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!”
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.
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.
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.