The Africa Cup- The First Annual OCSC/Lamu Yacht Club Regatta
written by Matt Feldmeir
In February 2002, 14 ardent sailors from OCSC Sailing Club had just spent 12 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 East Africa.
Given those adventures, they wondered what would be the best possible way for this enthusiastic group to enjoy Lamu, their final destination, and catch a glimpse into the culture surrounding the ancient islands of the Lamu Archipelago of islands sprinkled into the beautiful topaz waters of the Kenya Coast. The answer came with a creative flash of inspiration: they would organize a spirited sailing race on the ancient Arab sailing vessel – the dhow. A group of sailors from The Bay engaging with the best dhow 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 Skippers 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 the climate in all regards was tropical equator at latitude 2 degrees south and 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, but 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 a clunking single stroke, and refreshing salt spray whipped by the snap of a 15-knot afternoon ocean breeze. The visual delights we were taking in were enhanced by the magical movements of the dhows plying their course across the bay. All of this reinforced the obvious: we were in a land very different from our own Bay waters.
Dhows crossing 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 most distinctive feature of a dhow 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, while cantilevered over the windward side of the boat. As the dhow points into the stiff tropical trade winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean, skilled crew edging out on the board control the precise heeling angle of the lee side of the boat, which performs the function of a keel for these flat bottomed craft.
Without a gusset, a winch or a cam cleat, rather built entirely of wood, canvas and hemp rope, these vessels have for centuries been the workhorse of the East African trade carrying all sorts of cargo: ivory, slaves, grain, fish and general commerce. Over the years the dhows have proven their seaworthiness while facilitating the far-reaching commerce of the Arab traders, a system of trade that has enriched the multinational cultures centered in the ancient port of Lamu. The design of the dhow has changed little in the past thousand years and the techniques used to sail them have been passed down over the centuries.
THE REGATTA PREPARATIONS
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, perched on the bluff, with a commanding view of the Manda Channel, a channel whose clear coastal waters merged with the expansive blue of the Indian Ocean.
The first order of regatta business was the Skipper’s Meeting, held that first afternoon, poolside at the Beach House. The meeting was chaired by our own Commodore, Anthony Sandberg, President of OCSC. The Co-Chair was his partner, Iain Allen, President of Tropical Ice Ltd., the premier safari company of Kenya.
By prior arrangement, ten skippers from the Lamu Yacht Club were assembled before our experienced commodore. The skippers, dressed in their colorful “kikoi” wraps, were selected for this regatta by the local Beach Skipper, 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 to our commodores that key item on the agenda for these LYC skippers were answers to their questions: Who physically had the $400 prize money? Which pocket, exactly, was this money now residing? 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-chairman Anthony and Iain, the chorus from this collection of LYC skippers 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 not to be overlooked – what about the cost of hiring a personal shaman for each boat? Somehow these costs were supposed to be reimbursed by the well-heeled Regatta organizers. Regatta preparation compensation was a novel concept – one that 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 Skipper’s Meeting dissolved into a Swahili challenge chant, which was responded to by OCSC’s own rendition of “Who let the dogs out?”. There was more shouting and a retreat to the Beach House bar, so that Commodore Anthony could brief the OCSC racing crews.
START OF THE RACE
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 seemingly every child 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 separate groups. They filled the air with their high pitched warbling calls which added an eerie and slightly scary vibe to the atmosphere.
The festive scene on the white sand Lamu beach was purely electric. Bobbing in the shallow, sheltered waters were the ten colorful dhow boats selected to represent the LYC. Each of the boats was christened with the boat’s Swahili name painted on both the bow and the stern: TASWIRA, ILKHWASA, MANNA, PEPONI, SAWBRU and others. Each boat was proudly adorned with colorful flags; flags of local sponsors, our own OCSC burgees, and the flags of Bob Marley, Hemp Nation or simply the menacing black of a 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 curious European tourists gathered on the deck of the Peponi Bar.
As far as this highly-charged collection of humanity was concerned, we were about to initiate this First Annual Lamu Yacht Club Regatta to determine the winner of “Africa’s 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 skippers giving orders on these boats would be barking their orders in Swahili. Chief duties on our assigned 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 onboard to initiate their own stylized rituals of the “Blessing of my boat and the cursing of all others.” Ancient rituals which included the burning of incense and chicken heads on a coal pot in the bilge of the boat, 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 kind of silent Monte Carlo start. Without so much as a retort from a starter’s pistol, a bell or one minute 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.
FLYING THE SWAHILI PROTEST FLAG
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 rusted old channel marker two miles distant. Inherent in the way they are constructed, every dhow has unique sailing characteristics, but 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 together. Each LYC Skipper was artfully employing an age-old practice, probably invented in this land of pirates – stealing the lead boat’s wind.
Since the start of the Regatta on the beach, it was unsettlingly obvious from the heated discussions in Swahili between the skippers of the LYC, that there was a 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 engage and 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. 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. Meanwhile other nearby skippers shouted out an unsolicited lecture – in Swahili – to the three young men on MANNA on the finer points of Lamu sailing rules. With the dhow MANNA now disengaged, the crew pulled out some keef and as the song says, “smoke two joints before they smoke two more” as they sailed away from the fleet.
ROUNDING THE LEEWARD MARK
With the added incentive to maintain a nautical safety margin, the boats approached the first mark with a firm understanding of the local’s Right of Way Rules. With crisply executed sailing skills the fleet rounded up and headed hard to windward, towards another shipping channel buoy several miles upwind and at the other side of the Manda Channel.
Now beating to windward on a brisk 15-knot wind, the sailing performance characteristics of each of the dhows, and the skills of their crews, 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, with a single sheet, and a fore spar 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. Then 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. Finally, the crew gently tightens down on the mainsheet carefully, pulling in slowly as the sail must fill firmly with wind in order to get the momentum of the heavy 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.
HEADING FOR THE FINISH
As the fleet worked our way upwind the prudent use of tacking had allowed the faster boats to move away as we rounded a channel marker which ended 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 one or more positions, and we rounded the last 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 her progress. Throngs of locals were waiting on the beach when the bow of the PEPONI scrapped to a stop.
BESTOWING THE AWARDS
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 and handshakes all around, and 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 all of us OCSC sailors knew that we had been 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’S CUP.”