SOURCING PARTS IN GAMBIA: From the Fixing Your Boat in Exotic Places Department


Jan. 30/2020: Anyone who has ever tried to fix anything on a boat knows full well that the hardest part normally isn’t the actual fixing itself, but the gathering of the tools and parts and other bits and pieces required to perpetrate the fixing. Metaphorically, it’s something on the order of wanting the nail to shoe the horse for lack of which the king lost his kingdom. Logistically, of course, it’s nothing but a huge pain in the ass.

Here in the Land of West Marine, where boat bits can be had so much more easily than anywhere else, it is at least a pain that can be eased a bit by the balms of convenience and social ritual. Having to spend half a day roaming chandleries chatting up people as obsessed about boats as you are just so you can complete a 10-minute job on board on your own boat is, in the end, a calculus most sailors can live with. The further you are, however, from any reasonable source of supply, and from congenial boat-minded accomplices, the more onerous and less convenient the equation becomes.

The least convenient equation I ever survived was while anchored in a creek outside the city of Banjul, in the Gambia, on the coast of West Africa, back in the mid 1990s. It caught me in its grip quite suddenly one afternoon as I was inspecting the standing rig on my trusty 35-foot yawl (see photo up top) some weeks prior to my planned departure for the West Indies. What I found was a collection of cracked swage fittings on the lower ends of the mainmast’s three lower shrouds and one cap shroud. What I felt in my heart was a dark premonition of a long survival drift across an entire ocean in a hull with no mainmast.

The opening riddle was quite easy to solve. Rather than wait for things to break, it obviously would be better to replace all the shrouds, lowers and uppers, with new ones. Galvanized wire and bulldog clamps would do, if that was all that was available, but stainless wire with proper terminals would be much better. With this in mind, I recalled the fact, first noted on my arrival in the Gambia two months earlier, that there was a very modern-looking DHL Express Delivery office nestled in the heart of downtown Banjul.

The teeming metropolis of Banjul

First thing the following morning I set off for this office. This involved first going ashore in my dinghy to a beach on the creek bank, then hiking up a dirt trail to the road, where I in turn flagged down a bush taxi to take me the 12 miles or so into town. By the time I got there it was time for lunch, at least by Gambian standards, and the office had a sign out front saying it was closed for several hours, so I went to lunch myself and returned several hours later. When finally we spoke late that afternoon, the DHL office manager assured me that he would be happy to receive any size package for me from the United States and could handle all customs clearances.

From there I instantly repaired to the headquarters of the national phone company, only a few blocks away, outside of which stood the only working payphone in all of Banjul. (Remember kids, this was BEFORE cellphones and stuff.) After waiting in line for some time, I was at last able to use this phone to call my favorite all-purpose chandler back in the United States. To dial him up, I used what in Euro-based phone systems was then called a “free number” to get to an AT&T operator in the U.S. who could accept my calling-card number as payment and place the call for me.

I spoke with my chandler, who was surprised to hear from me, for several minutes. He agreed to source new shrouds from a rigger and ship them to the DHL office in Banjul, and we discussed at some length the precise dimensions needed to place such an order. Meanwhile, however, those waiting in line behind me were getting restless.

“Hey, tubab!” shouted one impatient young man. “How can you be talking on this phone for so long without putting any money into it?”

I explained, hand cupped over the receiver, that I was using a free number. The gathering crowd marveled at the very thought of it. A free number! Several other impatient men demanded to know how they, too, could get such numbers.

A few demanded to know who this tubab (which is what they call white folk in West Africa) thought he was, taking up so much time on the damn phone when the whole damn city was waiting to use it. Soon I had an incipient riot on my hands and was forced to conclude my call as quickly as possible.

Much of the next day was spent gathering dimensions. To make sure I got everything right, I took my shrouds ashore one by one and carefully laid them out flat on the beach to measure them. The day after that I again traveled into the city and again stirred up the crowd outside the phone office by calling my chandler to share with him the fruits of my research. The following day, I again made a pilgrimage to the phone, inspired another near-riot, and confirmed my order, which my chandler told me would take a week for the rigger to fulfill.

The man at the DHL office had assured me that an air-express delivery from the States could be completed in two days. Calculating that this two days might easily metastasize into many days, given the vagaries of West African infrastructure and bureaucracy, I realized there was a good chance my Gambian visa and cruising permit would expire before I sailed away with my new rig. To cure this problem, I made two more trips into the city on two separate days to hunt down the government officials empowered to extend my visa and permit. This required having tea with each of them, a process that in Gambia normally takes one or two hours, and giving them dash, or bribes.

DHL in Africa–the idealized version

A week after my last call to the States, I once again risked life and limb at the payphone, confirmed that my new shrouds were now en route to Gambia, and received from my chandler the tracking number for the package. Two days later I traveled again into the city and presented this number to the man at the DHL office, but he informed me my package, as I had anticipated, had not yet arrived.

By now I was livid with anticipation. Like a child dreaming of Christmas morning, I visited the DHL office each of the three succeeding days. The first day I was told the package still had not arrived. The next day I was told it had arrived, but was lost in the maw of the customs office at the airport. And on the third day–oh, joy!–an assistant DHL office manager, with an arch smile on his face, held the package aloft before my wondering eyes and told me it would be mine as soon as I gave him 500 dalasi (the equivalent of about $50 U.S.) with which to dash the customs officers at the airport.

By Gambian standards, this was an enormous sum. In my own mind, however, it was a small price to pay to at last consummate my ordeal, so I retired at once to the public marketplace, where the money-changers plied their trade. To change $50, it was necessary to form a syndicate, as no one man could possibly handle such a large transaction. In fact, I found, it required three men, and it took some time to gather them together and conclude negotiations. It also took time to count the money, as the largest banknote in Gambia was a 10 dalasi note, and most of what my syndicate had available was in ones and fives. Almost two hours later then, I at last returned to the DHL office with a brown paper bag filled with cash.

The assistant manager was gone, but the manager was still there and asked what I wanted.

“My package!” I answered, proudly holding up my paper bag. “Here is the money to dash customs.”

“Keep your money,” said the manager with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I will talk to the customs men.” And without the least bit of ceremony he handed me my box of shrouds.

And so I bounded out on to the street–after nearly three weeks and ten separate trips into the city–equipped at last with the parts I needed to fix my boat. I installed the new shrouds that same evening in a couple of hours and would have sailed for the West Indies the very next morning, but for the fact of that paper bag full of cash now burning a hole in my pocket.

The only thing one could possibly do with 500 dalasi was spend it in the Gambia, and that took almost another week.

This parable raises two questions:

First, what would I have done without the DHL office and payphone in Banjul, those tangible links to the outside world?

I would of course have had to improvise. Perhaps I might have found some proper-sized galvanized wire and bulldog clamps so I could re-rig my boat “the Moitessier way.” If not, I would have been left scrounging through the local hardware stores and through my own collection of spare odds and ends onboard trying to conjure up some other creative solution to my problem.

Because liveaboard cruising sailors both fear and crave the prospect of being thrust upon their own resources in this way, they tend to save things. No knowledgeable reader, for example, will wonder for a moment what I did with my old shrouds after I replaced them. I saved them, of course, and stored them away with all the other detritus left over from dozens of other repair and maintenance projects.

The conceit, of course, is that someday some of this junk might actually prove useful. All sailors, in their hearts, imagine themselves drawing on their supply of hoarded bits and pieces to engage in some ingenious rubber-band-and-bubble-gum feat of jury-rigging wherein their vessels are miraculously saved from certain destruction.

Second, why did I so readily agree to pay dash to customs, and also presumably the assistant manager at the DHL office, and the government officials who renewed my visa and permit?

In places like West Africa, where greasing people is the only way to get things done, this is a subject that is often hotly debated among transient cruisers. Some people refuse to pay bribes. They feel it is wrong, and they feel ripped off, and they get all sanctimonious about it. Sometimes they make such an awful fuss that they do succeed in getting what they want without paying the bribe.

My approach is much more laissez-faire. If I’m in a country where all the locals have to pay bribes to get anything done, I figure I may as well pay them too. To me it seems wrong to think that I should be treated any differently.

I do, however, always ask for a receipt. Sometimes the extortionist in question will feel embarrassed and forgo their grease when you do this. Not always… but sometimes.

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3 Responses
  1. Charlie
    Good story. Your trip to Africa still impresses me. Courageous or crazy….hard to say. Maybe both. Certainly an adventure….

    You are spot on about the difficulty of repairing a boat when you are, to use today’s trendy term, “off-grid”. It’s why I am so reluctant to complicate my boat. Keep it as simple as possible.

    Baksheesh in the third world. Not a fan. But, I have learned to swallow my self righteousness and remind myself it is the custom of the land and in many places, many/most “officials” view it as a benefit of an otherwise low paying job. Plus, aggressive pushing back at best raises your blood pressure and at worst results in zero action by the official. Interestingly, many Europeans think we tip way too much in the states, especially to waitstaff, but it’s the custom of the land….

    1. Charles Doane

      Hi John: A pleasure, as always, to see you here. Except for being “off-grid” Gambia is, or was, a fairly easy place to cruise. I recommend you try it sometime. What originally inspired me was an article I read in Cruising World, by an Australian woman named Julia Hazel, who cruised alone up the Gambia and back without an engine. That is closer to crazy than what I did. I generally found little wind on the river.

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