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Wrecked on the African coast

Aug 22, 2016 Reader Stories

When a Northland sailor was reunited with letters she’d written to her father some 40 years ago, it rekindled the horror of losing her yacht – and nearly her life – on the African coast.

I recently received a phone call from my father who, going through his filing cabinets had found a folder containing some old letters I’d written to him. Did I want them? They were duly delivered and re-reading them brought back painful memories of the loss of Vogelfrei – our 28ft gaff-rigged, taff-railed, Friendship sloop – on a desolate Senegal coast in October 1974.

We’d set out from the Canary Islands, sailing south to Dakar. Perfect trade wind weather. Brisk winds, blue skies, sparkling seas. And fresh flying fish gathered off the deck for breakfast. All was going so well. Vogelfrei – ‘free as a bird’ – was living up to her name, cruising at a steady five to six knots.

The Pilot Book – which gives sailors vital information for the West African coast – lay unopened on the cabin table. Did we feel we were such experienced sailors we didn’t need it? I don’t know. But we believed we knew exactly where we were. Had we read the Pilot we’d have known about the easterly current sweeping us towards the African coast.

Navigation instruments, like everything on Vogelfrei, were primitive. We had no engine, no liferaft, no VHF, no GPS, no depth sounder and no form of communication with the outside world. All we had was a household transistor radio, a clock/ barometer, a sextant, charts, a compass and the unread Pilot Book. And we thought nothing of it.

It was 1:15am. I was on watch. Hermann (my partner) and my sister were below, asleep. I was enjoying the beautiful starry night. But feeling hungry I went below to get something to eat.

On the eastern horizon I’d noticed a loom of light – just the moon reflecting on the sea, I told myself. All was so peaceful and perfect it wouldn’t hurt to go down below for a while. We were far from land and she was self-steering beautifully.

Down in the saloon I made a quick sandwich; but I was so sleepy…

1:35am. Suddenly, I’m thrown hard against the cabin table. There’s a terrible sound outside and chaos on deck. Vogelfrei is hurled onto her port side. I leap out into the cockpit and all around me ropes and sails are thrashing about; the other two are wide awake and shouting orders.

“WE’VE HIT A SANDBAR!”

Waves are crashing over us. They sweep us up and over what must be some kind of sandbar far off the coast. It is so dark. We can see nothing. There’s a mad rush for the anchors. In the chaos we join lines together, with the hope of rowing one of the anchors out as far as possible to try and haul Vogelfrei back into deep water. But it is hopeless. The dinghy’s repeatedly swamped and flipped upside down in the breakers.

I watch in horror as Hermann and my sister disappear beneath the waves. And each time they reappear, dragging the heavy dinghy back to the beach to empty her out and swim back with her to the boat, and then, exhaustedly, haul up the anchor again, dump it into the dinghy once more, in yet another vain attempt to row it out. Time and time again they tried, but always failed. This went on till daylight.

In the grey dawn sand dunes began to appear and we realised we were on the coast, not some uncharted sandbar or island. Far along the beach I could make out what looked like the top of a small thatched roof. I went dripping along the beach for help.

Outside the hut I found an old man, sitting cross-legged on a mat, saying his prayers with a string of beads. Although we couldn’t communicate he seemed understand everything I said. He immediately got up and came back with me. But what could he do? As he watched our desperate attempts to save our little sloop he pointed inland – we should go there for help. He went back down the beach shaking his head.

Early morning, and the sun was already hot. We were exhausted, but driven to try anything we could. Hermann put on his diving gear, determined to ‘walk’ the anchor far out to sea. But it all went wrong – he hadn’t allowed for the vicious undertow. The three of us sat huddled together, gazing at our beautiful Vogelfrei stranded like a disorientated whale.

As there was nothing we could do to try to save her, we decided to take everything off her to save as much as possible. It would also make her lighter for when we eventually pulled her back into the sea. We still had great hopes of saving her. And then the natives began to arrive.

They offered their help, carrying our things up the beach to safety. They helped themselves to quite a lot, too. I noticed how deftly they hid things under their beautiful, voluminous garments, and so innocently, before they disappeared from sight. Among them my beautiful wooden hand mirror, intricately carved and painted with my name on it. Hermann made it for my 21st birthday only a few months earlier.

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Using the dinghy’s oars and Vogelfrei’s spare spars we rigged an awning to shelter our mound of belongings. We laid one of the sails on the sand to sleep on, but didn’t sleep too well. Enormous, sand-coloured ghost crabs crawled all over us. They made a ghastly clicking and clattering noise – so transparent they were almost see-through. Hence their name, I suppose?

Hermann and my sister decided to go to Dakar for help – an estimated 100km further south. They shouldn’t be long in getting help, I reasoned. But I watched them go wondering if I’d ever see them again, and fought off a sense of abandonment.

As soon as they left a large group of local men turned up. They made a complete circle around the awning. And immediately began taking things. When I was looking the other way one would dive in and grab something, and as I turned around to cry out, another would dive in from the other side.

Our belongings were fast disappearing. All my clothes were gone, save what I stood up in – a bedraggled purple jumper I’d had since I was 15, and a flowery mini skirt that had once been a bathroom curtain.

Hermann had loaded the revolver for me before leaving, never dreaming I’d have to use it. But he told me to watch over our things; so I went and found the gun and sat with it in my hand at the entrance, guarding our dwindling pile of possessions.

But they only laughed at my gun. Until I fired a shot. Then they ran off like frightened rabbits. But they soon came back. And for three days they tormented me with their grinning faces and thieving hands.

THE HOLY MAN

I looked up. There was the holy man! He was tall and thin, and wearing a long colourless gown. He had a rolled-up mat under one arm and a shallow, orange-coloured wooden bowl in his other hand. The man bowed gracefully and offered me the bowl. Gratefully I accepted it. It was a thin milk.

The man unrolled his mat, sat down cross-legged on it and began his prayers with a string of amber beads. And all at once it dawned on me: this man had come to guard me! Tears of relief stung in my eyes. I was not alone. For a little while fear left me and I could breathe again.

All night the holy man stayed seated outside the entrance of my ‘tent,’ awake and alert. Inside, I sat awake. Sleep was impossible. The crabs were crawling everywhere. In the middle of the night I suddenly became aware of the holy man beckoning me to come out. I could see he was anxious. He motioned to me to bring my revolver. Outside, he pointed up to the sand dunes behind. I gasped.

Silently zigzagging down the huge dunes towards me were scores of dark figures. The holy man motioned for me to raise my revolver. So I lifted it high and fired. The effect was electrifying. Immediately the men turned and went back up the sand dunes. They didn’t return – not that night.

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The rising sun brought the heat – and the natives returned. Yesterday’s performance began all over again. The thieving got bolder. And then one of biggest men came straight towards me, through the entrance of my shelter. Frightened, my heart pounding, I scrambled to get up. I aimed the gun at him at his stomach, but he just kept on walking, very slowly, nearer and nearer.

All at once he stepped forward and quickly grabbed the revolver out of my hand and pushed me over. I fell against a box, hit my head, and fell onto the sand. He looked at me lying on the ground, and for one heart-stopping moment stood with his arm stretched out, pointing my gun at me.

I couldn’t breathe. In a flash I recollected I’d used only four bullets. There would be two left – he couldn’t miss with two bullets? From a distance of two metres? After a moment that seemed endless, he turned on his heels and left.

Depression set in. What would they do with me once they had taken everything? Would they just leave me here, to die, alone? I didn’t want to die, I was too young. In an agonized voice I raged at God. “God, how could you do this to me?” This was all his fault. Strange that I should chastise God when I didn’t believe in him, and whose very existence I’d denied. I collapsed on the sand and sobbed bitterly. Then I begged and pleaded with him: if I had to perish here, please don’t let it be painful!

The natives, bolder than ever now, were climbing all over poor Vogelfrei, cutting off and taking away her every rope, sheet and line. Maybe they needed them for tethering their animals? They started to smash at her timbers with hefty clubs. They must need the wood for cooking? She was the only driftwood around.

But in my crazy sense of responsibility in my given role as a ‘guard,’ I ran out towards them shouting! They were destroying our home right before my eyes! But they took not the slightest bit of notice of me! And I went back to my shelter, to ‘guard’ that.

RESCUE

Late into the afternoon of my third day of being alone and stranded, I was rescued.

I noticed a tiny dot in the distance – and it was moving closer. A vehicle? Or was I hallucinating? Eventually it drew to a stop beside the battered Vogelfrei and two men got out. I flew down the beach and threw myself into their arms. Americans! In a large four-wheel drive Land Rover. I wasn’t going to die! The holy man’s prayers were answered!

The Americans drove me to the British Embassy in Dakar, where Hermann and my sister waited – but via the police station first! Apparently I was an illegal alien, having landed without permission from Customs and Immigration. They couldn’t understand that we were shipwrecked sailors.

Sometime later we went back with the Americans to retrieve our remaining belongings. But Vogelfrei was all staved in. On her port side a huge gaping hole, and inside she was full of sand. Astonishingly, her whole interior had been completely stripped away, to just bare ribs and frames, by the natives. Even her brass portholes. I tried to imagine brass portholes in straw huts!

We said our tearful goodbyes to Vogelfrei – our trustworthy sloop whom we had betrayed by our bad seamanship. My sister, flew back to Wales to help our father sail his yacht, Cymro, to New Zealand.

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Hermann and I ended building a new boat on the beach behind a posh French yacht club in Dakar, from where French colonials, sipping Martinis from crystal glasses, gazed down upon us thinking we were quite mad! “Ooh, la, la! …C’est formidable!”

And, yes, us crazy ‘hippies’ built a little Howard Chappell ‘Sharpie’ – a 32ft junk-rigged schooner on the beach. Hard-pressed for materials we had to think creatively. We found two telephone poles for the masts. Bamboo from one of the yacht club’s hedges became the sail ‘slats’. Some 30-year-old canvas was sewn into two mainsails.

During it all I got pregnant and had a baby, and when the baby was four months old we set off across the Atlantic. And again with nothing! No engine, no electronic gadgets, no means of communication with the outside world. We should have been locked up.

But we made the crossing. We lost both dagger boards on the way and nearly lost a wildly swaying, un-stayed foremast, while hanging onto a broken, lashed tiller, and while feeding the baby and washing his nappies by trolling them behind in a fishnet.

We made a safe landfall in Cayenne, French Guiana, 17 days after leaving Dakar. And after repairing all the broken things we sailed on through the sky-blue Caribbean Sea, guided by dolphins. We survived five astonishing years and lived to tell the tale – but I know it could all have ended so differently.

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