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In February 2002, a 14 of The Bay's most ardent sailors from OCSC had just spent 10 days on Safari trekking through the wildlife wonders of Kenya. They had trekked with the Massai warriors of the Loita Highlands, roamed the Massai Mara plains, and coursed the banks of the Galana River encountering virtually all the wild animals of West Africa.
What would be the best possible way for this enthusiastic group to enjoy Lamu, their final destination on beautiful topaz waters of the Kenya Coast? What would be the best way for this OCSC Adventure group to catch a glimpse into the culture surrounding the ancient islands of the Lamu Archipelago? With a creative flash of inspiration what better way for our group to achieve all of that, but through a spirited sailing race on the ancient Arab trading dhows. A group of sailors from The Bay engaging with the best sailors of the Lamu Yacht Club would surely provide a memorable experience.
A month before our arrival in Lamu, inquiries were made, and a sailing regatta had been proposed. Our call to fly with the fair winds of the East African Coast was answered by the Dhow Captains of Lamu. Let's Race!!
Our OCSC group landed in the mid-day heat of the Equator at the tiny airport on Manda Island. Although this was tropical equator in all regards— latitude 2 degrees south, longitude 41 degrees east—the energy was anything but languid. There was a palpable buzz in the air as the groups of local boatmen, manning the water taxis at the Airport Jetty, let it be known from their broad smiles and warm Swahili greetings of "Jambo, Jambo" and "Hoti, Hoti" that they were excited to finally set eyes on this fair-skinned, scruffy group of sailors. Appearances to the contrary, the OCSC men and women scrambling onto their rough hewn boats had been heralded by our advance team as being some of the best sailors in America!
Our introduction to the sailing environment of the Lamu Archipelago began with a journey up the Manda Island Channel, skirting along the bleached white stone facade of the ancient buildings of the Lamu waterfront. Our first water taxi ride was in a heavy, flat-keeled wooden launch, complete with ample diesel exhaust from clunking single stroke, and refreshing salt spray whipped by the snap of a 15-knot afternoon ocean breeze. Our visual delights were enhanced by the constant accompaniment of the magical movements of the Dhows across the bay. All of this reminded us that we were in a land much different from our own Bay waters.
The Dhows that crossed the bow of our chugging water taxi were gliding efficiently over the chop of the channel, canvas full of wind and holds full of commerce. The evolution of the Dhow integrates simple adaptations of boat design to maximize the principles of wind and water flow. A single mast angles forward over the bow, the canvas sail is stretched down from a fore spar, a single hemp rope knotted into the clew controls the sail surfaces, and a well-worn tiller engages a massive wooden rudder. The Dhow's most distinctive feature is the hiking board, which is a thick, wooden, 20' long plank which is shifted from side to side and wedged under the lee gunwale and canter-levered over the windward side of the boat. Skilled crew edging out on the board control the precise angle of the leeside of the boat which becomes the keel of these flat bottomed boats as the Dhow points into the stiff tropical trade winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean.
An all wooden boat, these vessels have for centuries been the workhorse of the East African trade in riches: ivory, slaves, grain, fish and general commerce. The Dhow is a seaworthy vessel plying the far-reaching commerce of the Arab traders, a trade that has enriched their multinational cultures and perfected their skills as ancient mariners on a boat design that has changed little in the past thousand years.
Our Lamu Island base of operations was the palatial "Beach House,"actually the private vacation residence of Princess Caroline of Monaco, in the village of Shela. The Beach House is a beautiful estate with a commanding view of the Manda Channel, a channel whose clear coastal waters merged before us with the expansive blue of the Indian Ocean. The first order of regatta business was the convening of the Skipper's Meeting, poolside at the Beach House.
The First Annual Lamu Regatta Skippers Meeting was chaired by our own Commodore, Anthony Sandberg, president of OCSC, and his partner, Iain Allen, President of Tropical Ice Ltd., the premier safari company of Kenya. Arrayed before our experienced leaders were the ten skippers from the Lamu Yacht Club. The skippers dressed in their colorful "kikoi" wraps were selected for this regatta by the local Beach Captain, who was affectionately known as "Dude" or "DU DU." A study in contrasts, these skippers had all the appearances of the most feared band of pirates ever to ply the waters of the Indian Ocean.
The discussions of this skippers meeting touched only briefly on the mundane regatta elements of start procedures, start time, and course layout. With ample animation and physical emphasis, it was very clear that first on the agenda for these LYC skippers were answers to their questions: Who physically had the $400 prize money? How was the money going to be paid out, and when? And wouldn't it be better to distribute the money now?
Recognizing that in this part of the world a $400 sailing purse represented a year's wages for many of these men, it should not have surprised us that beyond the hefty chuck of prize money put up by our regatta Co-Chairmen Anthony and Iain, the chorus from this collection of LYC skippers then turned into a lament of how were they to be compensated for the hours of regatta preparation time. Hours they had put in preparing their own boats, recruiting crew and selecting the 10 best skippers from among the 50 or so skippers who own Dhows in these islands. And, what about the cost of hiring a personal shaman for each boat? Somehow these costs were supposed to be compensated by the well-heeled Regatta organizers.
Regatta preparation compensation—a novel concept and one I resolved to bring up at our next Yacht Club Race Committee Meeting. With the essential regatta elements determined and no possible resolution to their burning issue of compensation, the Skippers Meeting dissolved into a challenge chant, (which was responded to by OCSC's own rendition of "Who let the dogs out"), more shouting and a retreat to the Beach House bar, so that Commodore Anthony could brief the OCSC racing crews.
Holy Friday afternoon was the time selected for the First Annual Lamu Yacht Club Regatta. This was important to the Muslim sailors of Lamu as this gave them time to observe the requirements of their Muslim faith which included the necessity for extended morning prayers. More importantly, their day off allowed the participation of the citizens of the town of Lamu. Hundreds of men and 100% of the children of Lamu filled the Peponi Hotel beachfront, loudly cheering for their favorite boat. The women, covered head to toe in black tent-like "boibois" gathered in seperate groups and filled the air with their high pitched warbling calls with added an eerie and slightly scary air to the atmosphere.
The scene on the white sand Lamu beach was purely electric. Bobbing in the shallow, sheltered waters were the ten colorful Dhows selected to represent the LYC. Each boat was christened with the boat's Swahili name painted he bow and the stern: TASWIRA, ILKHWASA, MANNA, PEPONI, and others. Each boat was proudly adorned with colorful flags; flags of local sponsors, our own OCSC burgees, Bob Marley, Hemp Nation or simply a black skull and crossbones.
The frantic last minute arguments and shoving matches between those captains who were selected to compete for the hefty prize monies and those skippers angered at not being allowed to participate were syncopated to the beating of the steel drums, the cheers of the crowd gathered, and the clinking of the Martini glasses of the European tourists gathered in the Peponi Bar. As far as this charged and broad worldly collection of humanity now gathered on this Lamu beach was concerned, we were about to initiate this First Annual Lamu Yacht Club Regatta to determine the winner of the "Africa Cup."
The OCSC sailors had been assigned in groups of two or three to crew for skippers of the LYC. The LYC skippers chosen to participate were dead serious about this race, or more importantly, about the distribution of the prize money. They were happy to have along American crew, but made it clear from the beginning that the only captains giving orders on these boats would be barking their orders in Swahili. Our chief duties on these Dhows were to perform two of the most demanding and critical tasks, essential for successful Dhow sailing: Bailing and Ballast!
As the energy level on the beach continued to amplify to a feverish pitch, each Dhow skipper directed their personal shaman on board (maybe they should have a sign that says: "warning, sailing shaman on board") to initiate their own rituals of the "Blessing of my boat and the cursing of all others."Ancient rituals were performed which included the burning of incense and chicken heads on a coal pot in the bilge of the boat, the chanting of Muslim prayers, and spanking the sides of the boats with bunches of dried magic weeds dipped into the sea and slapped firmly onto the boat's freeboard to scare off the competitors.
The start to this race was very unique - a silent Monte Carlo start. Without so much as a retort from a starters pistol, a bell or horn, there was a sudden crescendo of hoots and hollers as each of the Dhow skippers cut the anchor line off the stern and yelled for their crew to hoist the sail and head out on the downwind leg.
With impressive quickness and precision, our LYC skippers and crew had their halyards drawn tight, their sails filled with the brisk breeze, and were set on a deep broad reach down to the leeward mark–a distant rusted old channel marker. While the Dhow by definition is the proverbial snowflake, in that every boat has unique sailing characteristics, on this downwind leg the sailing performance impacts of these boat differences were muted. Nearly halfway through this first leg all of the Dhows were tightly bunched. Each LYC Skipper was artfully employing an age-old practice, probably invented in this land of pirates, of stealing the lead boat's wind.
Since the start of the Regatta, it was unsettlingly obvious from the heated discussions in Swahili between the skippers of the LYC that there was one renegade boat amongst the fleet. This was the dhow MANNA, with three young men, very boisterous and bellicose in their taunts of the other skippers. The sailing tactic of this boat was not to win the downwind leg, but to attempt to disrupt the progress of the favorite boat, PEPONI, to the advantage of the other boats in the fleet. This strategy became clear as the MANNA maneuvered herself in front and then to leeward of the PEPONI and proceeded to head her upwind. To initiate the encounter, MANNA's shaman took his incense brazier full of burning coals and threw it aboard the PEPONI. To say the least, tempers flared. In a flash the two boats' hiking boards were locked across the gunnels with the force of the wind holding them fast and driving the two boats off course. The crews of both boats began to fight to both keep their own hiking board and to steal the other's. Without a hiking board a Dhow is crippled and can't sail upwind.
The First Mate of the MANNA pulled out his Swahili Protest Flag–a razor sharp 14" machete! Brandishing the weapon in a threatening manner towards the skipper and the crew of the PEPONI, whose own skipper pulled out a gleaming protest flag of his own, all hands took up defensive positions or attempted to separate the boats as our OCSC crew members went diving for the relative safety of the bilge. After heated discussion in Swahili of local racing rules and etiquette, the boats managed to disengage themselves. What continued were the agitated sounds of an unsolicited Swahili lecture from the nearby skippers to the three young men on MANNA on the finer points of Lamu sailing rules. The MANNA crew disengaged, pulled out some keef and as the song says, "smoked two joints before they smoked two more" as they sailed away from the fleet.
With the added incentive to maintain a nautical safety margin, the boats approached the first mark with a firm understanding of the locals' Right of Way Rules. With crisply executed sailing skills, the fleet rounded up and headed hard to the wind towards another shipping channel buoy several miles upwind and at the other side of the Manda Channel.
Now beating to weather on a brisk 15-knot wind, the skills and sailing performance characteristics of each of the Dhows became more apparent. One of the adaptations of Dhow racing is to minimize the number of tacks the boat must make. The process of coming about on a heavy wooden boat without a keel, one sheet, and a fore spar which is lashed with hemp rope to the top of the mast is governed by the Swahili words "Poli, Poli" meaning "Slowly, Slowly". The skipper calls for the preparation to come about, the halyard is loosened, and the single mainsheet, knotted firmly in the clew of the sail, is carried up the leeward side of the boat. The crew frees the outrigger from under the rail and shifts the plank up onto the new windward side. As the bow moves thru the wind the fore spar holding the luff of the sail is brought parallel with the mast, the fore spar is rotated around the mast to the other side of the mast, and the fore spar is snugged up on the mast as the mainsheet is carried back down the new leeward side of the boat. The crew gentle tightens down on the mainsheet, careful to pull in slowly as the sail must fill firmly with wind in order to get the momentum of the boat moving forward again. As the stiff winds fill the sail, all hands grab the foot of the sail and pull down and back allowing the first mate to secure the mainsheet, as the other crewmembers, one, two and even three of them, begin to scramble out on the hiking board.
As the fleet worked its way upwind, the prudent use of tacking had allowed the faster boats to move away as we rounded a channel marker ending the second leg of the race. The third leg of the race was a close reach heading towards the channel opening to the ocean. It was on this leg that the skills of balancing the boat using the hiking board allowed several skippers in the pack to move up positions as we rounded the mark to begin the final broad reach to the beach.
The ending to the First Lamu Yacht Club Regatta was simple, not much different from the start. The first boat to the beach wins—no guns, no horns, and no handicaps. Although several boats closed their gaps, the PEPONI was able to maintain a lead as the crowd of young boys ran up the beach following the PEPONI's progress and joined the throngs of locals who were still waiting on the beach when the bow of the PEPONI scrapped to a stop.
As the last of the skippers edged their Dhows up onto the beach the crowd cheered and the skippers and crew congratulated each other on their profitable afternoon of work. Attentions shifted very quickly to the distribution of the prize monies. As arranged at the Skippers Meeting, awards were bestowed to the top eight of the ten boats that finished the race. With an OCSC crewmember from each of the Dhows presenting the award to each of their respective LYC Skippers there was no shortage of smiles, handshakes and backslapping. And between every one of the sailors who participated in this great fun, there were the most sincere and appreciative Swahili exchanges of "Asante San" ("Thank you very much").
There can be no doubt that there was an extra special mood in the town of Lamu that night as the LYC Skippers celebrated their victory. Joining in on the post race celebration there was no doubt in any of the minds of the OCSC sailors that we were participants in a very unique OCSC Adventure. The greatest awards were ours, and before we even began to contemplate the flight back home, we were making plans for our return next year to join in the fun of the Second Annual OCSC/ Lamu Yacht Club Regatta for the now legendary "AFRICA CUP."
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