At dawn this morning, I stood in the waves in front of our beach house and watched two Swahili sailing dhows battling through monsoon surf, heading out to the fishing grounds. For 1,500 years, mariners off our East African coast have voyaged in these lovely boats and now, just in the past couple of years, fiberglass hulls have started to replace teak planking and outboard motors instead of lateen sails propel men across the ocean. I was looking at the end of a long history. In my life I have enjoyed wonderful sea safaris on dhows, hunting for tuna and ambergris and waves to surf — and I wonder what’s ahead.
I didn’t know what was ahead in the late 1980s when I worked as a stringer for the Financial Times in Tanzania, but every weekend I would head down to the bandari or port of Dar es Salaam and catch an overnight dhow to Zanzibar. “Stinkibar” was only just opening up after decades of revolutionary socialism. In Stone Town, I would stay in crumbling palaces for a few shillings, rent a Vespa, hang green coconuts on the handlebars to go with my bottle of rum and zoom off to sleep on the empty eastern beaches. Zanzibar was on my beat and one assignment, I spent a fortnight on the archipelago covering the annual budget, which derived mainly from the economy of cloves. You have no idea how gorgeous Zanzibar was then, before tourism spoiled it like everywhere else in the world.
In those days I lived like a king on about $200 a month. I was afraid of nothing. Before I headed to Tanzania, the FT’s Africa editor Michael Holman had said to me: “You’re going to be broke all the time but if you can succeed in Dar es Salaam you won’t have to prove yourself as a tough correspondent ever again.” My world was completely free. One weekend in Dar es Salaam, a personable senior FT correspondent called Nicholas Woodsworth came visiting, and I persuaded him to join me on my weekly journey to Zanzibar. As we strolled into Dar es Salaam’s port, I breezily told him how it was going to be a lovely overnight dhow voyage and that we would wake up fresh on arrival at the islands ready for a hearty breakfast.
We boarded a large jahazi, or oceangoing dhow, which was pungent with the smells of shark oil, coconut, cloves and diesel. The crew of Zanzibaris invited us to make ourselves comfortable among the piles of trade goods and we said hello to the other passengers, mostly islanders returning home after their visit to the chaos of Dar. We set sail at dusk and headed northeast towards Zanzibar’s main island of Unguja. Nicholas and I enjoyed a supper of samosas and chatted with our Zanzibari fellows. Around midnight the wind picked up and the ship began to list and bob on the waves with increasing violence. A storm was coming our way and it became a tempest.
We were among seafaring people, the Zanzibaris, but Nicholas and I realized things were becoming risky when everybody else on the boat — including the crew — began wailing and praying. Huge waves crashed across the bow and all of us bailed with ferocious energy. The night was dark, but we could see great walls of water rising up before us and smashing down into the hull. I now remembered reading local press stories about the frequent loss of dhows on this crossing to the islands and thought that perhaps I should not have inflicted this on my fellow correspondent Nicholas. At about 3 or 4 a.m. the ship was listing and churning so much that the two of us agreed that we should use whatever cord we could find to lash ourselves to the mainmast, which we did.
All the people on board roared with fear and wonder at the seas that crashed in on us and this crisis seemed to be endless. It was like Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” I remember thinking. We had no idea how it might end. But the light eventually began to change and it became Turneresque and at dawn we suddenly saw Malindi port in Zanzibar. All of the passengers began rejoicing and as we got off the dhow, soaked and exhausted, we were the best of friends and we knew that life was good.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition.