RYA: Navigating in Africa

We find company on the riverbank.

11th December 2021

Cercle de Voile, Anse De Hann, Dakar, Senegal – Lamin Lodge, Gambia via Half Die, Banjul, Gambia

The RYA provides a great training portfolio. They’ve educated us on what different lights mean, the different navigation marks we’ll encounter and everything to keep us and the boat safe. Unfortunately, it seems that they have missed out a special section called ‘Navigation in Africa’.

Sailing south from Dakar we were in for a shock lesson in ‘Navigation in Africa’. Big fishing boats, instead of showing lights ‘ran dark’, instead of appearing as AIS targets they’re invisible and instead of answering the radio they remained silent. The rules for little boats were even more bizarre. Sweeping the sea with our searchlight; as it found a tiny boat it was answered with a weak flicker and if they were really close, we were given a show of blue, yellow, and white flashes. Things then took a surreal turn when red, green and blue laser lights swept from horizon to horizon like an aquatic light sabre. If only we had that missing RYA chapter.

The lightening sky heralded the coming of dawn and we drew breath that we’d run the gauntlet of fishing boats, now we just had to make it through the shifting sands into The River Gambia. Where we expected to find marks designating the channel we found none and where we expected our chartplotter to show us on the sea we were resolutely on land. Reverting to old school eyeball navigation we found this was applicable to the ‘Navigation in Africa’ chapter and with the anchor down we congratulated ourselves on safely entering our second African country.

Checking into Gambia was like no check in we’d experienced before. Everywhere we looked we were greeted by smiling faces and people welcoming us to their land, but this didn’t help us discover the near invisible offices that we needed to find. Thankfully we had the expert eye of our check-in agent, MuhammedA, enabling us to complete a process that would have been impossible to the uninitiated.

Donning high viz jackets we found the health offices and through a rusty metal door down a non-signposted dead end, while Customs nestled in among a labyrinth of containers, and immigration sat behind a firmly locked gate which only Muhammed seemed to know how to get through. Finally, with a stamps in our passports we were legal, but Ruffian was not.

Getting Ruffian legal meant retracing our steps through all the offices where we were greeted like long lost friends and with yet more pieces of paper, we made our way to the river authority who were even more invisible than the other offices. We watched as Ruffian and Cerulean were added to the port book on the same page as the British warship HMS Trent, and across the table slid a gold encrusted river permit, giving us access to the unexplored hinterland.

Even though we had a permit allowing us up river there was still a physical barrier that might stop us. The Chinese had helpfully built a bridge which had a charted height of 18 meters, but no one knew from what datum the measurement was taken*.  Ruffian has a mast height of 17.5 meters, so we knew we could squeeze under, but Cerulean has a mast height of 19 meters plus 30 cm for her aerials, this meant that we had to have more clarity to proceed.  We formed a plan to simply ‘borrow’ a car at a yachting refuge called Lamin Lodge, brave the roads and go measure it ourselves.

As we motored through the mangroves to Lamin we were given a glimpse of what we’d find above the bridge. Life was everywhere as fish jumped out of our path and birds which flew overhead were reflected in the perfectly still water. The stillness was interrupted by the occasional foreboding splash and images of crocodiles, otters and monkeys flashed through our minds.

Executing the plan, with Serco our driver, we zipped along the main road through checkpoint after checkpoint where armed guards disarmed themselves with broad smiles and positive vibes and we finally found ourselves at the top of the bridge. We measured the water level, calculated the height of tide and then launched the drone to measure the depth of the bridgeB. We rejoiced as the numbers told us Cerulean would just fit and were puzzled as to where bridges are measured from in Africa.

Back in Lamin we were now getting a totally different vibe from the Africa to that we’d found in Dakar. Birds of all shapes and sizes swooped around us, while monkeys swung through the trees looking for any opportunity for mischief and most menacing of all were those creatures that sat silently, still and steadfastly on the mud at low water and floated at high ready to catch the unwary. We’d spotted our first Crocodile, complete with sharp protruding teeth, powerful jaws and a look of distain in his eyes.

As we prepare to head up river we’ll be collating the chapter of African Navigation for the RYA and if what we’ve seen so far is anything to go by no swimming will feature pretty prominently and it’ll be an education in every sense of the word.

*Another one for the RYA Africa cruising chapter as bridges are usually measured from HAT. This bridge was neither HAT, MHWS or Mean water. It’s just measured from an arbitrary point on the mud somewhere.

Sailor’s notes:

A –  Muhammend Ketia provides a check-in service for yachts, we highly recommend him, he can be contacted via WhatsApp on +220 753 4064 or by email on keitamuhammed21 at gmail dot com.

B –  Bridge height:  Cerulean, with her 19m mast (aerials removed) passed under the bridge apex at low water with approximately 80cm clearance.  We used the tide table purchased from the port authority, they differ from the tide tables on Navionics, and found the port authority tide tables to be accurate.  The day we transited LW was 0.9m, the range 0.7m and a tidal coefficient of 52.  More information can be found on Cerulean’s blog www.handsondeck.co.nz

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

2 thoughts on “RYA: Navigating in Africa

  1. If your going to do the dab – you need to learn the floss 😂😂😂
    Looks amazing – where will you be on Christmas Day ? Stay safe love and hugs 🤗

  2. Happy Christmas from Upper Clatford!
    Bloody cold here…..please don’t tell me your daytime temperature!
    Peter + Lesley

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