OUT OF AFRICA: Harmattan Days in the Cape Verde Islands

Carie in cockpit

[Editor’s Note: After spending most of the winter of 1997 in Senegal and Gambia on Crazy Horse–see earlier posts on this here–I sailed out to explore the Cape Verdes before sailing to the West Indies. An earlier version of this account was published in Cruising World.]

AS WE LEFT the city of Banjul behind us, we could see that the swollen mouth of the Gambia River, a vast grey fairway, was studded with fishing pirogues. Most of the fishermen were tending charcoal fires in their bilges and thus were easily distinguished from a distance, lurking under dark smudges in the sky. They waved their arms as we approached, shouting in Wolof, to warn us away from their unmarked nets.

Either we’d strayed on to the flats, where one might reasonably expect to find men fishing in small canoes, or a buoy was missing. And yes, I remembered. The previous week while walking the beach at Fajara, Carie and I had found a huge red nun lying like a bloated whale upon the sand. And I thought then: pity the sailor who needs this buoy to find his way. And I was thinking now after studying the chart: it must have gone right there, off our port bow, and these men must be insane, fishing like this with their nets splayed out all across the shipping channel.

Later that afternoon, after we finally we broke break free of the onshore sea breeze, free from the drift nets and from the continent of Africa, we found the tradewinds had far too much north in them–a discouraging development.

What should have been a nice boisterous reach out to the Cape Verdes now became a grueling test of endurance as Crazy Horse, my Alberg 35 yawl, slammed closehauled into a stiff 20-plus-knot breeze. In the evening, once we were west of the lee of Cap Vert, the westernmost tip of Africa just 90 miles to the north, it only got worse. Then there came great armies of angry white-caps, row upon row of them, marching all the way down from Europe to smash us in the face.

They say gentlemen never beat to weather, and I could only thank God that I was no gentleman. Otherwise, I realized, I would never get anywhere.

After four days of this we were reduced to a sub-human state. All part of the transition, the inexorable segue of an ocean passage. The mainsail tore, the roller-furling parted, but still, as though possessed, the boat plunged onward. At one point a just-cooked meal, still in its pot, jumped right off the stove. Rather than clean it up, we just followed it down with our spoons. It was much easier eating off the floor. Indeed, everything was easier on the floor. When we had to move, we crawled on our hands and knees; otherwise we lay patiently and waited for the pounding to stop.

On the morning of the fifth day we emerged from the cabin like newborns and opened our eyes to the world our suffering had created. The harbor of Palmeira, on the island of Sal, in the northeastern corner of the Cape Verdean archipelago. After several months in the breathless heat and grey-brown soup of the Gambia it was an intense revelation. The brilliant blue water was filled with light, and the land was clean and barren, carved into shape it seemed by the sharp edge of the relentless wind.


Fishermen at work in the anchorage at Palmeira the morning of our arrival

CV map

The island was aptly named. “Sal” means “salt” in Portuguese, and ever since men first settled here more than 500 years ago they have labored to extract this condiment from the land. Certainly it looked like a place where salt came from. There were no trees, no plants even, and the lunar geography was surreal. In the distance we could see ridges, conical volcanic hills, and undulating plains strewn with rubble.

Sal in those days had a reputation as a place where one needn’t bother with the formalities of customs and immigration, so bluewater cruisers tended to congregate there. When we went ashore, however, Carie and I soon met a nervous German sailor, Matthias, his eyes all askew behind Coke-bottle glasses, who told us things were different now. He claimed he’d just been released after being held by the police for two days on suspicion of murder. Now, understandably, he was anxious to leave. But his Nigerian girlfriend, standing mute behind him with a vague scowl on her face, had lost her passport, and they weren’t sure where to go.

“Is it good in Gambia?” he asked. “The passport will not be a problem there?”

“No, the passport will not be a problem, “ I answered. “Just give the immigration man some money and you’ll be fine. There are many Nigerians in Gambia.”

The girlfriend smiled, and Matthias announced they would leave within the hour.

“I have told them we will go to the West Indies, so I think is it good if we go in the other direction.”

“Who was murdered?” I asked.

“There is no one murdered.” Matthias laughed and rolled his disconcerted eyes. ‘They are nervous about the yachts. Two men have escaped from the prison, and the police are searching all the boats in the harbor. You must be careful!”

Indeed. That very day we were boarded by heavy-footed police in search of escaped convicts. And I started to wonder what would happen when the convicts themselves came to board us. Also, when we visited the harbor office the port captain insisted that we surrender all our boat papers and refused to give us a receipt for them. After half an hour of arguing he finally relented and scrawled out a receipt, but by then I was in a foul mood and felt very paranoid as we next marched two miles inland to clear immigration at the airport.

We spent only a few days at Sal, repairing the mainsail and visiting with other boats in the harbor. One of these was a large plywood Wharram catamaran, Wanderer, sailed by a larger-than-life Portuguese fellow, Tomas, and his genial African wife, from Ghana, who was named Teresa.

I had a short conversation with her I will never forget.

“Teresa, how old are you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she laughed. “You have to ask my mother!”

Tomas himself was pretty unforgettable, as he spoke often of his other wife, a mysteriously absent Portuguese woman, who he insisted often lived on the boat with him and Teresa. The boat itself, meanwhile, took the concept of Keep It Simple Stupid to a laudable extreme. It had no engine, no electrical system, and no plumbing. There was a bucket for a toilet and a vast collection of three-gallon jerry jugs for storing and dispensing all of the fresh water onboard.

Soon Carie and I decided to move on to the island of Boa Vista, just 30 miles to the south. Other cruisers we met assured us this wasn’t wise, but we found we actually liked the place. Though it was, admittedly, a perverse affinity.

Rolling boat

Crazy Horse on a roll, anchored off Sal Rei

The anchorage at Sal Rei, the main port, was flat-out horrible–open and unprotected beyond a shallow reef nearly a mile from shore, with a mean cross-swell that rolled the boat from scupper to scupper. The landscape, amazingly, was even more bleak and desolate than that of Sal, and the town was an ugly Wild West mélange of unpainted cinderbock hovels trapped in various states of abandoned construction. Still, we were the only yacht in transit, the port captain welcomed us with open arms, the criminals were all in jail where they belonged, and there was at least one good restaurant to eat at. Strangely, too, we found the weird alien landscape was beginning to grow on us.

We spent a day lounging in the cockpit, rolling madly back and forth, dozing over novels while watching the monthly supply boat unload. This was high drama and afforded great insight into the local economy. The little ship, not more than 80 feet in length, had to anchor out another half-mile past where we were anchored, and every piece and parcel of anything that came to the island, which in fact was most everything on the island, had to be carried from the ship to the island in an endless procession of tiny skiffs.

Enormous inverted pyramids of motorcycles, furniture, appliances, and other accoutrements of modern civilization went teetering past us, seeming at every moment about to topple over in the steep swell. In return the supply boat received from shore equally enormous pyramids of empty soda-pop bottles. Each time they passed us on their three-mile round trip, the crews of the skiffs shouted and waved triumphantly, as though celebrating their half of the bargain.

Sal Rei

The Sal Rei waterfront, looking south

The next day the harmattan arrived. Having cruised for some time on the West African coast without meeting one of these legendary winds, said to blow dust from the Sahara as far west as the Antilles, we’d come to think the harmattan was a myth. Whatever its ultimate range it certainly has no problem reaching the Cape Verdes. Now there was dust in the air, so thick visibility was reduced to less than a mile. There was dust in our hair, dust on our clothes, dust on every surface on the boat that faced to windward, more dust than I ever dreamed of.

We were so pleased to have the myth of the harmattan confirmed we deemed it a fine day for hike. Traipsing along the line of pure-white sand dunes that stretched south from the town along the shore, we were swaddled in a cotton-gauze cocoon of flying dirt. When the squalls came through visibility was reduced to less than 50 yards, our shadows disappeared, and it felt as though we were breathing cement. Finally we arrived somewhere and saw the unlikely sand-swept ruin of an old factory emerge before us in the ungodly haze.

I was so surprised to find we were still on planet Earth that I dropped to my knees, á la Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, pounded the sand with my fists, and screamed at the sky above: “You fools! You bloody fools!”


Ruins of civilization, buried in the sand


Dust everywhere

The novelty of all this soon wore thin. A steady diet of dust, after all, is nothing if not inconvenient. To handle any lines or gear on deck we had first to sweep them clean with a brush, and each day we also had to sweep every horizontal surface inside the boat lest we be overwhelmed by the accumulation. Even the snorkeling was ruined. There was a reef to dive on, and a fantastic wreck to explore, but by now there was so much dust in the water the visibility was barely 10 feet or so–not nearly enough to make it fun, or to get proper warning of an approaching shark.

After more than a week at Boa Vista, we decided to sail on to Tarrafal, at the north end of the island of São Tiago 70 miles to the southwest, in hopes of finding cleaner air and water. We’d heard that São Tiago was lush and green, which proved an overstatement. Still, we were relieved at last to find a place with at least some vegetation. Tarrafal had a compact harbor backed by steep hills that kept out the worst of the harmattan, and on shore there was a thin grove of trees stretched out behind the beach. Further inland we could see prickly thickets of desert flowers protruding from the folds of sun-blasted earth.


The harbor at Tarrafal, as seen from the beach, with no harmattan


Same harbor, with harmattan

During the war of independence, from 1963-74, when the people of the Cape Verdes and Guinea-Bissau fought against the colonial Portuguese, Tarrafal had been the site of a notorious prison camp. Ironically, the remains of that camp, a sprawl of tidy bungalows still wrapped tight in a barbed wire fence, connected to the town by a narrow concrete causeway, had been made over into a fetal tourist resort. Carie and I loitered in a café by the beach until finally we met a friendly Dutch-German tourist couple who invited us to their bungalow for our first hot showers in more than four months. Afterwards we sat on their terrace, reveling in our cleanliness, and drank wine while fending off a troop of monkeys that descended from the trees to pilfer our crackers and cheese.

In the following days the harmattan relented, so again we pulled on our hiking shoes and rowed ashore to embark on an expedition. Because this was a popular stop for cruisers, and because of the tourism, I suppose, which so easily sets minds to concocting ways to exploit one’s guests, there was an organized cadre of boat boys patrolling the beach.

Gardez le bateau! Gardez le bateau!” they shouted as they ran up to us. The assumption being that any white person here on a boat must be French.

The poor boys were stupefied when Carie, who was Dutch, and therefore absolutely unwilling to surrender one dime to these extortionists, snapped back in Portuguese, with a little local Crioulo thrown in, and lectured them sharply on their manners.

And though the boat boys were forced to retreat in disarray, the dogs were much more persistent. There was a large gregarious pack, composed mostly of puppies that looked surprisingly clean and well fed, that swarmed up and down the beach like locusts. Now they surrounded us, begging more for attention than food. We selected a grinning brindle bitch as our companion du jour, christened her Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and followed her lead up the steep hillside that loomed over the north side of the harbor.

Priscilla, it turned out, was a stone-cold killer. The goats grazing on the hillside knew her well and fled from boulder to boulder like pinballs as we approached. One kid, however, was a split-second too slow, and Priscilla brought it down in a cloud of dust. Still grinning as her bleating prey hung bleeding from her mouth, Priscilla brought us the prize. We praised her effusively, released the goat, and promptly renamed her Priscilla the Hun. Hours later, we re-entered the town from the south, having hiked with Priscilla in a broad circle around it, we stumbled into a lively carnival celebration and she quickly disappeared into the crowd.


The author congratulates Priscilla on her hunting prowess

Carnival crowd

The carnival crowd in mid-celebration

By the time we left Tarrafal to sail down the coast to Praia at the island’s southern end, the harmattan had returned, stronger than before. The high ragged wall of the coast, though only a mile or less off our beam, was a ghostly yellow blur. The sun overhead was but a pale disk, easily scrutinized by the naked eye, and the water was dull and leaden with dust. There was a strange sensation of suppressed light all around us, and it seemed as if the whole of reality had been diffused and rendered less substantial.

Praia is both the largest community in the archipelago and the capital of the Republic of Cape Verde. The battlements of the old city sit on a high bluff overlooking the harbor, which was littered with a fine collection of wrecks when we arrived. Their silhouettes stood in relief against the grainy haze of the dust. There were also a number of cruising boats–the ubiquitous French, a South African couple on a shiny catamaran, a pair of Italian men on a large steel schooner–and all these sailors were unanimous in their advice to us. If you leave your dinghy on shore, they told us, it will be stolen; if you leave your boat unattended it will be looted; if you walk the streets at night, you will find trouble.


The harbor at Praia

Not even Dakar, in Senegal, was this bad. But at least all the thievery wasn’t directed solely at yachts. The local fishermen had to be careful as well and hired watchmen to stay aboard their boats at night. One evening I ferried two of them in our dinghy out to their boats from the town quay. I found they liked to boast of their vigilance. One of them pointed at what was obviously the most recent wreck, a half-sunken trawler that lay canted to starboard, and noted with great contempt that the watchman on this boat had done his job poorly.

“What happened?” I asked. “How did she sink?”

The man shrugged and answered: “Too much water.”

We soon grew weary of this hostile environment and of the unrelenting dirt in the air. Whatever attractions of civilization Praia had to offer paled in comparison, and after only a few days we yearned to be at sea again. We focused on preparing the boat, and when our new crew, my old friend Michael, flew in to join us for the long passage to the Caribbean, we put to him to work as well. We brought provisions aboard, attended to repairs, and ferried fuel and water to the boat in jerry cans. The energy of a crew girding itself for a long voyage always seems positive, and we flattered ourselves into thinking this was why the harmattan at last subsided the evening before our departure.


Carie and Michael on the foredeck as we start sailing west

Next morning the air was sharp and clear, the wind was fresh, and the sky was filled with cumulus clouds. There were dolphins on our bow, the land was behind us, and all of the wide, wide Atlantic lay before us in the light.


The Cape Verdes in a Nutshell: Of Slaves, Sugar, and Drought

Originally uninhabited, the Cape Verde islands were discovered in the mid-15th century by the Portuguese as they explored the western coast of Africa searching for a route to India. The Portuguese quickly populated the islands with slaves brought from the continent and put them to work on sugar plantations. This agriculture quickly degraded the soil, most of which eroded away, and by the 18th century the islands had become the barren wasteland they are today. Over the years there have been many long droughts and several famines.

Though their agricultural heyday was short-lived, the Cape Verdes were always a key possession for the Portuguese. For many years their hegemony over the West African slave trade was administered from here. The islands were themselves a major slave market, and many European traders came here rather than to the coast to buy chattel labor to export to the sugar plantations of the Americas. In those days the Cape Verdes were quite prosperous, and the English, Dutch, and French each made efforts to raid the islands.

After the slave trade expired in the 19th century, the economic importance of the islands was limited to the refueling and servicing of ships and aircraft traveling between the North and South Atlantic. Many Cape Verdeans became involved in the whaling industry, and immigrants living in New England still send home a great deal of money to help support their families in the islands. More recently, the islands have attracted growing numbers of European tourists and efforts have been made to exploit the abundant local fishery.

To cruisers coming from the Canary Islands to the north, the islands may seem pretty bleak. Most boats congregate at Palmeira on Sal, at Mindelo on São Vincente, and at Tarrafal and Praia on São Tiago. Mindelo, like Praia, is a large city by Cape Verdean standards, hence is less secure than less populated areas. Unlike Praia, Mindelo caters more to transient yachts and has a dedicated marina with security guards, as well as more services and amenities.

The climate is dominated by the northeast tradewinds that blow much of the year, though they are weaker in the summer. The intertropical convergence zone occasionally reaches as far north as the southernmost islands (Brava, Fogo, and São Tiago) and these therefore generally enjoy the most rainfall and boast the most foliage. Harmattans usually occur in the late winter (we were there in February) and are less common in the fall, which is when most cruisers stop in en route to the West Indies.

TO READ MORE about my travels on Crazy Horse, check out: RIO GUADIANA CRUISE

Related Posts

3 Responses
  1. Max

    Gteat post which Brough back memories, we sailed to Gambia towards the end of 1997 departing 1st Dec we sailed direct to Barbados, when we checked in there was a moment’s hesitation when I told the officer our port of departure was Banjul, then he smiled and stamped our documents with a smile, it was Christmas Eve.

Leave a Reply



Please enable the javascript to submit this form

Facebook Pagelike Widget


Google Ads