U.S. Navy to the Rescue

Dakar, Senegal, December 1982—a long way from France, a long way from Europe, a long way from the States—a long way from home any way we looked at it. We were really out of our element and our comfort zones in this post-French colonial outpost. Although indeed, a separate independent country, Senegal still depended greatly on French infrastructure and largesse, lending the impression of it having close ties to France and thus somewhat of a feeling of a frontier outpost.

We had most recently spent some time in Casablanca and Agadir, Morocco. Morocco was a surprise, and a delight. A Muslim country was so new and literally foreign to us, we were initially somewhat apprehensive about crossing that border. However, we were surprisingly and unexpectedly warmly welcomed, and now we were eager and excited to get to this sub-Saharan part of Africa and to immerse ourselves in the Black African experience.

We sailed into the harbor after a 10-day sail from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. Dakar was to be our last stop in Africa and the eastern Atlantic Ocean, and the springboard for our departure for our next most daunting passage: crossing the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Our arrival in Dakar was not what we had hoped. Since our departure from France the previous August, Cowabunga had been dogged with engine breakdowns. Always one thing after another. We were forced into several unscheduled stops and stays in Portugal and Spain due to engine problems, trying to find knowledgeable help, and waiting around for spare parts to arrive from France. Although Dakar was a planned stop on our itinerary, we didn't plan on major engine trouble—again. It looked like we were in for a lot of waiting here for more repairs, and possibly compromising our departure date for our Atlantic crossing.

We had no sooner left Las Palmas, still motoring out of the harbor channel, setting our sails, when the engine just quit. Michel was able to diagnose the problem as a broken piston valve, based on his experience with this same problem earlier in our trip in Portugal. It wasn't really a problem for the moment because we were heading out to sea and once the sails were hoisted, an engine was useless anyway. Basically we used the engine just for auxiliary purposes—coming in and out of a harbor, docking, anchoring, etc. The problem we faced would be entering the harbor in Dakar, a place we didn't know at all, and now would be forced to do it all by sail. If the entrance is wide and roomy, we can be more at ease. Otherwise, it can be tricky, especially if it's a highly industrial port.

Dakar, as it turned out, was dirty, dusty, industrial, and hostile. Upon our approach we called up the harbormaster on the VHF "ship-to-shore" radio, explaining our maneuverability problem and inquiring as to the layout of the harbor for a sailing approach, and where we could dock. Communication was "scratchy”: the radio connection wasn't good and we didn't seem to be able to explain our mechanical difficulties, or they didn't seem to want understand. At any rate, they did offer to come out and tow us in, which actually isn’t a good idea between two such different vessels (a pilot-type boat and a sailboat) out on the open water. The swell and chop of the water make bad bedfellows when trying to tie the boats up together. And, there might just have been a hefty fee to pay. So we were able to agree that we sail as far as we could into the harbor entrance where there would still be ample maneuverability, and then they could pilot us from that point to calmer water and a place to dock.

Coming into a new harbor is always somewhat nerve-wracking, especially one as industrial and inhospitable to pleasure craft as this one was. Once alongside, someone of the crew of the Dakar “pilotine” asked us where we wanted to be docked. We hadn’t a clue, never having set “foot” so-to-speak, in this place in our lives. So we just let them spirit us away towards a bleak wharf. As we readied the deck lines to tie up on shore, we rounded a corner of the harbor and smack in front of us a huge (or at least it seemed huge as it was the only such imposing vessel docked in that spot) U.S Navy vessel—the U.S.S O’Bannon we later learned—with a big American flag unfurled and flying in all its glory from the aft of the ship. It was such an unseemly, incongruent sight. What would the U.S. Navy be doing here? In a flash Michel was inspired and instructed the pilotine crew to deposit us at the wharf directly behind the U.S.S. O’Bannon. In some divine revelation, he knew our salvation and solution lay right there. I was somewhat mystified, but by now I was learning that sometimes in order to follow one’s fate, one must sometimes just “go with the flow.”

We sturdily tied up Cowabunga, taking into account that goings and comings of pilot boats and other industrial type watercraft could generate hardy and damaging wakes as our boat jostled up and down the dock. Once we took stock of our situation, making sure our two little boys were OK for food, drink, settled playing with some toys, Michel announced to me that now the ball was in my court. “Well it’s your country, go see what they can do.”

We needed a competent, honest mechanic, and it was very obvious at this point that we wouldn’t easily find that right away in this port. A U.S. Navy vessel has to be autonomous and self-sufficient. Maybe they would have some capable, knowledgeable person who could help us out, or point us in the right direction. So, not having a clue how one approaches such a ship or its personnel, I deliberately walked up the gangplank, explaining our engine situation to the sailor who greeted me, asking if there may be someone on board who would be able to take a look at our engine, and help us size up the situation to figure out a solution. Oh my! It was as if I had said the magic word and was handed the key to OZ! Within a half hour, our boat was teeming with U.S. sailors, of every persuasion.

Not only were there mechanics, but there were innumerable others tending to our every need for a week. They filled up our food lockers, filled up our water tanks, plied us with meals, insisted we steal an evening out while they babysit our little boys, and they even designated a night watchman just for our sailboat. Not only did they give the engine a thorough repair and tune-up, benefitting from their own onboard workshop, materials, and tools, they also re-wired the motor’s electrical circuit. The ship’s commander made a special stop to be sure we had all we needed, and the U.S. Ambassador in Dakar detoured to pay us a courtesy visit en route to the U.S.S. O’Bannon.

We became particularly close with three sailors, “Pops,” Randy, and Jack, who directed the work and basically spent most of a whole week with us. The “supervisor” Randy, took a keen liking to our boys, and developed a great rapport with them. Brendan was still very much a baby at 9 months, but Randy had a way with him. Sean, 3 years old at the time, was thrilled of course to have someone else to rattle on with, since he was never one to hold back on a conversation.

Once the repairs were finished we were very anxious to get out of the hot, dusty, industrial harbor and scoot around the corner to the “Lagoon,” a protected anchorage where other cruising yachties were anchored. Among several of those boats were friends and acquaintances we had made along the way during our descent from France along the coasts of Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Morocco, and the Canary Islands. This would be a calmer, friendlier place, and more conducive to preparing for our Atlantic passage. We prepared to leave, and Randy, “Pops,” and Jack were given permission from their superior officer to accept our invitation and accompany us on board for the short trip. We were pleased to have them. But first, we hailed the U.S.S. O’Bannon, and were allowed to go on board and pay our respects and deepest gratitude to Commander Kibble. He treated us like dignitaries, receiving us in the ship’s wardroom, serving us coffee and two souvenir U.S.S. O’Bannon caps as gifts. We in turn presented him a bottle of fine Bordeaux wine from our secret stash. We could never thank him and his crew enough. They saved us an immense amount of worry, grief, lost time, and money.

The next day we cast off our lines and motored around to the Lagoon. Our three sailors stood their military stance at the bow of our ship, and since Navy rules stipulated that any time a U.S. Navy sailor is away from his ship, he must dress in his “full-dress whites,” we made quite an impression sailing into the anchorage with our own personal, uniformed escorts, standing ceremonial guard and salute on the deck of the sailing vessel Cowabunga. We bid them all a tearful farewell and the U.S.S. O’Bannon set sail the next day.