Passage to The Gambia and Arrival

James & Amelia Gould
Mon 22 Oct 2007 16:22

071009 – 071017 Passage to The Gambia and Arrival


We finally left Europe in the afternoon of 9 October.  The wind was still blowing hard, but James skilfully got us off the berth in one of the lulls and our friend Denny helped by acting as a tug boat with his dinghy.  Once out of the relative shelter of San Sebastian harbour we sailed out into the full force of the acceleration zone between La Gomera and Tenerife.  The sea was quite steep and high, and we were pleased to be running downwind for a change.  Once we were clear of the islands the wind abated a little and we settled down to some Trade Wind passage making, with a sail on either bow.


The days passed quickly with the easy routine of the endless watch keeping cycle.  The weather stayed fine and warm during the day which meant we were both more inclined to be up and about.  We steered south, following the coast of Africa and expecting the wind and currents to be with us all the way.  However, by the end of the second day we found ourselves in a contrary current and the wind eased off considerably so we made slow progress.  We tried to head further west to try to lose the current, but it seemed set to stop us.  By the forth day the wind disappeared completely, and we spent the day drifting with the ocean currents (which by this time were at least going in the right direction!).  We were reluctant to use the engine as we carry limited diesel and we wanted to save it for the final approach to the river Gambia.  We spent the day relaxing and enjoying the sunshine, playing Scrabble in the cockpit (I won for a change!  Very unusual! A.) and making teasers out of aluminium cans to tow behind and attract the fish to our line.  This turned into a little competition to see who could make the best teaser.  James started with a simple CD which spun in the water and jumped out of the top of the waves.  Then Amelia made a fish shaped teaser out of a can of beer that wiggled in the water and leapt out.  The designs became more and more advanced, but were never resilient enough to last more than an hours towing before being tearing off and sinking…


Becalmed Scrabble

Making Fish Teasers


James towed a fishing line behind the boat for most of the way, and caught all manner of sea life.  First was a small black and white fish with a huge stretchy under belly that was full of water.  He did not look very tasty, so James removed the hook and threw him back in the water.  Then another time lots of splashing behind revealed we had something big on the line.  James carefully reeled it in, and as it got closer we realised that it was a Meko shark, about 1.2m long!  As it came up to the back of the boat it was still fighting hard, and we could see its big sharp teeth.  James decided it was not worth trying to land it and risk serious injury, but he was still keen to recover his favourite lure which was lodged in the shark’s menacing mouth.  A deft flick of the wrist with the gaff released the lure, and the shark quickly swam away into the deep – we were all relieved to have escaped with no real harm done!  The last catch was finally something edible, and James landed a big Mahi Mahi (Dorado), about 1m long.  It was a beautiful green-yellow colour, and it seemed a real shame to kill it, but proved worth it as the meat was absolutely delicious! 


Meko Shark

Mahi Mahi


The only other marine life was saw along the way was several pods of dolphins, some whales in the distance, phosphorescence at night, and lots of flying fish.  One pod of dolphins came and played with us for ages, leaping in and out of our bow waves and performing aerobatics around us including complete spins in the air.  It was amazing, and we must have looked really boring to them in comparison, standing still in the cockpit.  The whales were only noticeable on the calm day, when we saw some water blowing upwards in the distance.  After careful squinting we saw a whale tail, but it was too far to identify the species.  We didn’t really want to get any closer either – whales can sometimes get too friendly with yachts…  The phosphorescence on the clear calm nights was really eerie.  In addition to the usual sparkle in the wake of the boat caused by krill and the like, we saw large pulsating flashing objects just below the surface, blinking yellow in the dark water.  Sometimes the boat would glide past a whole school of them, and we’d be surrounded like in a scene from Alien.  The first flying fish gave me such a fright when it landed in the cockpit one night, banging around and making a hell of a racket while I was inside.  I had no idea what to do with the flapping thing, so I woke James up to show me how to pick it up and throw it back in (girlie moment…A).  We became a regular landing pad at night for these strange creatures, and we’d always throw them back in the water, rather than save them for breakfast as we had been told we should.  One time a fish flew right into James head!  By day we’d see schools of them flying low above the water following the contours of the waves.


To help pass the time James got out his sextant and did some Astronomical Navigation.  Once he had proven he still had the knack, plotting fixes that were within 0.5 NM of our actual position he sat down to teach me the theory.  I tried to grasp all the different terms and concepts, and was keen to have a go, until I felt the weight of the sextant.  I could barely hold it up to the sun, let alone keep it steady for long enough to take a sight!


On the second calm day we decided to start the engine and make some progress.  We were sat in the cockpit enjoying a beer at dusk when I noticed a fog in the distance which was fast approaching us.  Thinking it was a sandstorm from the Sahara we quickly closed all the doors and hatches, and no sooner had we finished than we were enveloped in a thick wet mist.  We could barely see 50 yards around the boat, so we turned on the radar to watch out for passing ships.  The fog continued through most of the night and made everything damp.


As we neared our destination we saw more ships and some fishing boats.  We decided to “cut the corner” past Cap Vert and Dakar in order to save time, though we made sure that we stayed well out of Senegalese territorial water.  We sailed passed Dakar on the last night, seeing land for the first time in 8 days as a distant orange glow on the horizon.  We started seeing indications of the proximity of land in the form of hundreds of insects around the boat such as moths, butterflies and flies.  We motored the last 70 miles to the Gambia river entrance as we’d lost the wind again, and we were keen to make the tide the following day.  We arrived at the mouth of the river as dawn broke on our 9th day at sea, the passage taking us a day longer than we expected because of light winds and contrary currents.


We motored into the river, using electronic charts to find our way in.  We tried to find the fairway buoys which were marked on the chart but there was no sign of any navigational marks, so we relied on the echo-sounder and eyeball navigation.  We sailed around Banjul, the capital of the Gambia, arriving at the docks at Half Die, so named because half the population there died of a cholera epidemic in 1869.  We anchored near the port, keeping a weary eye on a few men ashore waving at us to try to attract our attention – no doubt keen to be employed as our “agents”.  Then I took James ashore in the dinghy to clear customs and immigration while I returned onboard to look after Rahula in this less than salubrious area.


Banjul Docks


I’ll let James tell the saga of clearing in his own words (with a few additions from me this time!)…


Got ashore to what I consider is the usual West African welcome: friendly but always trying for a buck or two.  Georgey Boy was quickest off the mark from my shore welcoming party.  He drove a line boat for the harbour, and insisted that as he was a dockyard employee he did not need payment.  He then introduced me to Gee, who I employed as my “agent” to help find the required officials.  He turned out to be pretty useful for 10 Euros!  I was taken to a variety of shabby offices, starting with the Chief Pilot’s (which had good air con) and eventually to immigration and customs.  No one seemed to have any idea what to do about me, but after suggesting politely what the best action should be I managed to clear through immigration and customs.  Two officials from immigration boarded the boat.  They looked a little apprehensive at the prospect of getting into a small dinghy to get out to Rahula, but were soon at their ease when they realised the boat wouldn’t sink (one admitted that he couldn’t swim).  Once onboard they drank soft drinks and chatted, then one official asked for the guided tour, ostensibly to check that we didn’t have any stowaways.  He seemed quite impressed with the boat, but was surprised that we did not have any children (he said he’d pray for Amelia to have 2 sets of twins to make up!).  I then returned ashore with them to their office to complete the paperwork.  The poverty was apparent even when completing paperwork: the officials were still using Carbon Paper, which had obviously already been used far too many times; the immigration officials who boarded the boat asked for the few sheets of paper they had forgotten onboard back; I had to lend a pen to the cashier at the ports office who did not seem to have one.


Banjul port is typical of the third world, where all trucks go to die.  The road surface was dust soaked in oil that nearly resembled tarmac.  The trucks, used to carry goods from the port around the country, had doors hanging off, whining engines and axles which wobbled under loads they were never designed to carry.  Outside the port was a collection of ramshackle shops selling food and drink to the crowds of men queuing for work in the mornings or hanging around in the hope something might turn up in the searing heat of the afternoons.


Having cleared through customs and immigration the last hurdle was obtaining a permit to cruise the Gambia River.  The Chief Pilot was unable to find the required paperwork so I had to return the following morning to obtain the permit.  I arrived at his office at 0830 (after the first attempt to flog me a woody), and only then did he start looking for the correct form…  An hour and 22 Euros later I had the permit and we could finally set sail.  While at the harbour office I also bought a chart for the upper reaches of the river.  It is a beautiful chart drawn from surveys carried out in 1941 and earlier (dating back to 1826).  The chart depths are in fathoms, the places are given their old colonial names rather than local names, and land features are intricately drawn. (It made us feel a little more adventurous, going into nearly uncharted waters!)