I should have known better than to trust that fisherman—he didn’t speak English worth a damn. Then again, my Wolof or Mandinko was considerably worse—in fact, nonexistent.
We were 180 miles up the Gambia River and hard aground—thirty miles past where the chart stopped. Its date of issuance was 1911 and it had twice put us aground in sand and mud from which Big Red, our Ford diesel, had easily extricated us. This time we were hard aground on rock and all 120 horses in the engine couldn’t budge it.
The trouble was the river—it was gorgeous, spell binding. It had narrowed a good deal after 100 miles up from the sea, and both banks were near enough for us to watch troops of monkeys frolicking in the huge trees that lined the banks. Azure-backed kingfishers flashed by like blue flames, river eagles sat in the tree tops and pierced the air with their querulous high-pitched shrieks, there were thick flocks of wild ducks or cormorants blackening the river surface, and once, on a walk ashore, we we’d even flushed out a huge snowy white owl whose wingspan must have been six feet.
In other words, nobody wanted turn around and go home now. I knew it was possible to go up the river past a town called Basse Santa Su so I resolved to ask some of the local fishermen who spent all day in their dugouts stalking fish by the banks what we might expect of the river upstream.
“Do you speak English?” I asked. He nodded warily. I pointed at an obvious shoal in mid-river and asked, very slowly, “Do the banks usually show themselves under water? You know, with ripples or whirl pools or snagged branches?”
The man looked where I was pointing, then regarded me searchingly in the face and said tentatively, “Yes.”
Trying for a more certain reply, I rephrased the question: “So if a boat goes slowly and keeps a sharp lookout for snags or eddies, it’s safe, right?”
“Eddies. . . right.” This time he seemed more confident and nodded as he answered.
Happy to hear it, I continued headlong. “So it’s possible for a boat my size to get to Basse Santa Su without much trouble?”
“Yes!” he said smartly and, when I looked pleased, he beamed, “OK, no problem!”
So it was that I ended up hearing what I wanted to hear, a phenomenon by no means limited to me (is George Bush reading this?) I should have asked him just as enthusiastically if his mother wore a fur-lined jock strap; but, like with a CQR dropped into questionable holding, I didn’t want to exert too much pressure right away. And anyway the boat was really strong so that she could take a few blows without harm. Poking up a river like this was one of the things I had envisioned doing when I built the boat.
So off we went, keeping a careful lookout for snags, eddies and ripples, sending the skiff ahead to sound dubious areas, feeling just like Captain Cook—when a series of bumps brought us to an abrupt stop. There wasn’t a snag, eddy or ripple in sight.
The rising flood tide rippled around the rudder and as we sounded and dove in the opaque water the boat nudged forward a little more. As far as we could tell there was a shelf of bare rock that got shallower ahead.
“We’d better set an anchor to keep the rising tide from sliding us up that shelf, ” I said, and the crew—my two teen-aged sons and a couple of their friends—took a Danforth on a long rode of nylon into the skiff and dumped it 250 ft. astern. Back on Breath we cranked the rode in until it was bar tight.
“Now we’ll wait for the tide to rise enough to float us off,” I declared. But as the tide rose, the nylon stretched, and stretched, …and stretched! Too late I remembered that nylon would stretch 30% of its own length.
Up went the boat, farther onto the rocky shoal until the tide slowed and stopped. Then it started to recede and as it dropped, the boat canted farther and farther over till at low tide the boat was solidly resting on the keel and the curve of her belly. We consulted the government’s tide tables for the river and realized after a little scrutiny that the next day’s high tide was going to be the highest in six months—half a year! It was now or never.
It was hard to sleep with the boat heaved over at such an angle. In our aft cabin double bunk, I was piled on top of Dorothy and she was sleeping more on the hull than the bunk. Walking required two hands to hold on. Up on deck I watched the moon sink below the trees. Some animal was snorting in the undergrowth ashore. I kept on remembering Herodotus’ account of the Persian voyage around Africa where they had to stop every year to grow food. I fell asleep thinking about chain.
Bright and early the next morning we set a 110 lb fisherman and a 90 lb hi-tensile Danforth on chain of varying sizes that I kept in the bilge for just such emergencies. The 75 lb CQR on all half inch chain, my main working anchor, we dragged off the foredeck and set with the others, Then we went to work tightening the rodes, using the main sheet tackle—two hefty three-part blocks and 75 ft of 5/8″ Dacron braid. After a lot of effort, the three anchor rodes were so tight that one could walk on them like a tight-rope walker.
Next we spliced an extension onto the topsail halyard and ran it out athwartships from its block at the top of the mast and tied it to an anchor that we had already set abreast the boat so that by pulling on the topsail halyard we could heel the boat over quite easily thereby reducing the draft.
At fifteen minutes before highest tide of the year, we took our stations at the windlass and at the engine controls. At slack tide high, I started the engine, warming it up while the windlass started to take in the topsail halyard, slowly tilting the boat over ‘til the rub rail was just touching the river.
“That’s enough on the windlass. It’s Big Red’s turn . . .let ‘er rip!” My son put it in gear and revved up the engine, higher and higher…there was a quivering, then a shuddering and suddenly the boat jolted and shot off backwards like a catapult.
Needless to say, we hired a guide for the rest of the way to Basse Santa Su.