THE SKY TO THE SOUTH as we sailed away from the island of Gomera looked bruised and hazy, as though the blue had been sucked out of it by some meteorological vampire. By this time, November of 1996, I had been cruising full-time and living aboard Crazy Horse, my Pearson Alberg 35 yawl, for almost a year and a half. I had sailed three times across the North Atlantic–twice as crew on other people’s boats four years earlier, and once again as master of Crazy Horse after I left New England and headed east for Europe the year before. For several months I had felt competent, confident even, as we cruised Portugal, Spain, Madeira, and the Canary Islands at our leisure. But now, heading south from the Canaries toward our next destination, I felt a cold stone of uncertainty growing within me.
Africa! The very name conjured thoughts of the unknown and the unknowable. In the two years since I had acquired my boat I had sailed in familiar waters, voyaging to places I had been before, or places close to places I had been before, where I knew what to expect, what might go wrong, and how to set things right again. Now, at last, I was wandering on to charts that were alien to me, and I felt as though I was stepping off a cliff into a void.
The sky made me nervous, and I was of half a mind to turn back, but really there was no rational reason to do so. The wind was light as we departed the harbor at San Sebastien that afternoon, and the forecast was for moderate northeasterlies in the days ahead.
By midnight, however, the wind had increased to over 20 knots and had veered a little south of east. The stone within me grew a bit larger as I struggled to maintain perspective. The breeze will soon back again, I told myself, and to demonstrate that I believed this, I swerved away from our rhumb-line route to the south and set a course well west of south to keep the wind behind the beam. By daybreak, unfortunately, it was blowing a solid 30 straight out of the south-southeast, what some would call a small gale, and we had little choice but to sail into it.
We slammed to windward all through that second day, drenched in spray as steep waves hopped aboard at irregular intervals. My only crew member, Carie, a Dutch woman with little sailing experience, became quite seasick and sat stoically through her watches with a bucket at her side. When not on watch she lay unconscious below, as though felled by some magic potion. I felt a bit queasy myself and was very tired, but the stone within me, and the awful motion of the boat, made it hard for me to sleep.
The sky, meanwhile, maintained its ominous hazy appearance. I thought this might be characteristic of what is known in these parts as the harmattan, a strong east wind that blows off the hot desert of the Sahara. I had read that the harmattan can carry dust from the Sahara out to the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands, and indeed, according to some, all the way across the Atlantic to the Antilles. But now I could not see or feel any dust. There was only the haze and the strange pale sky.
Carie on watch in more moderate conditions
Fortunately, toward the end of that day the miserable wind and sea abated. By sunset the wind was veering east again, the deck was dry, the boat’s motion had improved, and Carie finally stopped puking. Gratefully, I crept to a berth. At last, I felt some of the familiar contentment of the routine of being on passage creep over me as I quickly drifted off to sleep.
Just an hour later, however, Carie suddenly poked me awake again.
“You must come see!” she insisted. “It is very strange. A flashing yellow light in the sky.”
I jolted out of my berth as though I’d been stuck with a cattle prod. Instantly, the stone within me was as large as before. I stumbled up to the cockpit, where I stood in my underwear and studied the eerie night sky. Sure enough, there were huge flashes of yellow light off to the east, followed by dull rumbling sounds and a faint acrid burning odor. The quality of the flashes, so sharp and precise, and the strange smell led me to think this might be artillery fire.
Were we stumbling into some sort of a naval battle? I wondered: should I show more lights, so they’ll know not to shoot at us? Or could these be pirates?
Much better then not to show any lights. And I ordered Carie to switch everything off.
But, of course, it was lightning. A thunder squall viewed through the prism of the hazy night sky, creeping out to us from the desert with probing fingers of hot, unhappy air. The leading edge passed over us, and finally the jagged sheets of lightning were plainly visible, striking down at the sea less than a mile away.
I HAD A BOOK I was reading, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal, by Jean-Baptiste Henri Savigny and Alexandre Correard, published in 1818. The authors were both survivors of the wreck of Medusa, a French frigate that was sent with a small squadron of vessels full of colonists and soldiers to reclaim Senegal from the British after the end of the Napoleonic wars. Medusa lost contact with the rest of the squadron and ran aground on the Arguin Bank, a long reef off the coast of what is now Mauritania. While working to get off again, the crew built a large raft over 60 feet long out of spare spars and timber on to which they proposed to offload gear and supplies so as to lighten the ship. Before they could do so, however, a gale blew up. Medusa started to break up on the reef, and the captain ordered that the ship be abandoned.
Plan of the raft of Medusa, by Alexandre Correard
There were 240 people aboard, far too many for the ship’s boats to carry, and most of them, 150 in all, were compelled instead to board the raft. In their book Savigny and Correard, who were among those who boarded the raft, continually refer to it as “the machine” or, even better, “the infernal machine.” The plan was for the boats to tow the raft, which was continually awash once loaded with its passengers, some 30 miles to shore.
“Vive le Roi!” cried the horde on the raft as those in the boats pulled hard on their oars. But soon another cry was heard: “We forsake them!” And the boats cast off their tow lines and left the raft behind. The only provisions aboard were six large barrels of wine and two small casks of water.
Question: what is most likely to happen when you heap 150 Frenchmen and several barrels of wine on to a makeshift raft and leave them to fend for themselves standing in water up their shins many miles from shore? Will they: a) sip their wine politely and discuss ways to preserve the purity of the French language while patiently awaiting rescue; or b) get raving drunk and fight and murder and devour each other?
It truly is an appalling tale. When the raft was found by one of the other ships in the squadron 13 days later, only 15 survivors were left. All the others had been swept away, had killed themselves, or had been consumed.
This tragedy has meant many things to different people over the years. To the young Romantic artist Theodore Gericault it provided the inspiration for his first major painting, Le Radeau de la Meduse (see image up top), an enormous work (over a third the size of the infernal machine itself) that is still prominently displayed in the Louvre in Paris. For others it was (and is) a sad commentary on the hapless Bourbon monarchy that was restored to power after the fall of Bonaparte. For many, of course, it is simply a titillating and gruesome survival story.
18th century French chart of the Arguin Bank
For me, at this particular point in time, it raised just one simple question. I studied those alien charts of mine quite closely. I located the Arguin Bank just south of Cap Blanc–some 240 miles north of Port Saint-Louis in Senegal, Medusa‘s destination, some 100 miles east of our own position–a threatening lump of shoal water if ever there was one, with nothing to this day but a wilderness of endless desert behind it. I read the sailing directions for ships traversing the area: “The hydrography of this region is incomplete and vessels are advised to keep in depths of at least 30 meters. The tidal currents in the vicinity of the bank attain rates up to 1.5 knots, and eddies render the steering of a vessel difficult.”
And I wondered: whatever were they doing sailing so close to this godforsaken coast?
SEVEN DAYS after leaving Gomera we finally closed the coast ourselves. I had no real expectations as to what it would be like, but still I was puzzled by what we found. On our port bow, to the east, we saw the low silhouette of the long penisula of Cap Vert lying under a pall of thin smoke. As we continued south the faint smell of burning dung wafted out to us on the breeze. This, oddly, was familiar to me and reassuring, as it recalled parts of my childhood that had been spent in south Asia. What was surprising were the thin columns of heavier smoke we saw rising on our starboard bow, to the west, over what should have been open water.
Soon the skyline of the city of Dakar started jutting up out of the land to the east, but the source of the columns of smoke remained a mystery. I studied them intently through binoculars and eventually saw they were emanating from a group of brightly colored open longboats–I later learned these are called pirogues–that lay offshore, rolling in the ocean swell. Finally, when we were close enough, I could see the men aboard were fishing and tending small cooking fires in the bilges of their boats. We waved eagerly as we passed, but the fishermen only stared at us in return, as though mystified by our appearance.
Our route from the Canaries to Senegal
The city of Dakar and the Cap Vert penisula
Turning east finally toward the city itself, my inner stone of anxiety started swelling again. Unlike every other place I had visited so far in my travels, I now had no reference book to consult, no “Cruiser’s Guide to Senegal” full of friendly advice on where to go and what to do on arrival. All I could think of was to hail “Dakar harbor control” on the VHF radio and ask for instructions. They came back promptly, speaking very good English, but again seemed mystified when I described my vessel to them. After a long delay they at last ordered me to enter the main port and come alongside the south mole “between the Cuban freighter and the Liberian tanker.”
Ile de Goree as seen from the water
Aerial view of the port of Dakar
This, on its face, sounded like a bad idea. And as we turned north past the old slave fort on Ile de Goree and at last got a good view of the port, it also looked like a bad idea. The wall between the freighter and tanker was very high, obviously meant for large ships rather than tiny little yachts, and was coated in black oily filth. At the top of the wall, as we approached the large gap between the two ships, there quickly gathered a huge crowd of men. As we came alongside they all shouted at us in various languages in a very excited state, waving their arms and gesticulating madly.
Never mind the stone metaphor. I was by now flat-out scared. Who the hell were these guys? What in God’s name did they want from me? Just as my imagination had several days earlier converted the thunder squall into an artillery barrage, it now supposed this must be a lynch mob and that I was about to be torn limb from limb in a riot of revenge for all the indignities and oppression that the white race had ever visited upon black Africa.
But no… all they wanted were jobs. With heart in mouth I tossed my dock lines up to the top of the filthy wall and dozens of hands fought for the right to take hold of them. Once the lines were made off, I scaled the wall, and those same hands all held out scraps of paper, letters of reference urging that the bearer was highly qualified to serve as a harbor guide and watchman. The awful din of all these men shouting and pleading with me grew louder and louder, and I realized there likely would be a riot if I didn’t hire one of them.
“Very important paper! Very important paper!” cried one man, who somehow managed to out-shout the others as he pushed his way through the dense crowd. He thrust his paper into my hand, and I saw it was from an American yacht, Sea Shantey, whose owners I had met and befriended back in the Canary Islands just a few weeks earlier.
“I know these people!” I exclaimed and felt immensely relieved. I quickly read through the recommendation and then announced: “You’re hired!”
The unruly mob around me immediately wailed in protest and throbbed with angry energy, but now I had a powerful ally. My new employee, Abdul, waved his arms dismissively, barked a few choice words in several local dialects, and soon the crowd started to disperse. Abdul then explained to me that he had a highly qualified colleague, Willy, who would stay with Carie and watch the boat while he and I went to visit the police and the port captain.
I reboarded the boat to retrieve my papers, shook hands with Willy, who now stood impassively in the cockpit, and Abdul and I then started the long march down the mole and around the port to the offices in town. One of the men from the disappointed crowd of job applicants–he called himself Jean–followed us most of the way, bouncing up and down like a puppy dog. He kept insisting I owed him money because he had handled one of my dock lines. I kept telling him no, I would not pay him anything, as nicely as I could, and then finally I just ignored him.
“You are American, yes?” he demanded.
“Yes, yes. I am American.”
“Americans are very bad people!”
He spat the words out with a vicious scowl on his face, as though he might be perfectly willing to murder me. I said nothing in response and kept marching resolutely forward. He stalked silently beside me for several more yards, then suddenly brightened and grabbed me by the shoulder.
“Hey, man,” he proclaimed. “I is only joking. Just joking with you.” He shook me by the hand and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up. “Welcome to Dakar!”
And he then marched off and disappeared into the hive of the city.
IN THE END I was glad to have hired Abdul, for I soon realized it would have been difficult finding the appropriate offices to report to without him. Neither office was clearly labelled and both were located in odd out-of-the-way places. Both the police and the port captain politely suggested I should bribe them–one called it “an optional gift,” the other “transportation money”–and my sense was their demands might have been less polite and less moderate had Abdul not been with me. Clearly, he was well known to both of them.
The sums involved, in any event, were utterly insignificant. The port captain wanted a pack of cigarettes, and the police officer who handed me immigration forms to fill out wanted 500 West African francs (called CFA, or “say-fa”), which amounted to all of $1 US. I had no cigarettes and no CFA, as I hadn’t yet changed any money, but both officials accepted my solemn promise that I would return and pay them the next day.
It was late by the time I returned to the boat, and we had no choice but to spend the night on the wall. It was, I think, the worst night I have ever spent on a boat anywhere. The yellow glare of the sodium lights on the mole cast ghastly shadows that swizzlesticked around the cabin as Crazy Horse tossed and turned like a sleepless child, yanking hard on her dock lines. I tossed and turned with her, listening to her fenders grind against her hull just inches from my head. Twice I heard one pop out of place, and I quickly leapt out on deck to replace it–a very dirty job, as the fenders by now were coated in black, sticky oil, as was a large section of the hull.
Peering up over the edge of that foul wall through the glare of the lights, I could just make out the form of first Willy, then later Abdul, silently watching over us. Both times I waved, but they did not wave back. I remembered the fishermen we had seen earlier that day and felt conflicted. On the one hand I resented that we were dependent on these men; on the other I was grateful for their presence.
Late the next morning, after I changed some money and hustled around paying off minuscule bribes, Abdul directed us to a more comfortable location. The local yacht club, Cercle de la Voile de Dakar (or CVD, pronounced “say vay day”), lay a couple of miles north of the main port, at Hann beach, where the local fleet of fishing pirogues was based. There was a busy market here, and incessant activity around the many pirogues, but the club’s stretch of beachfront was inviolate and seemed an oasis of calm after the dirt and clamor of the harbor. Poking out from the beach into an open anchorage inhabited by about 20 well-worn yachts was a spindly wooden pier. Off to one side was a crude slipway–a large rusty steel boat cradle that could be winched up and down the beach. Behind the beach, through a thin screen of trees, was a funky clubhouse with a bar trimmed in bright blue paint.
Fishing pirogues at Hann beach
CVD pier and anchorage
Modest as it was, this, I soon learned, was the epicenter of the yachting scene in West Africa from Spanish Morocco as far south as the Ivory Coast. Besides being headquarters for any local expatriates keeping boats here, CVD was also a staging base for the few foreign cruisers who came each year to explore the Casamance and Gambia river systems and the more challenging waters of Guinea-Bissau a bit further south. Almost all of these cruisers were European, and during our brief tenure there Crazy Horse was the only American-flagged boat in the anchorage.
The sailors I met at CVD, French and English for the most part, were quiet and reserved, but there was one, a German who called himself Robert, who was very outspoken. I spent part of an afternoon buying him beer while trying to extract useful information from him.
Robert was not fond of Americans and did not mind telling me so. He chastised me at once for being so foolish as to hire Abdul and complained that the few Americans who did cruise in West Africa spoiled it for everyone else “by leaving too much money behind.”
CVD boat cradle and clubhouse
Crazy Horse, in distance, anchored off CVD
“America is a very racist country,” he proclaimed. “The Americans who come here feel guilty about that and try to make up for it by being too generous with the people in Africa. This makes it very hard for other white people who come here. Everyone thinks all whites should give as much as the Americans.”
I could only laugh in response to this. “Americans are generous people,” I said. “I have never heard any Europeans complaining about all the money we have left behind in Europe.”
“That is different,” objected Robert. “In Europe we have a great culture, and America needs our culture to be civilized.” And from there he launched into a soliloquy about his travels in America and the great cultural desert he had found there. “There is nothing beautiful there,” he complained. “There is nothing worth saving.”
I tried initially to argue with him about this, pointing out that certain aspects of American culture–American films, for example, and jazz and rock music, which, ironically, were first created by African-Americans–seemed to be quite popular in Europe. But he kept talking over me, so I kept quiet and waited for a lull before trying to turn the conversation back to West Africans and how best to deal with them.
“They are monkeys!” he hissed. His tone was just as bitter and angry as that displayed by Jean, the disappointed job applicant I had met in the main harbor. Only Robert wasn’t acting. “They are greedy, grasping, disgusting monkeys,” he told me. “You must give them as little as possible, or they will only get worse.”
I WAS PUT OFF by Robert’s bigotry, and by his hypocrisy, but on venturing into the city I understood better how he got that way. Everywhere we went the tourist touts were relentless. It seemed every single person we passed on the street had something to sell us, something they would like to do for us, some place they would like to take us, someone they would like us to meet, or some very good reason why we should just plain give them some money. Non, merci. Non, merci. Non, merci. Non, merci. Every time we left the sacrosanct confines of the CVD compound, we had to utter this ceaseless mantra to keep the hordes at bay.
Finally, I learned the secret. If I marched around like I belonged there, with my best New York City don’t-fuck-with-me-motherfucker-or-I’ll-fuck-you-up scowl on my face, kept my eyes always focussed straight ahead, never made eye contact, and never looked around at anything like some damn tourist, people left me alone. It was that, or only go out on Friday afternoons, when everyone everywhere was down on their knees on little prayer carpets, facing east, praying to Allah. Then, at last, you could enjoy some peace and quiet and think a bit while gazing around at the sights.
By West African standards, Dakar is a rather large cosmopolitan city. Back in colonial times it was the administrative capital of all of French West Africa, a vast swath of the continent that encompassed what is now Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger. Culturally, it is still the predominant metropolis in the region. But Carie and I were there mostly on business. We needed visas to enter Gambia, our true destination, and I needed a new passport, as my current one was due to expire. I also wanted desperately to get some idea of what we could expect sailing up the Gambia River. Beyond that, we agreed, we weren’t interested in staying in the city any longer than was necessary.
We made the rounds at the Gambian embassy, again paying tiny bribes to get otherwise somnolent bureaucrats interested in their jobs, and I made two trips to the American embassy. It was, by comparison, a fount of efficiency and integrity, but ironically, even without the bribes, was a much more expensive place to do business. If nothing else, it made me value my citizenship. Both times I visited the line of Senegalese seeking to enter the embassy to apply for visas to visit the U.S. stretched down the street for several blocks. All I had to do was flash my passport, that magic little blue book, and I was instantly admitted. Rarely had I ever felt so powerful and important.
Meanwhile, back at the bar at the CVD clubhouse, I kept trolling for local knowledge. Finally, I hit paydirt. A young English sailor, Brian, who appeared one afternoon aboard a very scraggly looking sloop that had a galvanized-wire rig and was badly in need of painting, turned out to be both extremely knowledgable and somewhat loquacious. He had been cruising the coast, from Dakar to Liberia, for several years and had helped research an unpublished cruising guide of Senegal and Gambia that had been written by a friend of his. Like an apostle bestowing the gospel upon an acolyte, he loaned me a copy of the manuscript so that I could photocopy it for myself.
“Don’t let Dakar put you off,” declared Brian. “The touts here are worse than anywhere else. It’s much nicer away from the city.”
“Out in the bush, though, you do need to watch for bugs,” he warned. “Especially the mossies. The French never really care if they get malaria, but you’d be crazy not to take something for it. Once you’re in fresh water, you’ll also find the tse-tse flies are very fierce, but you don’t have to worry about getting sick from them…” He paused, and the weary look in his eye suggested this was something he had learned the hard way. “Unless you stay too long.”
THE ONE PLACE I most wanted to visit while in Dakar was Goree, the small island we had slipped past on our way into the harbor. I thought at first we should go on Crazy Horse, but after studying Brian’s guide I concluded this might not be wise. There is a small harbor there, but it is not secure and is open to wakes from the main port. Instead, just two days before we left the city, we went out on the ferry, which ran every hour.
Goree is the hard fortified seed from which the rest of the city sprouted. One of the first places in Africa to be settled by Europeans, the island was initially claimed by the Portuguese in 1444 and was subsequently held by the Dutch, the Portuguese again, the Dutch again, and then the British, and finally the French. Prior to the founding of the city on the mainland in the mid-19th cenutry, Goree was an important trading post and transshipment point for slaves, beeswax, hides, and ivory. After the slave trade waned in the late 18th century, its commerce was dominated by Franco-African creole women, known as signares, who were renowned on the coast for their sharp dealing and sense of fashion.
Antique plan of Goree in French and Dutch
What struck me most was how quiet it was. Unlike the city, whose architecture is dominated by the high-rise buildings that have sprung up since Senegal achieved independence in 1960, Goree is covered by much older colonial structures that have been carefully maintained and preserved. We found a community there–various dwellings, a small hotel or two, and some other businesses–and though the island is hailed as Dakar’s most popular tourist attraction, we also found no tourist touts. The void created by their absence was filled with a devout, delicious hush, as though the island were a monastery whose inhabitants had all taken vows of silence.
The streets of Goree
Entrance to the old slave house
A view of the harbor
Carie and I, unmolested, wandered the cobblestone streets, toured the great fort at the island’s southern end, inspected a church, a mosque, and the infamous Maison des Eclaves, with its cells, chains, and implements of servitude. Circling north again, we finally heard a great noise coming from the harbor. Children were laughing and playing on a small beach, splashing each other and jumping off a wall into the water.
There was a restaurant on a terrace nearby, and we took a table there. We sat for what seemed an eternity–watching the children, sipping tea, eating pastry–and for the first time since I had arrived in West Africa, I felt peaceful and content.