Bruce Halabiskey is looking for a DIY adventure in a quiet anchorage for his family in their 34ft gaff cutter. He finds it in Senegal

The tang of raw sewage and fish guts smothered any charm the humble bar of the Dakar Yacht Club may once have aspired to. French ex-pat Gé Gé was explaining – in whisky-slurred French – the entrance to the Casamance river 130 nautical miles south. He swore that the Casamance was the Eden that Dakar was not.

All I really wanted was a good night’s sleep in a calm anchorage without having to be in a marina. Was that too much to ask for?

I took the yacht club launch out to my boat, Vixen, to tell the crew we would be heading south. The crew consisted of my wife, Tiffany, and our two daughters Solianna, 7 and Seffa Jane, 3. Our girls had been born on what had become a nine-year sail round the world, starting from Victoria in Canada. Three years ago we sailed our 34ft Atkin-designed gaff cutter from Cape Town, South Africa to the Caribbean. Instead of turning west to the Panama Canal and home, we embarked instead on a circumnavigation of the North Atlantic.

It is an understatement to say this route across the Atlantic is well-sailed. The North Atlantic circuit from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and back is so well-travelled that we thought its many marinas had more in common with a well-heeled European retirement home rather than the do-it-yourself adventure we enjoyed on Vixen. I had hoped that the Cape Verde Islands might satisfy our cultural cravings, but from a look at the chart I knew most anchorages would be weather-dependent.

That’s when I looked 400 miles east on the chart. The coast of Senegal has a series of rivers penetrating deep into the West African interior. Now that looked interesting! And it wasn’t really a detour, I argued, just following the tradewind route down from the Canaries.

Dreams of African adventure and the promise of good anchorages had already taken us to Dakar in Senegal, a concentration of nearly three million people. Our excitement was somewhat dampened, when we woke to a drizzly windless morning and a Senegalese Customs boat coming alongside to check our passports. Once this formality was out of the way we stored our gear, bought some last-minute items and waited for the wind to take us south.

It returned that evening, warm and damp from the north. As Dakar loomed in the background, we pulled up anchor, sailed past the slave-trading island of Gorée and set a course for the Casamance.

A 1.5-knot current helped us down the Senegalese coastline. Some 20 miles off the Gambier River, I tossed half a dozen oranges to a couple of fishermen in a dugout canoe that came alongside. Two freshly caught fish skittered across Vixen’s deck in return. We ate them for breakfast.

After 24 hours of sailing, it looked as though we would arrive early. Ten miles north of the mouth of the Casamance we hove to, with the idea of drifting slowly south during the night. When the sun came up and the tide had turned we motorsailed through the pass. I had Gé Gé’s electronic path to follow, but all the marks seemed in place and we never had less than 4m of water in the channel. The swell was only 1m from the north. I imagine a large swell would make the entrance more challenging.

Vixen bucked through a series of standing waves, then entered the calm of the river. We turned immediately to starboard to enter a side channel lined with mangroves and anchored in 4m of water next to a small village called Cachouane. The scene was one of pastoral calm: fishermen setting nets from dugouts, herons perched in coconut palms and glimpses of verdant rice paddies beyond the mangroves.

So began three weeks lazily exploring the Casamance and its tributaries. Using three knots of tide to work up and down the river, we conserved fuel and made good time. The area has been called the bread basket of Senegal. In this case the bread refers to rice, which is grown throughout the Casamance and is central to the culture of the Diola, the dominant tribe.

Our visit was during harvest. I would often drink my morning coffee on Vixen’s aft deck while the sun rose and watch women paddle to the ricefields in dugout canoes. In the afternoon the canoes would come back past, loaded with the grain.

In the evenings Tiffany, the girls and I would walk through villages made of simple mud-walled homes. Old men sat beneath massive baobab trees smoking homemade pipes. Children would run after Solianna and Seffa Jane to practise their English. The Casamance river and, in particular, Karabane Island at the river’s entrance, have long been visited by Europeans. As my French cruising notes state: ‘The occupation began in the 15th Century by the Portuguese, you won’t be the first toubab (white person) to set foot ashore.’


This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World August 2014 issue