Arriving in the Gambia by Sailboat; from crazy formalities to calm creeks

To our surprise there was no wind on our trip from Dakar towards Banjul in the Gambia, so we had to motor through the night, making it difficult for me to sleep while Esben was on night watch. “Vibe, come quick!” he suddenly yelled. “There’s nets all around!”. I hurried up, and he was right, there was flags everywhere, with maybe 10 meters between them. We agreed that Esben would go to the front of the boat and try and find us a way through with the light, while I steered. We did not at all feel like getting the prop trapped in a net, having to cut it out and discussing with a group of angry fishermen. The risk of getting trapped isn’t great as we have a long keel that protects the propeller, but we were not ready to take a chance. For a couple of hours, we worked together to maneuver in the maze, but finally we seemed to be away from the nets and I went back below to get a bit of sleep before I was on watch. We realized later that it was the water by the entrance to the Saloum river where the many nets had been.

At five in the morning the sun began to come up, the many lights we had seen around us in the night turned out to be wooden fishing boats and I slowly turned eastwards, into the mouth of the Gambia river. It was a hot morning, and soon I had to call Esben on deck, so we could help each other to look out for fishing nets again. Some where strung across the river directly below the surface, with only tiny floaters to mark them. One of them was below the boat before I managed to stop. Not a nice experience. But finally, after some hours of sailing, we saw the Gambian capital Banjul on the shore – there were no high rise buildings, just a beach with palm tress and some smaller buildings behind them. As we reached the port we saw a number of wrecks, old cargo ships and ferries that apparently had been left to rust in the shallow water. We anchored beside them in a place called “Half Die”. The story goes that in 1869, half the population in Banjul died from Cholera, and hence this part of the city got a new name.

We all dressed in nice clothes, Esben in the new white shirt we had bought for visiting official offices, and off we went in the dinghy. We left the dinghy in the care of a pot smoking Senegale fisherman, and greeted the immigration officer who was on the pier to welcome us. To get to his office, we had to walk through the port, which was an area where kids are not allowed, but somehow we were allowed through anyways, met and chatted to a number of his friends on the way, and finally arrived at the office. Here, we were offered to have lunch with everybody, but figured our bellies probably couldn’t handle the communal bowl from which they ate with their fingers.

Before we got our passports stamped, our new friend, the immigration officer, offered to take us out in the city to get some money and to buy us a local SIM-card. Banjul is in reality not a very big city. The streets are narrow, warm and even sandier than in Dakar. At the first glance the place was rather chaotic, so we just followed our friend from bank to bank until we found one with an ATM that actually worked. Afterwards, we got a free SIM-card from a woman on the street, and in return we gave her daughter a book and some color pencils. The immigration officer also had some business to attend to, so we waited for him in the police station for some time until he was done. We actually appreciated the break in air-con, Banjul was very, very hot. And finally we got some data on the SIM-card and we could finally, after about three hours in the streets of Banjul, go back to the port to continue the formalities. Immigration was quick now. He didn’t ask for a bribe, which is something we heard they often do, but we gave him a bit of money for helping us on the long trip in town.

But immigration was just one out of three offices to visit. Next up was customs. Customs was really made for the big cargo ships arriving in the Gambia. It seemed completely insane when we first entered, with the main office being filled with shouting men, trying to get the officers to look their papers through. We quickly decided that this was a place where the tall man in his white shirt would get through much faster on his own, so Esben went in, with a “guide” trying to help him. Outside, the kids and I sat waiting with a bunch of port workers, and we soon made friends with them, as Mattis handed out sweets to anybody who wanted some. After more than an hour, Esben came back, and customs was done.

It had been a hot and tiring day, and now it was too late to visit the harbor master, so we made our way back to Chip-Chip to spend the night at this very rolly anchorage. But we were so tired it didn’t really matter. And Esben and I agreed that if we could handle checking in to the Gambia after not sleeping very much the night before, we can probably handle anything together.

The next morning, we decided that Esben should go in on his own again while I prepared the boat to get underway. He managed to make friends with the harbor master, who loved showing his Danish build Sailor radio off. And soon we had permission to sail on the river, and instructions for how to behave in the nature reserve we hoped to sail through.

Our first stop in the Gambia was, however, the Lamin Lodge. A restaurant in the mangroves behind Banjul, made by a German sailor who passed away last year, but whose wife still welcomes sailors in the creek in front of the restaurant.

The problem in the Gambia is that we don’t have accurate maps, so we followed the instructions in the 10-year old cruising guide to get in. From Banjul, we had to go between two large sandbanks, which were underwater of course, and unmarked, apart from a couple of wrecks sticking out of the water. But we slowly made our way in on a rising tide, and soon were in the creeks. Here, the water got a bit shallow to our liking, but after a couple of hours of careful navigation, we saw the Lamin Lodge in the distance. We were greeted by G-boy, who sailed out on a SUP to guide us to a good place to anchor. We were happy to hear that swimming in the creek was okay, and soon we were all in the water, happy to finally cool down a bit.

Click here to see our most recent position.

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3 thoughts on “Arriving in the Gambia by Sailboat; from crazy formalities to calm creeks

    • Hi Drew. We didn’t actually buy the boat for cruising, but rather to sail in the Baltic. When we decided to go traveling, we first thought about buying an rv or backpacking, but then we figured we could just go in Chip-Chip. The gd28 is a blue water boat, and ours has crossed the Atlantic before. But we have taken the trip one step at a time, at first we just wanted to sail to the med, then we went to the Canaries for the winter and to West Africa because it’s exciting. And now we’re in Brazil. It would be lovely if we had some more room to drink coffee and do school – and for dive and surf gear 😉 But regarding safety we’re happy with the size. Plus, we saved a lot of money by not buying a “standard” cruising boat.

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  1. Exactly why I love smaller boats, the price on everything is so much cheaper. Its good to see a family on a small yacht having fun and making it work. We have backpacked around a few countries with our kids and certainly it would have been nicer to be able to got to a familar bed every night.
    Safe Travels
    Drew

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