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Harmattan

Something strange was happening to the weather as we closed with
Cape Verde. I came up on deck at midnight to find
the sky dying, like a dorado losing its colors as life
fades from its eyes.Overhead, the iridescent
stars had gone out, the moon was extinguished, even the clouds were
invisible.On the way down from the
Canaries, every night had been crystal clear and the air a delight; but now the
heavens were turgid, the air charged with an oppressive presence.

I
think I’m getting a sore throat,” said Dorothy, “I better get some
rest.”She disappeared down
the companionway and I took over. 
Funny . . . my throat was
raspy too, and my eyes weren’t working right, either — our running lights
cast exaggerated sworls of red and green. We’d had a battery of inoculations
before we left Tenerife — yellow fever,
typhoid, hepatitis — and we were taking anti-malaria pills religiously.

<pWhen
I glanced at the binnacle to check our course, everything suddenly fell into
place.The compass light was very
dim, almost out. . . . I tapped the glass and it shone through my
fingerprints.The glass was covered
in thick dust; we were in a harmattan. I had read in the Admiralty Pilet about this hot, dry wind that swept off the interior,
carrying a pall of dirt thick enough to choke the living and bury the
dead. Africa
was enclosing us like a sepulcher.

A
bit melodramatic perhaps. . . . Still, the word “ harmattan” conjured up an exotic threat, implied
hostile coasts and ancient voyages into the unknown. Six hundred years before Christ the
seamen of Carthage had sailed down these
desolate shores to engage the Africans in “silent trade” for the
gold of Guinea. Two thousand years later, the Portuguese
pushed their caravels over the same seas, fearing the worst, and gratefully
discovering Cape Verde,
behind which lay rivers and wealth. 
Columbus, Hawkins, Drake and many other (in)famous
mariners had sailed past this same desert and breathed the harmattan’s
dust.

Dawn
was dismal, bereft of sunshine.It
didn’t first grow brighter in the east; instead the whole bowl of the sky
absorbed and spread a drab, coarse light, gloomy as an eclipse–dirty daybreak
in the bowels of a harmattan. We could actually see clouds of blowing
dirt— fine reddish silt that 20 knots of wind whirled and billowed like
hard-pressed smoke from a prairie fire. 
It was incongruous to be thirty miles offshore on the untrammeled brine,
yet feel like we were bound in traffic behind a column of trucks on a dry dirt
road.Out here we couldn’t
hang a right or hold our breath ‘til it passed. . . . This was
omnipresent and inescapable.

I’d
never seen the boat so filthy, not even after seven months wintering beneath a
busy bridge in Seville. Dirt lay thick on the decks. The masts and cabin sides looked like
the rear window of a car after fifty miles of bad road, waiting for some wag to
write “wash me” with his finger. The halyards were grimed deep into the
fiber of the rope, the portholes were obscured, but the sails were worst. From weathered white, they’d
turned tan bark overnight, so streaked with mud where spray had landed they
looked like they’d been dragged through a buffalo wallow.

Down
below, the dust had settled over the interior like a plague of locusts. . . . books, cameras, dishes, cabinets, clothes . . .when someone
sat down it smeared into the upholstery. 
We could feel it in the folds of our neck, clogging our nostrils,
stopping up our pores, drying our eyes. 
And our lungs— I wondered what combinations of desiccated camel dung
and dormant fungal spores waiting for rain lay baking on the surface of the Mauritanian
badlands.A skim of dust floated on
my coffee but I gulped it down anyway. 
Half an acre of the Sahel’s
precious topsoil fertilizing my decks . . . while farmers starved, whose land
it had been . . . life’s a bitch. 

Around
9:30 when the sun should have been high in the sky, it occurred to me that,
with no visible sun, there could be no sun sights. So how were we to make our
landfall?Up ‘til now, I had
given it little thought.It was
only a 16-hour run from Cape Verde
to the mouth of the Gambia River. I’d assumed we’d close with
the coast late in the morning and run it down, relying on DR and visual
confirmation.The thick haze now
made that plan dangerous.

According
to the Pilot, this coast was none too easy to read in the best of weather,
consisting of a long low line of undifferentiated mangroves occasionally broken
by nondescript hills.As much as
five miles offshore lay a string of shallow banks so steep-to that soundings
would give no warning of their approach. 
One minute a vessel would be in four fathoms, the next
hard aground.The Pilot also
warned of tidal streams up to two knots setting on and off shore in the
vicinity of the river mouths that clustered around the
Gambia’s
entrance.With no tide tables we
were obliged by prudence to set a course that allowed for the full on-shore
set—and that introduced a wide area of uncertainty into our DR.

We
needed an accurate fix from which to set a course for the buoy that marked the
entrance channel through the shoals into Banjul—
Gambia’s
port and capitol.With a shaky DR,
no sun sight , no Loran—these waters weren’t
covered anyway—and no sat-nav (this was pre-GPS),
we appeared to be stuck, doomed to flounder around ‘til the weather
cleared.That might be a week–and
that meant mutiny. A week of slopping scupper to scupper in the swell? While New Year’s celebrations
ashore unfolded without the input of our youthful crew? I felt sudden companionship with the
astrolabe navigators of the caravels, creeping along an unknown shrouded coast,
while the crew clamored for home.

Finally
by 11 am the sun rose high enough to clear the worst
of the haze and shine weakly through a gauzy patch of blue. For a moment our problems seemed
solved.Out came the trusted old
sextant and my son Raffy and I took turns shooting
the sun and writing down each other’s numbers. We came quickly acropper
of the next obstacle though . . . we could make out the sun alright, the bottom
arc of its lower limb was clear enough, but where exactly was the line of the
horizon?The grey sea stretched
away and melded seamlessly with the grey sky. As the haze coalesced and dispersed with
the gusts of wind there sometimes appeared to be a sort of horizon, briefly,
but at best it was blurred.

“What
about a noon sight?” asked Raff. I was skeptical. Noon sights are the easy way for
beginners to start celestial navigation without all the bother of exact time
and the calculations that go with it. 
Raff had been taking them all the way from Gibraltar.

“I
doubt it,” I replied. 
“We need one sight before noon and another one some time after, to
be able to cross their LOPs for a proper fix. What’s the good of one
line?”

“Well,
better one line than none,” he said.

Actually,
as I thought about it he was probably right. A noon sight isn’t tied to a split
second on a chronometer.Instead,
you follow the sun in the sextant as it climbs to its zenith—noon. When it starts to drop you know
it’s after noon and you stop tracking and just read off the last,
highest, value on the sextant’s arc. 
Subtract that value from 90 degrees (allowing for declination) and you
have your latitude.  Simple and elegant. 
. . and taking the sight over a period of five or ten minutes meant we
stood a much better chance of sorting out the true horizon than we would with
any timed sight at a given instant.

As
I plotted the noon sight on the chart, it struck me that our longitude was
right below us, on the sea floor. 
The coast off Gambia
runs almost due north and south, and the continental shelf falls off quite
evenly.By taking soundings and
locating them at our latitude on the chart we should have a fix, right? Maybe. At any rate it was worth a try.

We
got bottom in ten fathoms—25 miles offshore if our navigation was to be
trusted– and we set a course for the buoy. With four young men aboard it was easy
to get regular soundings from the leadline up
forward, and as we compared the depths with our course over the bottom it
tallied nicely.So
far so good.

The
buoy we were seeking marked a long bank with less than five feet of water over
it— the “Stop-In-Time-Bank”—a name with a message. As we approached the invisible coast,
the wind died away and the sea became glassy with a low swell. We motored
through opaque muddy green water which would never show a warning color change
if the bottom came up suddenly.We
looked for signs of breakers but the swell might not break in a few feet of
water so we looked for it to steepen or curl—any
change in the low undulation.We
kept the lead going at frequent internals now that we were in four fathoms—
the least depth on the chart before the bank. I strained my eyes into the haze. Stories came to mind of boats searching
for a landfall in the rugged Cape
Verde Islands
during harmattan weather and finding themselves
amidst breakers before they ever saw land.

Something
floating in the water attracted the lookout’s attention—just leaves on
a branch that must have been washed out on the ebb tide of the river. Soundings kept coming back four
fathoms.The bank had to be
close…was I seeing breakers off the port bow? . . .definitely
seeing something. . Stop!. . .something white. .
.vague. . .a trawler, emerging from the haze like a ghost coming through a
wall.

We
got close enough to read the name and we called him up to ask which way to the
buoy.Try as we might, we
couldn’t get an answer.He
spoke an impenetrable version of English. 
Frustrated, we looked around and saw bearing down on us a cargo ship
right on our course, heading in towards what could only be
Banjul. 
We fell in behind it and ran the engine at top speed, trying to keep up
with it before it merged back into the haze. Just before it faded and vanished, it
made a turn . . . and we saw the buoy.

From
there on into Banjul
was a piece of cake.Little did we
know that the most hair raising incident of the voyage – of our lives —

awaited our arrival.

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