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.

 

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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.

Gran Canaria to Banjul Part 2: Goodbye, Hello

16 November

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.

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How to nap in a cushion coffin/amuse yourself with a camera when not napping in a cushion coffin. Exhibit 1

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Exhibit 2. Spot the Chard.

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Oise

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The first sight of the morning sun (this is looking towards Senegal, which we never saw)

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.

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Pirogues, palms and a lot of smiles

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Smart shirt, odd socks, steel pole, no iron

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Watching the wrecks while I waited for Rich to return

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.

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The route to Oyster Creek, once we’d managed to join it

Our route in the GPS. The chart disagrees with our idea of land and water.

Popping below revealed that our digital charts didn’t have a clue what was going on.

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Our new anchorage, which we share with the tour and fishing boats,

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and the location of my first landfall in 11 days

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 …

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Inhabitant

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Inhabitant spotter

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These dangling roots and the mud beneath them are full of crabs that I failed to properly photograph

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Baobab branches

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Oysters on the mangrove roots

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Charm

Gran Canaria to Banjul Part 1: Notes from the Ocean

11 November

I’m not at my best first thing in the morning. Often, whether at anchor, in a marina or at sea, my first thought of the day will be the most negative. I half dream, already imagining the pirate attack, the collision, the storm, and carry the thought with me into consciousness, moping and lamenting to myself rather than worrying, chasing the coffee that will banish it. On Sunday my semisentient gripe was simple: there could be no possible way I should sail Gwen long distances in the Atlantic. The ocean is wide, wild and deep and she is just a little concrete shell adorned with a few spindly sticks and tatty rags. I saw her bashed about, miles from safety, teetering precariously on waves before plunging into them. I felt the roll that could shake her fittings loose, wrenching her delicate wooden spars with creaking, banging jolts. I felt the roll again, and again, and heard her staysail strain in a gust. I woke with one thought:

“I’m sailing in the bloody Atlantic, aren’t I”

I was (and still am). We had left Las Palmas the day before, picking up a little water and fuel from the marina before hoisting the sails in the busy harbour entrance. We had passed gargantuan drilling machinery as an orange and grey cloud enveloped the island, heralding the rise of an enormous yellow moon, and sailed along and away from Gran Canaria’s east side in gold and silver floodlit night.

A big boat holding two oil rigs, because apparently that’s a thing

Adios Spain, and thanks for all the tapas and public holidays

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On the road again

We rode a largely steady wind for three or four days, seesawing gently on a frothy skin of rippling blue. Each day we performed a maneuver to tweak Gwen’s rig and compensate for small deviations in wind direction and speed, poling out the staysail to go closer downwind or adding or reducing sail. Whereas we’d normally have to stay alert for such adjustments, the wind’s predictability found us thinking in a much longer time frame: “maybe we’ll gybe on Tuesday”, not “maybe we’ll gybe in an hour”. There were no land, neighbours, cruisers or tankers to avoid, and Geordi took care of the rest of the steering.

This freedom from boat duties, along with a pleasant downwind course that doesn’t rock us beyond comfort, has given us more time and energy than we’re used to on a long passage. Snug in my cushion coffin arrangement, which has now become a permanent feature, we sleep deeply when off watch so we can enjoy the daylight hours and pour ourselves into cooking, fishing, playing and lounging. Our hefty stock of ripe and nearly ripe fresh goods keeps us in omelettes, snacks and salad. Rich, who usually finds cooking a frustrating chore, uses his new pressure cooker to rattle out delicious stews, soups and curries, fleshed out with the meat of small, unfortunate dorado fish.

Under Pressure

Gwen’s classic downwind pose, all canvas and no knickers

Found this poor sod on deck one morning

Pretty, though, eh?

My culinary efforts have been less impressive. One evening, as I turned to open the oven door, the vegetable bake I had lovingly crafted skidded down the galley surface on a sudden jolt of the boat. It mounted the fiddle that should have kept it in place and launched itself at the floor opposite. I screamed. It went everywhere. Helpfully, Rich wandered over to tell me how I could have avoided that happening. I scolded him and my ruined dinner until they both apologised and admitted to poor timing.

The fourth night was warmer and cloudier than those before, and before the beaming moon (which rises later and smaller each night) made its appearance I found myself surrounded by darkness. An underwater thunderstorm of phosphorescent lights began to pulse in Gwen’s wake, small bursts that exploded and dissolved away. Soon there were more either side of the boat. Dolphins danced among them, puffing their familiar exhalations as the rhythmic lights flashed like Michael Jackson’s pavement stones. I could hear them all too well. The wind was beginning to die.

The next morning I was woken early by a call from Rich. “Do you want to see a whale up close?” I popped my head and then my body out of the bedroom hatch to join him in gawping at the mass that Gwen slowly approached: the huge log-like upper edge of a sperm whale, rising and falling barely five metres away as it passed, grey and heavy in the citrus pink haze of sunrise. The back end was resting, the front of it was breathing through a large spurting hole and all of it, presumably, was sleeping soundly.

The cloud and the last of the wind were left behind with the whale. We spent the rest of the day becalmed in sunshine, using the redundant sails for shade, reading Treasure Island out loud and playing mankala with the wrong rules. It’s easier to spot wildlife on a flat calm sea, and we saw dolphins, turtles and a little shark as well as the dragonflies that seem to gather in a lack of wind out here. We also spotted the first of a few sailing yachts, though only on the AIS receiver. While we’ve traced 120 miles off the coast of Western Sahara for safety from pirates that may or may not exist, these others are taking the direct diagonal route from Lanzarote to the Cape Verdes on their way across the pond.

The waves receded. Looking over the side of the boat you could see tendrils of light emenating from your shadow, caught on the faintest of invisible ripples. When Gwen reached a complete standstill we took it in turns to jump off the bowsprit, swimming or rinsing off briefly in the surprisingly warm ocean before climbing out in case a shark had got a whiff of us.

Very very busy half-steering and reading

Becalmed is a beautiful place to visit

Testing out the “getting back on board” system…

…and then leaping in

The next days were cloudy and grey, monochrome prints of the ones before with only Gwen and her garish paint job not in Kansas any more. One morning I had made breakfast and coffee and gone for a nap when I was woken by an unusual clatter. The boat seemed to be moving faster, which made sense, but there were noises unrelated to speed – bashing, toppling and grunts of effort. I bounced down to the cockpit, which was awash with blood. “Is everything alright, dear?”. Rich proudly showed me the enormous bonito he’d caught and hauled on board, the cooking and consumption of which became our biggest project for the following 24 hours.

For the last couple of days we’ve never been more than five minutes from sight of a flying fish. Usually in flocks of three to ten, they emerge and soar gracefully just above the water for longer than you’d think possible, sometimes arching their bodies to skip off the top of a wave before sploshing hilariously back into the water. We watch them with an amused spare eye as we shower in salt water on the foredeck or read in the cockpit. We’re back to whistling merrily along with the wind behind us, full of the exhilaration of a large blue world, getting better at spotting wildlife as the distinction between sea and not sea grows more obvious.

Look at this smug git

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Take-off and bounce poses

Our whole time in the Canaries we chatted giddily about getting to the Gambia. We could never have imagined that the journey there would be worth as much excitement. Tomorrow we’ll turn landward, but neither of us would mind a longer holiday out here in nowhere. Rich is strumming a Lady Gaga song I taught him on the ukulele, I’m shark spotting in the hot setting sun (I’ve just seen a whopper), Gwen’s bimbling at a peaceful three knots and we’re discussing the 12km of chain (3:1 minimum, to be safe) we’d need to drop anchor here and shun the land for a few days more. Sadly we only have 80m.

To be continued..

(In the meantime, here’s a wee gallery of less than perfect nature photography)