A Passage to Africa

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”Baseball legend Yogi Berra gets credit for that advice, but it sort of encapsulated our motivation for the coming cruise.Our 39-foot steel cutter, Moose, was sailing out through the pass at Mayotte, a French island between Mozambique and Madagascar, bound for Ilha de Moambique, just off the African mainland. After a
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“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Baseball legend Yogi Berra gets credit for that advice, but it sort of encapsulated our motivation for the coming cruise.

Our 39-foot steel cutter, Moose, was sailing out through the pass at Mayotte, a French island between Mozambique and Madagascar, bound for Ilha de Moambique, just off the African mainland. After a 450-mile passage down to 15 degrees south we enjoyed a perfect early morning landfall. Nonetheless, I was leery about our destination. Very few boats call at Moambique. Irene had read all about the tiny island, which is connected to mainland Mozambique by a single causeway, in our Lonely Planet guidebook, and it did sound exotic and unique. But the writers who compiled the Lonely Planet guide never had to negotiate any off-lying reefs.

There was also Mozambique’s recent political history to consider: a brutal 17-year civil war, a dalliance with Soviet-sponsored socialism and a consequent economic collapse. Even the flag, with its garden hoe smartly crossed with an AK-47, was off-putting.

Nonetheless, Irene and I had long ago decided not to let prejudices preclude a good cruise. Our attitude is “Go and see for yourself.” There was also a lot to recommend for our planned port of call. The half of the island called Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other half, Makuti Town, is described in vague euphemisms, like “quaint.” The Lonely Planet also said the island was still a good source of anachronistic East African trade beads.

Ilha de Moambique

We were sailing with our buddies Jim and Emma on Blue Sky, and Moose led the way in. (Have you ever noticed that when two yachts cruise in company, it’s the one made of steel that always gets to go in first?) As is often the case, navigating up the unmarked channel was much easier than the chart suggested—it’s probably just a question of scale, that or pre-game jitters. In any case, after successfully rounding the final gnarly corner in front of the sprawling fortress of So Sebastio, we anchored in a large pool between two mudbanks.

Five hundred years of Portuguese and Arabic influence have left a variety of architectural styles on Ilha de Moambique that range from hoof-shaped arches to the sinuous decorations of the colonial period. Here and there an example of Soviet-era Art Deco was also evident. The shouts of schoolchildren echoed back from the walls of an old church. The skyline was attractive, anchored on the left by the massive fortress and fading into the tin-roofed “quaintness” of Makuti Town’s shanties on the right. The foreshore was studded with people in bright robes.

That afternoon we went ashore to clear in. The long and the short of the immigration process in Mozambique is that it heartily embraces the new market economy. Officials are poorly paid and the rules, requirements and fines are myriad and creative. The fact that officials keep half of all fines they levy adds to the general excitement.

In a fly-specked office, where the ink in the stamping pad was long dry, we were told that the visas we were so worried about were unnecessary. A $40 fee was proposed (quickly reduced to $20 when Irene raised an eyebrow), our passports were stamped, and amid much pleasantry, we were sent on our way. This seemed very, very easy.

Ilha de Moambique is small, perhaps a mile-and-a-half long. Stone Town, with its broad avenues and restored colonial buildings, is distinctly European. The cobblestones have long since been taken up to build shacks on the other end of the island, so the streets have a dusty high-noon quality to them, empty except for a sense of anticipation. The mosque was busy, with white-robed men coming and going. The hospital looked like a ramshackle affair. Shops and residential buildings were unpainted and crumbling—the comparison with Havana is unavoidable.

As we walked toward Makuti, people became more numerous and more colorful. The women were dressed in colors that no European woman would dare try. They often had their faces painted white, as a beauty statement, with decorative dots and spirals around the eyes—like make-up by Mir! En route, we managed to buy several strings of trade beads. These are sluiced out of the sand at low tide down by the old port and are softly abraded by their years of submersion—that or softly abraded by an enterprising Chinese with a tumble-drum.

The day before we left, I did a diesel run with Jim from Blue Sky. We needed around 100 gallons of fuel and had enough jerry cans to carry it. There was also a service station no more than a mile away by dinghy. The tricky part was the ubiquitous street boys. Two sailors arriving with 18 jerry cans and the money to fill them represented an unprecedented bonanza. In fact, a group of four boys had already formed on shore when we landed. We hired them immediately, but within a minute another 20 men and boys were trying to join our crew. Jim and I tried to watch the fast-moving jerry cans and the dinghy and at the same time get some fuel flowing. At first there was chaos. But once the situation was clear, the job was soon done.

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