The dingy water lapped up onto the beach and swelled beneath the dock that looked as if it was about to buckle under the weight of the dozen or so seadogs trooping out, beer cans clutched in one hand the other one steadying them. I wrinkled my nose against the smell and at the sight of the greenish poo water and hesitated. My friend Martin, an Argentinian who had been traveling the world for the last two years, and had been staying on my couch for the last week, had finally caught a break and managed to find a crew and sailboat that would take him to the Cape Verdian Islands off the west coast of Senegal.
Martin, my inspirational world traveler
“Whitney, come! For when you do your own adventures,” he persuaded me with his usual goodwill and infectious grin.
So there I was at the Marina in Dakar staring out at the dozen or so sailboats of different sizes anchored in the murky water.
“You have maybe time for two hours sail?” asked one of the sea dogs, tucking a lock that had escaped his ponytail back behind his ear. “Please join us,” he continued in a heavy French accent. He roguishly smiled at me, and then offered me a hand onto the squeaking dock.
“That’s Fred,” said Martin, winking at me. “He’s the captain.”
“Oh,” I replied breathlessly and hurried to follow Fred and the rest of his motley crew who were now clambering aboard the small ferry that would take us out to his sailboat.
I grabbed onto one of the steel poles used to hold a canopy aloft above the passengers and pulled myself onto one of the benches right next to one of the drunken seadogs.
“Bonjour,” he slurred at me, showing one tooth in his upper gum. “Ask me where I’m from!” he giggled.
“Where are you from?” I humored him.
“I’m from there!” he exclaimed and then fell into hysterics.
“Oh yes, and where is there?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and rolling my eyes at my other friend who was sitting across from me on the rocking ferry boat.
“From there! From there! A fish is a fish!” he said in English in an accent I couldn’t quite place.
“Right. A fish is a fish.”
“Naw man, don’t you understand me? A fish is a fish!” He took another great chug of his beer.
We were now about ten on the ferry boat and I wondered if it would be able to hold us up, even for the short 100 meters we were going to the sailboat. We started up the motor and began to pull away from the dock just as one last passenger came flying onto the boat. He landed lightly on the edge like a bird, one hand with a beer, the other on the steel pole, and one leg draped into the murky water.
“Hallo everybody! It’s my birthday!” said the newcomer in a chipper South African accent, a boy with long blonde dreds and a loose pair of swimming trunks.
Sean, Modern Day Pirate… without the killing and looting part.
“Happy Birthday! ” many of the people on the boat responded automatically. “How old are you?” someone else asked.
“Looks like today, I’m 22 years old!” he beamed.
We chugged closer to one of the bigger sailboats until we pulled up next to the steel siding. I watched closely as Fred the captain and some of the others expertly threw one of their legs up and pulled the rest of their bodies up behind. One of the drunk women was dragged up by her two arms kicking against the side so hard I thought they would drop her into the ocean. I did exactly what everyone else did and managed to swing myself up onto the boat without any trouble. The two men helping people up nodded to me in thanks.
It was a beautiful boat. I do not know much about sailing terms, and so please forgive my lack of proper terminology. It looked to be about 60 feet long, with a double mast and 5 huge sails that seemed to be new. There was a big deck on the front and pit for the large wooden steering wheel. Below deck, there were quaint living quarters with a table and couches to sit, as well as a tiny kitchen stocked with bottles of rum, of course.
“This is the library,” said the South African birthday boy, popping up behind me and running his hand reverently along the spines of books. “And this,” he continue proudly, “is my bunk!”
There were two small bunks for sleeping and a larger bed further up that I imagined must be Fred’s. “If any of you lot come aboard with us you have to sleep here,” he patted the top bunk, “because I sleep on the bottom one.”
“Sean!” Fred bellowed from outside. “Let’s go!”
“Right, gotta go,” Sean said apologetically and skipped from the room. I followed out above deck. They pulled the anchor up and one of the other seadogs took the wheel. They swung the boom out and I watched as Fred hung out over the side and Sean held him in place by the back of his swimming trunks.
“A fish is a fish!” yelled my drunken friend from the ferry, as he tripped over a rope and tried to also grab Sean by the back of his swimming trunks.
“Oh stop it, will you, you old drunk!” grumbled Sean, swatting at the old man’s head.
“Sean, do not drop me into the sea or take my pants off,” said Fred, clipping something into place.
Sean quickly ran about the deck and tightened ropes and did a bunch of other things I didn’t really understand, but after a couple of minutes the huge white sails were up and we were sailing! The murky green of the polluted harbor was gone and replaced with a brilliant turquoise blue. We cut through the waves and into the clear horizon until Dakar seemed nothing but a dark smudge in the distance.
I walked along the deck and mostly gazed out at the ocean. I’ve always wondered what it is about the ocean that makes people feel so much about it. There is rarely a person that feels nothing when they see large expanses of water. Sometimes it is fear, or emptiness at the vast distance that goes on forever, but it’s never just nothing. More often than not, it is wonder, inspiration, and a connection to this great breathing being that draws people to it, into it, and makes them write stories about it. Even in its destructive power, we feel the need to be near it, to have it take us.
Living in Nebraska my whole life, I have never been so close to the ocean as I am now. Now I wake up to it every morning, and go to bed to it every night, I smell it in the air I breathe and I swim in it almost weekly. The ocean frighten me and inspires me, it makes me want to be close to it forever, and there is almost no more magical a connection to the ocean than sailing.
I know nothing about sailing, but I do know that you have to respect the elements of nature. You have to know the wind patterns and work with the wind to move you across the water. You have to work with the waves and the best sailors almost never have to turn on their engines.
As I looked across the ocean and up into the magnificent white sails carrying us across the water, so many things unimportant things seemed to fall away. The sea breeze in my nose and in my hair and on my skin made me feel radiant. I felt like I could sail on forever and live the life that Fred and Sean had chosen for themselves, as they had obviously discovered this secret to life much sooner than I had.
We turned around as the sun started to go down and I stood at the bow of the boat. Sean came up behind me and climbed over the front rail so that there was nothing keeping him from falling into the ocean and in front of the boat if he let go. I carefully climbed over and clung onto the sail, balancing on the beam next to him.
“How long have you been sailing?”
“About 5 years now. It’s the life isn’t it?” he sighed. “It’s so free, right?”
“Yeah it really is,” I said softly, looking out into orange sun suspended like an orb over the Dakar city skyline.
We stood like that talking about life, great white sharks, the sea, and so many other things that mattered because of where we were and what we shared there, perched on nothing but a thick steel bar above the white and turquoise waves split by the sailboat.
Sean was soon called back to his duties as first mate. I looked back over my shoulder at the people who had chosen this life at sea who were milling about the deck, completely at ease, as if this was their true home. And I knew that this is how it was. I turned back and continued my watch over the surf and the sea.
“Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me,” I sung softly to myself, as I rested my cheek against the sail and watched the sun slide behind the city and out of sight.