and get on board.

“That was ridiculous” he said, once I and my goods were safely in the cockpit.

“I know, right! The food nearly got wet.” I laughed.

“The dinghy nearly capsized” he replied.

“Oh”

The ferry did its strange dance across and we disappeared down the river.

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That bloody ferry, with some of the structure of the bridge that will replace it.

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Talking boatbuilding in a village a little further down the river

A couple of days later, having spent time in a tiny fishing village with excellent phone reception and a creek full of shy birds with funny necks, and having gained a whole lot of bites from tiny flies that seemed capable of penetrating mosquito nets, we arrived at Tendaba Lodge. It was the first tourist hostel we’d seen and its open high ceilinged restaurant, where we gratefully devoured a buffet breakfast and lunch, was full of old white people on birdwatching holidays. We hadn’t seen this many tubaubs in the whole of the last month, and we smiled at them with curiosity. They didn’t smile back. Each table was weighed down by an arsenal of binoculars, heavy cameras and huge zoom lenses that looked like rocket launchers, and the atmosphere felt serious, earnest and purposeful. When Rich finally plucked up the courage to ask if we could borrow a bird book from a Dutch lady she agreed with a lovely smile and he got to find out the names of most of the creatures we’ve seen since we’ve been here. A minute later, without being asked, her English friend’s book also appeared on our table, beside me. “You can bring this back to my room. I don’t know what we’re fucking doing this afternoon, sitting in a tiny hot room with five other people staring at a pond I think”. We laughed and decided maybe the birders weren’t so scary after all.

The staff of the lodge tried to sell us a river trip, but we were the wrong market – we’d had enough of the water. Even though it’s completely the wrong time of year to see anything in the long underbrush of the national park we decided that a safari trip to its grasslands and forests would be worth blowing a week’s budget on instead. Three of us rode in the open back of a 4×4 through dusty villages and countryside, standing or sitting on a couple of cushioned crates, calling hellos to the kids that called our names “tubaub, tubaub” until we reached the national park. Our companion and guide, Haruna, was a young conservationist with enthusiasm for every sound, smell and sight that he or we noticed. He got the driver to stop whenever a bird or primate came near and took us for various wanders by foot where we’d peer at footprints in the clay mud, pause gasping at the sounds of approaching (but invisible) baboons or point out colobus monkeys clamoring in treetops. For most of the trip we saw very little fauna at all, but the cool feeling of freedom in the air gushing past as we ducked beneath branches and the fresh smell of dry grasses and leaves were worth the price of the trip alone. We stayed with Haruna until after dark, sharing stories of travels and impressions of nature as he dismissed the driver and we walked the last leg. Fanny, messing about in our absence, had nearly been drowned under the jetty, but we rescued her just in time and she got us home.

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Hands free 4×4 surfers

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Our fellow road users were similarly conscious of health and safety

As Gwen pushed on towards Banjul the river got saltier and the big dark dolphins returned. Pelicans could be seen, improbably perching their great masses on the delicate branches of mangrove bushes, flying low paths between tree stump posts, or at their funniest drifting along in the current like fairground ride vessels. We had been having plenty of fun, but we needed a rest. The water had become more shallow so our attention to the pilot guide and depth sounder had to be greater. We pushed on for two long days by motor, suffering worse than we should in the heat with our itchy bitten legs, grumpy and oversensitive at the slightest criticism or grumble from the other. Wearied by moaning and dripping with sweat, we finally got close to Banjul.

After a night anchored outside the little bolon that leads to Lamin Lodge we navigated our way in, spotting the Lodge from well outside the maze of mangroves by the masts of a dozen yachts that are abandoned in the water around it. Edging up to it we were greeted by G-Boy, a thin rasta with a calming voice who joined us by paddleboard. He said he was the harbourmaster so we took his advice on where to anchor, and we stopped, and breathed, ready to spend five days relaxing more deeply and satisfyingly than I knew Richard even could.

The wooden lodge itself is on three levels and looks like a set from Hook. A bridge from the land or a jetty from the sea bring you to the entrance where a man called Bamba plays complex djembe beats and sings welcomes to guests all day. On the next floor is the bar, in the corner of which sits the wild looking but softly spoken old German guy who built the place after sailing to Gambia in the 80s, usually with a few guests or locals. Monkeys climb around the ramshackle structure, fighting over stolen scraps, making nervous advances at the customers and shrieking or hissing when brushed away. At the top is a seating area which is often full of day trippers with their guides, eating fish or chicken with rice and drinking JulBrew, the Gambian beer. Behind the lodge there is another bar for the locals where we spent a lot of time because of their cheap food, and then the village.

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Bangarang!

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Three cute mammals who might steal food from your plate

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Morning breezes would wake us with cool air, and in the evenings there were few enough mosquitoes to spend a bit of time outside in the cockpit. We went full tourist and stopped cooking for ourselves except for a little snack before bed. One of us would pick up bread and beans for breakfast while the other made coffee, and in the afternoons we’d watch crap television from our hard drive, make drawings, play cards, sing songs with our ukuleles, and watch the water and the monkeys from the Lodge’s bar. G-Boy helped us track down some deisel and water, and I had some amazing yellow trousers made for me by a tailor that Bamba introduced me to. Rich researched a bunch of sustainable farming information and boat ideas that we’ve been idly mumbling about for months. Mostly we did nothing. It was great.

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But we were going to have to leave some time. Our visas are going to run out on Monday, so yesterday we motored back to Oyster Creek and are now making preparations for our departure, which is as dependent on us working out how to sign out of the country as it is on the wind or tide. Our time in The Gambia has been filled with surprises and joys, kindnesses and beautiful sights, and yet we feel ready to go. We’re looking forward to sailing, washing in salt water and feeling the wind on our faces. In particular we look forward to swimming again once we’ve reached our destination, something we’ve never had the confidence to do for fear of bilharzia, crocodiles and sewage in the muddy waters of the Gambia. To do that, we’ll have to make it to a bay. There’s a chance, though very small, that we might not be able to sail close enough to the wind to make it to the Cape Verdes in any sensible time, so we’ve stocked up with enough water for the whole Atlantic crossing just in case! I’ll let you know how we get on from wherever we end up.

In the meantime, here’s a few last wildlife pictures from The Gambia:

And here’s a grainy phone photo of the best trousers in the world:

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Up t’Gambia

24 November

This morning we woke at the furthest point we’ll reach up the river Gambia. We drank a coffee, ate bread and eggs and started the engine to head back to Banjul. To write about our trip, particularly while it’s still underway, is quite a challenge – it feels as though every day has been some auspicious first, each event the highlight or lowpoint, each encounter somehow significant. I know I’ll forget to mention animals, birds, insects and people we’ve seen. I guess I’ll just start where I left you, at Oyster Creek, and try to piece it all together as I go.

We stayed there for a couple more days, allowing Rich to purchase some fantastic trousers, Abraham to get a new tube welded on to our anchor windlass handle and me to develop an addiction to the bread and beans that are sold from pots at the sides of streets for breakfast. We walked one morning down Old Cape Road, a long street with little to either side except beautiful marshes and birdlife until it opens up to a craft market. From there we were able to wander Bakau’s dirt roads and side streets to find the pool of friendly crocodiles at Kachikally, the botanical gardens where we got bitten to pieces by bugs as we relaxed on a bench and the vegetable market where we restocked our supplies for our impending trip up river. All over the area and nearby Serekunda graffiti expresses the excitement of Gambia’s recent liberation from dictatorship: “#Gambia Has Decided”

It was while we were admiring the pirogues of the fishing beach in Bakau that Rich and I fell foul of some absolute arseholes. We had politely shrugged off plenty of other tourist predators earlier in the day, but theirs was a more sophisticated scam involving several characters: a couple of smiling gents on the foreshore who wanted to show us round their fishing area followed by a younger man, supposedly of some standing in the community, who they (without our knowledge) had fed details about us, and a further supporting cast of women and children back in their domestic base. Once we had enjoyed a pleasant tour of the fishing processes we were persuaded to visit this base and, once surrounded there, to part with money for supposedly orphaned children, and then even to lend a little money for a minute for one host to go to a shop, after which a “fight” broke out between two of them and we were rushed to leave. Though the cost to our prides was much higher than that to our pockets (fortunately we did not have much money to give, otherwise they might have persuaded us to “donate” and “lend” more) we would continue to think on the occasion with a shudder over the next couple of days, exclaiming to each other after thoughtful silent pauses about the skill with which they had manipulated our fear of offence and desire to respect custom, our generosity, trust, naivite and vanity. We resolved not to let it dampen our desire to engage, and not to let it happen again.

Vulture, hornbill and friends on Old Cape Road

These smily bastards are fed frequently so apparently don’t want to eat you.

Monitor lizard among the crocs

Buttress. Well, that’s one term for me.

Mate, there’s a crocodile in your trough.

Bakau botanical gardens. Beautiful but painful on the ankles.

The beach of swindles

It was a relief to detach ourselves from the world of people as we began our journey up the Gambia the next morning. We had only intended to take Gwen as far as Lamin Lodge, the other anchorage noted in our twenty year old pilot guide, but spurred on by a favourable wind and tide we decided to start the larger journey a day or two early. We motored out of the mangrove creeks and sailed a long relaxed route across the river mouth until the wind came too much against us and the engine was started again. Over those first salty days, as we left the sea behind, various pods of bottle nosed dolphins came to investigate and swim alongside and around us. The dirty freshwater of the river rolled and bumped with salt water in swirling clouds of brown.

That afternoon we arrived at what our charts call James Island, now renamed Kunta Kinteh Island after the locally celebrated protagonist of the book, TV show and film “Roots”, and met one of its guardians who was seeing off the last tourist boat of the day. He sold us a ticket and told us some of the history of the place before disappearing, leaving us a small land and ruined castle of our own. It’s always shocking to be faced with a relic of slavery, and though the slave quarters themselves have long been lost to the river it felt a strange place to be having a romantic evening picnic. The shores were spattered with long thin spiral shells on sand and mangrove roots in mud, clinging to stumpy supporting walls that have been added to stop the whole island washing away.

River dolphins in the river, dolphining

Bowsprit selfie

You don’t get this in the Tamar

Crumbling castle on Kunta Kinteh

There were heaps of these, so I don’t feel too guilty about how many I ran away with

Jetty Setty

One well preserved cannon…

…and another that had been colonised by mangrove oysters.

Our home for the night

We would not sail again on our upstream journey – the wind tends to come down the river, if it comes at all. The next morning we began a pattern that has endured: rest or explore by dinghy when the tide is against us, press on when it’s with us in daylight. We motored, keeping the revs low to avoid overheating the engine in the warm water and staying central to keep our depth. The only other inhabitants of the wide river were dolphins and fishermen. Unlike those we’d seen at sea, river fishing canoes are usually dug out from a single trunk with boards attached for repairs, controlled with heart shaped paddles on long sticks or outboard motors, and the fishermen in them drop or gather long nets that we often have to steer to avoid. They almost always wave to us, and we’ve been lucky enough to buy fish for dinner from a couple of them along the way.

A snaking line of flamingos flew against a distant backdrop of the new mangroves, taller than those around Banjul, which would line most of the rest of our journey. We turned off to anchor half an hour’s potter up Mandori Bolon which, like all the creeks we have encountered, was fine to navigate once Gwen was past the scarily shallow entrance. Here stone curlews, hammerkop, huge eagles and vibrant kingfishers in a range of colour and size joined the pigeons, egrets, pelicans and herons that we were getting used to. As soon as we were happy with the boat’s turn in the current we jumped in Fanny to explore the stream that is their home. We’d neglected to take shoes and so were reluctant to go ashore in the sharp sticks of the mangrove base, but once we reached a field of muddy vegetation the temptation was too great and we waded in with a sucking, squishing stomp, examining footprints that were not our own with curiosity – otter? crocodile? We were about to head home when Rich saw a few dark shapes in the distance. He called me over to look through the binoculars “Mammals!” but it was hard to see: they raised their heads and shoulders like people but were on all fours, and then one ran across incredibly fast from left to right. “They’re baboons” he realised, and climbed a tree to see better while I watched them through the binoculars. We returned to Gwen elated.

River life

Stone curlew ogling us with it’s big weird eye

Kingfisher in the bolon

Baboons through binoculars

On the next day’s motor we got as far as Elephant Island (apparently there were elephants here a few hundred years ago), where we anchored overnight before visiting the village of Bambale on the mainland shore. It was a surprise to see the lush vibrant green of rice fields and earthy tracks of the village behind what seemed from the water to be a never ending world of mangrove. A kind young lad with only a little English walked with us through the village and taught us the few greetings in Mandinka that quickly became as essential to us as money and water. Until then we had only used the universal greeting of “Salam malekum”, but now we could ask after people’s families and spouses, reply to kindnesses from strangers and fulfill a cycle of friendliness and respect in new introductions. He drilled them in to us, questions and responses, as he took us to visit the local school, and came back with us afterwards to visit Gwen, whose solar panels and ukuleles impressed him greatly. Everywhere we go we exchange names with everyone we greet using the words he taught us, and my great regret is that I’ve forgotten his.

Bambale

Photos cannot do justice to the vivid green of this rice field

You find the kids in school, on the mud beach…

…or in a tree

We motored onward that afternoon and saw another yacht for the first time, reason enough to shout out a quick chat over the noise of the motor once we’d kicked it down to neutral. They were French, and they were heading to the school that we’d visited to play double bass to the children. We hadn’t brought a double bass and were a bit jealous. When the conversation stopped we powered on, still central in the river, far from each tantalising side where wildlife might hide. Rich had read somewhere that motoring up the Gambia can be boring at times and enjoyed loudly rebutting this dreadful inaccuracy – there was always something to see. “But it is a bit boring, isn’t it, I mean, it’s motoring and mangroves every day” I countered. He looked at me with genuine confusion and I shut up.

We anchored by another misnamed island “Sea Horse Island”, apparently so called because at some point the Portugese thought of hippos as horses of the sea. We prefer to spend the night out of sight of humanity, somewhere wild where the early evening and early morning fauna might be observed. Each night this means stopping and erecting the mosquito net by six and then preparing and eating dinner to the sound of a thousand birds as the day ends. Pigeons trill all day and there’s often a curlew scream or a distant toot, but at sunset the strangest calls join the mangrove chorus, with birds drilling, baying, yelping, chuckling and reversing their trucks. Some individual always has a repeating melody that gets stuck in your head. It’s never the same between locations. Monkeys sometimes join in, squawking and bitching and shaking the branches. Then as the light disappears these sounds fade and are replaced by the zithery vibrations of insects, bats and possibly frogs, their high pitched tones pulsating in overlapping morse code over the occasional splash of fish.

The next day, after all the joy of our trip so far, was inexplicably tense. Perhaps it had something to do with heat and dehydration or the fact we barely stopped motoring all day. We were pissy with each other and hyperemotional, and only had fun once we’d taken a quick break and explored some mangroves together. We caught sight of some red colobus monkeys, who looked and sounded as upset as we had been, and the large wet form of an otter as it scurried behind some roots. I also got to see my favourite bird so far, some sort of hornbill that looks like a miniature Zazu from the Lion King, whose up-down rollercoaster flight path includes soaring sections in which the wings are completely put away. They make flying look fun.

Just when you think you know what’s going on with the river three tubabs (white guys) drift past on stand up paddle boards.

They’re building a bridge at Yalitenda ferry crossing, which means that yachting like we have been doing may not be possible in a couple of years

This is what it’s replacing. The ferry doesn’t have much power and is quite scary/funny to watch.

Pied kingfisher. We see these everywhere and they’re incredible – they sometimes hover beautifully in mid air and are delightfully crap at hiding from boats.

Almost sunset from Sea Horse Island

By this point we had traveled well past the point of salinity where dolphins and pelicans live, but it was the next evening that we realised that the water around us was properly fresh. We’d been admiring the changing greenery lining the river, now including palms and large trees, and came around our last corner of the day to see the one and only hill we might be able to climb on our route, ready to glow red in the approaching sunset. We anchored as quickly as we could (dragging on our first attempt, of course, because we were in a rush) and threw up the mosquito nets before rowing ashore, exchanging greetings with every soul on and near the beach, and scrambling up. We were rewarded with breathtaking views of the world behind the high vegetation of the river shores and of irridescent birds in blues, greens and yellows. Just before dark we returned to Gwen for our usual sunset routine in which the one whose turn it is to cook cooks themselves as much as the food in our stifling galley while the lucky other stays outside where the heat is just about bearable (still sweating profusely, but with less of an urge to jump in the water with the crocodiles).

As we ate in the cockpit a high whine droned in to the boat from the land, getting louder and louder, squealing in with a batallion of mosquitos. As soon as one or two had hit the cockpit net there seemed to be a thousand. Soon we couldn’t stay in the breached outdoor space and retreated to the cooking pot that was indoors, but somehow mosquitos had infiltrated every cabin. We fought them off as best we could while trying to guess how they could have bypassed our defences, shoving plastic bags in to the anchor chain tube and taping up every vent, seal and space between inside and out. We spent an hour or two sweating, scratching our bites and drinking gin while leaping about with flip-flops and swatters, exterminating intruders, until we decided we’d done enough and erected the third line of defence, the bed net, climbed inside and finally found safety. Every night since has brought us a new, similar invasion but the masking tape and plastic bags seem to be holding out and they’re not getting in. The sound of them approaching each evening is more terrifying than that of any murderous mammal this country could produce. I’m looking forward to their numbers dropping back off at the salty end of the river.

Red hill of Kassang

“Oh what a pretty bit of river, I do hope it isn’t a hotbed of vicious insects”

Early yesterday morning we left the hill anchorage for Kuntaur (pffffft) where we indulged in the home comfort of some chips in a Dutch-owned restaurant overlooking our boat. We walked out of the village to see some mysterious 1,500 year old stone circles, and edged politely away from the guide after he linked them to symbolic theories that spanned navigation, astrology, numerology and language. His penny from 1960s Gambia was fascinating, but we could only take the New Age for so long and he was getting on to the illuminati when we finally made our escape. In the main-road town of Wassu we provisioned with the few veg for which we could communicate our desire to the women selling wares at the roadside, and met a man called Batch who drove us out of town for some diesel before taking us home. As I waited with him on the shore for Rich to return from the boat with his jerry can he told me that he’d spent time in Harlem in the 80s and worked as a cab driver in Detroit in the early 2000s. I’ve heard stories of adventure like this from a couple of men who look as part of the traditional village furniture as the red earth roads and the free range goats and chickens. It makes me think of my village back home – even in our little familiar heavens so many have wanderer’s hearts.

By the afternoon we’d had enough of the children who were banging on our boat, repeatedly asking our names and demanding presents we were not going to give them, and hoisted our anchor to slide past Baboon Islands, the national park where chimpanzees were relocated in the 60s and 70s. We had guidelines from Banjul telling us which routes around the islands were and were not allowed, and apart from the opening we were to travel mid channel at a great distance from the lush and secretive human-free habitats. We were not expecting to see much, particularly as the Harmattan seemed to have reappeared after a week’s absence. As we rounded the first and only island we were allowed to go behind, a ranger appeared beside us from nowhere in a dinghy and motioned for us to tie it on to Gwen. He told us what we already knew – that we could not go behind the other islands unless we were on an official tour boat, and that we could not approach them at any point. Unless… unless we wanted to take him with us, for a price, and he could point out some chimps, and then we would have to return to the centre of the channel. We leapt at this chance, and welcomed him on board.

What the ranger didn’t realise was that we were equally interested in seeing a hippo. It was a little while later that he casually pointed one out, quite close by (for a hippo) in the water off our port quarter. A whole head emerged from the water and splashed back in. We squealed and sighed, amazed. “You have not seen a hippo? There was one nearby when I met you” he smiled, and we raised eyebrows at each other. We needed to learn how to look for them, because obviously they were bloody everywhere.

Gwen traced the edge of the second island with all three of us staring in to the trees like shoppers at high street windows while Rich and I took it in turns to steer. The island, like much of the recent shoreline, had a great diversity of plant life including tall trees and palms whose lower fronds aged to grey, reminding me of Where The Wild Things Are. Finally we came to a few shore trees that were bowing and trembling with movement, rather like those in which we had previously spotted monkeys or large birds, and peering in we found whole families of chimpanzees eying us with stern curiosity or sleepy indifference from behind the leaves. After two such encounters our guide left us and we returned to the centre of the channel, from which we would spot a whole family of hippos once we’d got past the island. This time they were just a set of eyes, nostrils and ears, pointed towards us from their distant shallows.

Abandoned groundnut factories are a common sight on the river, which has seen much busier days

Every village we visit has astounding views from its little red roads. This one’s in Kuntaur

Wassu

Having a little bounce in a stone circle

Fly hunter

Fanny with her contemporaries at Kuntaur. I like the one with the school chairs in it.

Baboon Island inhabitants are, of course, not baboons.

Last night we anchored a little further on, and our dinner in the cockpit was accompanied by the gorgeous lowing of the hippopotomus. Hippos sound like the deepest voice you’ve ever heard laughing a slow chuckle. We couldn’t see them in the dark, but we heard them all around the boat, close by and continuing well after we’d gone inside to wash and gather around our tiny USB fan to read and play. It still feels joyously unbelievable that Gwen, a scruffy concrete boat from Millbrook, spent last night 150 miles up the Gambia surrounded by these shy and formidable pinky brown beasts.

Today we’ve spotted birds and baboons, distant hippos (now we have our eye in) and beach-prowling monkeys on and around the lush shores of the wide brown river on the first leg of a long return trip. Tonight we’re hot far beyond comfort and trapped in our boat by a legion of insects carrying a deadly disease, but there’s not a lot more happy we could be.

There are no hippo pictures because they’re either too far away, too briefly visible to find the camera, or just too amazing.